Prairie Humanism and the (Just Now) Emerging Progressive Movement
To date, there is no authentic, 21st Century progressive movement. Those may be fightin’ words to some, but I think they’re true. The contemporary progressive resistance arose in response to a consolidation of neo-liberal, authoritarian power, maybe just in the nick of time. The resistance knows what it resists; it’s less articulate about its own vision of a progressive future.
Our collective actions have the feel of an anti-colonialist movement. Metaphorically at least, it helps to look at the advances of the Right as an imperialistic, re-colonization of America. We resist the Right with a defensive action. We lack an effective offensive, though, because we don’t have a shared sense of where we want to lead America.
Recently, there are signs that the resistance is maturing into an authentic progressive movement. Author and organizer Zack Exley’s Huffington Post piece, The New Right’s Secret Sauce, called attention to our missing worldview while pointing to the Right’s shared vision as the source of its strength. Arianna Huffington has selected Jeremy Rifkin’s fine new book, The Empathic Civilization, as her book of the month. Rifkin has penned condensed versions in recent published essays.
Jeffrey Feldman has approached the problem in many ways, most recently in his work on corporatism. I’ve tried to do my part, beginning with my book, The Politics of Deceit, and in the series, “The Promise of Popular Democracy: Origins”; “Part II: Solidarity of the Shaken”; “Part III: The Promise”.
Most recently, I’ve employed the term prairie humanism to refer to a moral vision deeply embedded in the American grain. It refers to a committed and attentive neighborliness, to an understanding that we are responsible for ourselves AND for one another. I’ve spent a lifetime among folk of the West/Southwest. They’ll break their backs to help a neighbor in need; but, as individualists, they want others to mind their own business, too.
Exley captures the economic and political implications of this spirit when he writes of the balance between individualism and cooperation:
It is the tradition of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and so many others who saw no contradiction between individual and collective enterprise. That tradition was suppressed through the rise of big capital after the Civil War, and then it was forgotten forever when the left was flooded by European Technocrats, Communists, Socialists and Fascists in the 20th century.
There are many others I should mention as contributing to this emerging progressive worldview. My own modest efforts owe a huge debt to the work of George Lakoff, William Connolly, Franz de Waal, Marco Iacoboni, Francisco Varela, Drew Weston and others too numerous to name.
Prairie humanists depend on the human biological capacity for empathy. This isn’t surprising. There would be no human culture, and certainly no democracy, without empathy, which allows us to see the world through others’ eyes.
Empathy is the soul of democracy. It is an acknowledgment that each life is unique, unalienable, and deserving of equal consideration in the public sphere. The evolution of empathy and the evolution of democracy have gone hand in hand throughout history. The more empathetic the culture, the more democratic its values and governing institutions…While apparent, it’s strange how little attention has been paid to the inextricable relationship between empathic extension and democratic expansion in the study of history and evolution of governance.
This is true, but Rifkin doesn’t go far enough. As I noted in “The Promise of Popular Democracy: Origins,” when James Madison spoke of the need for “intimate sympathy” among a people, he was pointing to the bonds anthropologists like Christopher Boehm have found among our earliest human ancestors, bonds that led to egalitarian, proto-democratic checks on authority. The Greeks didn’t invent democratic practices. They emerged long before Ancient Greece, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. Thorkild Jacobson, Norman Yoffee, Raul S. Manglapus, Jack Goody and others have written about these early egalitarian, democratic relations.
One possible reason it seems easier to resist authority rather than advance an egalitarian vision is that our democratic practices appear to have emerged in resistance. Empathy is a fundamental human capacity. But the will to power is also present. So is the need for leadership. When leaders became bullies, bonds among the bullied could — and did — topple the leader. Exile, ridicule, even term limits were employed long ago by proto-democrats.
It’s also no accident that the rise of the scientific worldview and rationalism rejected empathy as dangerously emotional. Rational management and historical determinism, in both Marxism and capitalism, became hallmarks of the modern democratic era.
Prairie humanists want to return our political relationships to something like the neighborliness that marks private life across ideological boundaries. Think how much easier it would be to advance environmental initiatives and the greening of industry if we had already been re-framing progressive politics along these lines. Think how different the health care debate would be. The insurance industry argument depends upon an all-against-all worldview.
Prairie humanists drop old, liberal, technocratic talk of managed solutions. We focus upon consequences. How can our neighbors and we best secure health? What are our responsibilities to such a cause?
The unfettered pursuit of private interests obviously dooms collective opportunity and the constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have to contain — and topple — the political and economic authority that enforces this ideological trap. As we’ve seen, humans have been doing just that for a very long time. We can do it, too.