Prairie Humanism: The (Just Now) Emerging Progressive Movement

OB-BarnRaising-600To 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.

Rifkin writes:

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.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

10 thoughts on “Prairie Humanism: The (Just Now) Emerging Progressive Movement”

  1. To quote Jesus Christ: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Christian Right????

  2. Also except these parts of Leviticus:

    Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

    But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself

  3. Great piece. Yes!

    But rather than saying the progressive movement doesn’t exist, maybe we could agree to say “we’re just getting started?” I’ve been writing about progressive worldview issues since 2005 or so, and working full time on progressive infrastructure since ’06, as have a lot of people. Toiling in obscurity has been fun and all, I’m fine with that and I’m glad Zack’s putting this on everyone’s radar now, but I take less kindly to being told I don’t even exist, and that’s twice now. (one of Zack’s recent pieces did the same thing)

    That being said, I’m not so sure empathy is really the cornerstone. It has a bit of a weird privilege connotation to it that I find less than helpful. I’d suggest the concept of interdependence instead: it’s not just that we progressives care about other people, it’s that we realize our all of fates are bound up together. Interdependence is, in my view, a little more MLK, and a little less Lakoff & Rifkin, although they’re all important. I have a few preliminary thoughts on this here:

    Glad to see this discussion happening, interesting stuff!

  4. @Glenn Yeah we probably agree on a lot of the substance, and I’m reading through your stuff now and it’s great. I just don’t see the rhetorical value of denying the movement exists, when it does, it’s just small and has a long way to go.

    Re: post-resistance, you familiar with the 3 dimensions of power? Mark Scmitt wrote a good quick summary piece of this in the Prospect a while ago. Basically phase I is resistance, being able to stop bad things. Phase II is being able to control what issues come up, and Phase III is shifting worldview. So we’ve got ok phase I power, occasional phase II power, and are just barely starting on III. In that analysis anyhow.

    1. Let me say first and most importantly: Your work, out front or behind the scenes, should be recognized and honored, and by drawing a distinction between a resistance and a movement I’m not discounting what you’ve done or what I’ve done, for that matter. It’s an artificial distinction, but an important one. Worldview can be left for last, because you can’t adequately “control what issues come up” without speaking the values (which come from worldview) as an integrated part of the issues discussed. Until we’ve coped with the core, the worldview, we’re vulnerable to hijacking, which is how some corporate apologists, for instance, can describe themselves as progressives.

      I meant the distinction to be jarring, and while I believe in the truth of it, it’s also a distinction employed as a rhetorical strategy. I think we’re in agreement generally, and I want to thank you for your work, your attention, and your kind words re: this piece.

Comments are closed.