The Progressive Curse

Updated: Dec 18, 2019


“Elite hysteria about the depravity of the American people makes even less sense in 2018 than it did in 2016. This election was, absolutely, a mass repudiation of Trump and his foul agenda. Republicans lost the popular contest for Congress by millions of votes and over seven percentage points. The true power behind Trump’s throne, we should know by now, is not an irresistible army of zombie racists in the heartland, but the historical structures and top-down tactics that sustain Republican minority rule.” — Matt Karp


Matt Karp is a historian, and his hope filled comment is a preface to some profound concerns regarding the Democratic Party. Yes, the Democrats have swept Republicans out of ancestral strongholds like Orange County, CA. But as richer more suburban areas grow bluer, some poorer more rural areas are getting redder.

My worry is that post trimp, many suburban whites will resort to voting Republican. Perhaps this will be impossible though if GOP politicians continue to energize their “base” by hoisting the obsidian standards of racial hatred, class resentment, and testosterone chauvinism.


But that evokes the most profound worries.

Karp’s worry is that the Democrats will pursue policies that widen the financial and cultural divides between workers who labor with their hands and those who labor with information, systems, and persuasion.

Karp is also someone who quite stirringly writes:

“Democrats may disdain, subordinate, or proscribe vast swathes of the working class, but socialists — if the idea of socialism means anything at all — never can.”

As someone who votes Democratically, I have to wince at this because it is so hard not to disdain anyone who cheers for trimp and who falls for the types of authoritarian populist politicians whom trimp emboldens. trimp himself may fall, but the gleaming dark standards of incipient fascism will still be borne by others either up towards high places of triumph or down into low corners of skulking.

I’m forced to remember the majority of workers without higher education do not sympathize with trimp and the darkness he represents. It may often seem otherwise because racism and sexism are such pervasive forces, affecting all our thinking in subtle but damaging ways. It’s so easy to conflate “white working class men without college” with the working class as a whole. Yes, only a minority of white working class men without college reject trimpulism, but it is a large minority. Bullies and fascists can seize power, this never happens solely because of working class support.


We must also remember that trimp enthusiasm is significant among the more educated, prosperous, and privileged sectors of the professional classes. And here again, this is mostly a phenomenon among the older and the “whiter”.


“Whites” as a whole will soon no longer be the majority in US politics. Some, no doubt, will fiercely cling to strange ideas regarding privilege and exceptionalism. Their delusions and resentments will be exploited by others seeking to maintain a plutocratic minority rule via the GOP - or other more emblematic organizations. 


The fragile institutions that support democracy and rule of law will continue to be tested.


But they have been tested before.


Karp concludes by comparing circumstances of today with that of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.


Yes, today’s Democratic Party is dominated by upscale professionals, many of whom are

subordinate to the billionaire class.


Yes, today’s Democratic Party is dominated by upper middle class concerns about property values and exclusive educational opportunities for our children.


But the Democratic Party of today, thanks to its progressive wing and LBJ, has largely unfreighted itself of the necessity to appeal to ignorance and racism.


This is progress. This is real world progress which is achieved via collective efforts on historical and institutional scales. Its uncertain pace and often abstract nature are often disappointing and frustrating to us whose perspectives are defined by stages mostly confined to a single lifespan. It’s also frustrating to recognize that progress can be reversed as it is constantly being tested by the forces of greed, privilege, and the darker angels of our nature.


At this point billionaires have nothing to fear from those who call ourselves socialists - at least until miners and farmers and steelworkers and teachers and retail clerks start reading Jacobin. But who billionaires hate and fear the most are progressive democrats, the ones who do the grunt work of political campaigns while pressing steadily for universal dignity and justice.

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