Several weeks ago an article was circulating among some of my more progressive friends entitled “You can’t be socially progressive and economically conservative.” The article was directed mostly against libertarian types in that it argued that one can’t truly be an advocate for social justice and equality under the law without backing it up with an equal advocacy for economic justice and progressive economic policy. Putting aside for a moment the lack of nuance, lack of allowance for a middle ground, and general absolutism of the author, there is some truth to that argument. But there is also an equal and opposite criticism (which, to the author's credit, he seems to have considered) that can be leveled at vocal portions of the progressive left.
While one can’t really be socially progressive without being economically progressive, it’s also difficult for me to consider a person truly economically progressive unless they are comparably progressive on issues of social justice. Color-blind economic policy can only be but so progressive. Workplace protections that don’t specifically target those groups most vulnerable to discrimination can only be but so progressive. Regardless of how radically redistributive an economic policy is, it can’t be truly progressive if it’s unwilling to account explicitly for all dimensions of a social problem.
This is evident in over a century of progressive economic politics. Workplace protections in the early years of the 20th century didn’t overturn Jim Crow laws in the south or force local governments in the north to apply them equally. New Deal programs built a coalition of progressive liberals and southern conservatives under the Democratic umbrella by excluding predominantly black occupations from social security protection. That same New Deal created a Federal Housing Administration that used its prerogative to relegate Black Americans and other minorities to slums, prey on their desire to own homes, and build a cycle of urban poverty that continues to stifle Black and Latino neighborhoods to this day.
While I genuinely believe in the sincerity of most progressives’ motives, there seems to be a residual unwillingness to risk alienating white voters by appealing explicitly to the needs of nonwhite and marginalized communities. Bernie Sanders demonstrated this dissonance in late April when he vocally refused support to a progressive candidate in a Republican Georgia district for his failure to cleave to Sanders’s economic agenda (he subsequently endorsed that candidate though he still refuses to refer to him as ‘progressive’) and days later endorsed a candidate with an abysmal record on women’s health and abortion rights.
Considering the author addressed some socially progressive programs in his essay, it's possible that such a criticism of the left lies outside its intended scope, but that’s actually the point. The haste with which the progressive left wields accusations of insufficient progressivism against fellow liberals, however, makes the selective criticism here all the more glaring.
Whether because of cynical political calculation (see the last six months of appeals to the ‘forgotten’ white working class) or naive utopian color-blindness, the job of addressing centuries of injustice and discrimination on the basis of race, sex, orientation, gender identity, and the like frequently seems to fall outside the scope of certain portions of the progressive left. I’d really like to see a progressivism where that’s no longer the case. I’d like to see progressives that go out on the same limbs for equal housing justice, policing reform, women’s health, immigrant dignity, and reparations that they do for single payer health care and redistributive tax policy. I’d like to see progressives that will go out on the same limbs for marginalized voters that they have ventured onto for years on behalf of white male industrial workers.