The first time I ran into the broader concepts of political ideals– not just American politics in particular, but how many (at least Western) countries have only a few dominant political branches– was when I was reading the Anne of Green Gables series, and Matthew tells Anne that he’s a conservative; she decides that’s what she’s going to be, and then asks him what it means. Matthew gives a pretty basic definition of political conservatism: they’re a little suspicious of change.
Progressivism came out of the European Enlightenment, with the US and France very much embracing the concept culturally and politically. It was this grand idea that humankind was on an upward track, that things could only get better– that we were all heading in the direction of progress, and progress seemed to be inherently good. Then the Industrial Age happened, and you have the Romantics and Victorians questioning whether new really does mean good, but before they’d really figured that out we’d had two world wars and then the Bomb.
And, suddenly, most of us were suspicious of progress. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done became a familiar phrase, and since the 50s there’s been a culture-wide nostalgia in America, a longing to return to the “good old days” that comes in a variety of formats– Christian fundamentalism, the rising popularity of “vintage” and “shabby chic,” the glorification of the past, how much American conservatives talk about “original intent” and the Founding Fathers. Not that I think this is particularly new phenomenon: even Plato spends an awful lot of time talking about how awesome things used to be. But . . . still, I think this nostalgia has gotten worse in the last seventy years.
However, there’s still people who describes themselves as “liberals” and “progressives,” and I think this has a lot to do with optimism. I wouldn’t have described myself as an optimist until I was in the middle of a conversation talking about chattel slavery, and part of my argument for why American chattel slavery was so egregiously awful was this unspoken expectation that Americans in the 1800s should have known better. It’s not that slavery had never existed– it’s that Americans should have been better than ancient Rome (or any other civilization that legalized slavery).
The interesting thing is– some Americans did know better. They wrote books, pamphlets, preached sermons, and eventually went to war over it. We ended chattel slavery and outlawed slavery of any kind in this country. Today, any of the arguments made in support of slavery– even biblical ones– are heinous and evil to almost all of us except a select handful that everyone else condemns as twisted and immoral. Slavery still happens in this country– sex trafficking and human trafficking sometimes reap more profit than drugs or guns in this country– but, with rare exceptions, Americans know that it’s wrong.
There have also been other moments in our history that have the same core idea running behind it. The Civil Rights Era, and today’s slow march toward LGBTQ rights. The fact that we made it illegal for men to sell or beat their wives. How the the number of forcible rapes (the only kind of rape consistently measured) has gone down in the past 20 years. How, yesterday, researchers announced that making contraception more freely available resulted in less unintended pregnancies– and that 2011 had the lowest rate of abortion since Roe vs. Wade.
These are all fantastically good things, and I believe in what they mean.
I believe that rape culture could disappear in my lifetime– that any kind of rape could become rare, and that when it does happen the victim can receive justice. I believe that education and contraception– not forced births through horrible laws– could lower the abortion rate to 6 per 1,000 women like it is in Holland instead of the 24 per 1,000 it is here. I believe that we can empower people and make the widespread violence against cis women and trans* persons a thing from the past. I believe that the rampant and often deadly attitudes of racism and bigotry could evaporate. .
I do. I believe all of that is possible, and I believe I can be one of the people who can make that happen. That I can be a part of that change. That the world can become a better place, that I can help bring the kingdom of God to earth. That all oppression shall cease, that all bonds will be broken, that justice can be fought for and achieved.