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For all of my adult life I have identified as a progressive. To me, being a progressive meant that I believed in empowerment. In 2002, when I co-founded a labor-environmental coalition to advocate for renewable energy, the symbol we chose to represent us was of Rosie the Riveter, an image of a woman factory worker during World War II flexing her muscle beneath the words, “We Can Do It!” When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, it seemed fitting to me that he chose the slogan, “Yes we can!”
But now, on all the major issues of the day, the message from progressives is “No, you can’t.”
No: poor nations like Bangladesh can’t adapt to climate change by becoming rich, insist progressives; rather, rich nations must become poor. No: we can’t prevent the staggering rise of drug deaths in the US, from 17,000 in 2000 to 93,000 in 2020, by helping people free themselves from addiction; rather, we must instead provide Safe Injection Sites and Safe Sleeping Sites, in downtown neighborhoods, where homeless addicts can use fentanyl, heroin, and meth safely.
Progressives insist they are offering hope. Many scientists and activists this week said that, while we have gone past the point of no return, when it comes to climate change, and that “No one is safe,” we can make the situation less bad by using solar panels, windmills, and electric cars, albeit at a very high cost to the economy.
And in California, progressive leaders say that we just need to stick with the progressive agenda of Safe Injection Sites and Safe Sleeping Sites until we can build enough single unit apartments for the state’s 116,000 unsheltered homeless, most of whom are either addicted to hard drugs, suffering from untreated mental illness, or both.
But progressives are talking out of both sides of their mouth. When I debated a British climate scientist named Richard Betts on television, pointing out that he and his colleagues had contributed to one out of four British children having nightmares about climate change, he insisted that he was all for optimism and that he agreed with me about nuclear power.
But just hours earlier he had told The Guardian that we were “hopelessly unprepared” for extreme weather events, even though deaths from natural disasters are at an all-time low and that, objectively speaking, humankind has never been more prepared than we are today.
And on the drug deaths crisis, the consensus view among California Democrats in Sacramento is that “the problem is fundamentally unsolvable,” according to one of the Capitol’s leading lobbyists.
The reason progressives believe that “No one is safe,” when it comes to climate change, and that the drug-death “homelessness” crisis is unsolvable, is because they are in the grip of a victim ideology characterized by safetyism, learned helplessness, and disempowerment.
This isn’t really that new. Since the 1960s, the New Left has argued that we can’t solve any of our major problems until we overthrow our racist, sexist, and capitalistic system. But for most of my life, up through the election of Obama, there was still a New Deal, “Yes we can!” and “We can do it!” optimism that sat side-by-side with the New Left’s fundamentally disempowering critique of the system.
That’s all gone. On climate change, drug deaths, and cultural issues like racism, the message from progressives is that we are doomed unless we dismantle the institutions responsible for our oppressive, racist system. Those of us in Generation X who were raised to believe that racism was something we could overcome have been told in no uncertain terms that we were wrong. Racism is baked into our cultural DNA.
Even apparently positive progressive proposals are aimed at fundamentally dismantling institutions. The Democrats’ $1 trillion infrastructure bill, supported by many Republicans, and their $3.5 trillion budget proposal, contain measures that would finance the continuing degradation of our electrical grids by increasing reliance on unreliable, weather-dependent renewables, and establish racial incentives for industries including trucking, where there is already a shortage of drivers in large measure because not enough of them can pass drug tests.
And does anyone really believe that, if those bills pass, progressives will abandon their dark vision of the future and return to Rosie the Riveter?
Meanwhile, at the state and local level, progressive governments faced with worsening racial disparities in education and crime, are attempting to “solve” the problem by eliminating academic standards altogether, and advocating selective enforcement of laws based on who is committing them.
Such measures are profoundly cynical. Progressives are effectively giving up on addressing racial disparities by ignoring them. But such is the logical outcome of victim ideology, which holds that we can divide the world into victims and oppressors, that victims are morally superior and even spiritual, and no change is possible until the system that produces victims and oppressors is overthrown.
To some extent none of this is new. After World War II, it was progressives, not conservatives, who led the charge to replace mental hospitals with community-based care. After the community-based care system fell apart, and severely mentally ill people ended up living on the street, addicted to drugs and alcohol, progressives blamed Reagan and Republicans for cutting the budget.
But progressive California today spends more than any other state, per capita, on mental health, and yet the number of homeless, many of whom are mentally ill and suffering addiction, increased by 31 percent in California since 2010 even as they declined by 18 percent in the rest of the US.
Also after World War II, it was progressives, not conservatives, who insisted that the world was coming to an end because too many babies were being born, and because of nuclear energy. The “population bomb” meant that too many people would result in resource scarcity which would result in international conflicts and eventually nuclear war. We were helpless to prevent the situation through technological change and instead had to prevent people from having children and rid the world of nuclear weapons and energy.
It took the end of the Cold War, and the overwhelming evidence that parents in poor nations chose to have fewer children, as parents in rich nations had before them, where they no longer needed them to work on the farm, for the discourse to finally fade.
But the will-to-apocalypse only grew stronger. After it became clear that the planet was warming, not cooling, as many scientists had previously feared, opportunistic New Left progressives insisted that climate change would be world-ending. There was never much reason to believe this. A major report by the National Academies of Science in 1982 concluded that abundant natural gas, along with nuclear power, would substitute for coal, and prevent temperatures from rising high enough to threaten civilization.
But progressives responded by demonizing the authors of the study and insisting that anybody who disagreed that climate change was apocalyptic was secretly on the take from the fossil fuel industry.
Where there have been relatively straightforward fixes to societal problems, progressives have opposed them. Progressives have opposed the expanded use of natural gas and nuclear energy since the 1970s even though it was those two technologies that caused emissions to peak and decline in Germany, Britain and France during that decade.
Progressive climate activists over the last 15 years hotly opposed fracking even though it was the main reason emissions in the US declined 22 percent between 2005 and 2020, which is 5 percentage points more than President Obama proposed to reduce them as part of America’s Paris climate agreement.
The same was the case when it came to drug deaths, addiction, and homelessness. People are shocked when I explain to them that the reason California still lacks enough homeless shelters is because progressives have opposed building them.
Indeed, it was Gov. Gavin Newsom, when he was mayor of San Francisco, who led the charge opposing the construction of sufficient homeless shelters in favor of instead building single-unit apartments for anybody who said they wanted one. While there are financial motivations for such a policy, the main motivation was ideological. Newsom and other progressives believe that simply sheltering people is immoral. The good is the enemy of the perfect.
As a result, progressives have created the apocalypse they feared. In California, there are “homeless encampments,” open drug scenes, in the parks, along the highways, and on the sidewalks.
But the problem is no longer limited to San Francisco. A few days ago somebody posted a video and photo on Twitter of people in Philadelphia, high on some drug, looking exactly like Hollywood zombies. The obvious solution is to provide people with shelter, require them to use it, and mandate drug and psychiatric treatment, for people who break laws against camping, public drug use, public defecation, and other laws. But progressives insist the better solution is Safe Sleeping Sites and Safe Injection Sites.
Should we be surprised that an ideology that believes American civilization is fundamentally evil has resulted in the breakdown of that civilization? Most American progressives don’t hold such an extreme ideology. Most progressives want police for their neighborhoods. Most progressives want their own children, when suffering mental illness and addiction, to be mandated care. And most progressives want reliable electrical and water management systems for their neighborhoods.
But most progressives are also voting for candidates who are cutting the number of police for poor neighborhoods, insisting that psychiatric and drug treatment be optional, and that trillions be spent making electricity more expensive so we can harmonize with nature through solar panels made by enslaved Muslims in China, and through industrial wind projects built in the habitat of critically endangered whale species.
Does pointing all of this out make me a conservative? There are certainly things I support that many progressives view as conservative, including nuclear power, a ban on public camping, and mandating drug and psychiatric treatment for people who break the law.
But other things I support might be fairly viewed as rather liberal, or even progressive, including universal psychiatric care, shelter-for-all, and the reform of police departments with the aims of reducing homicides, police violence, and improving the treatment of people with behavioral health disorders, whether from addiction or mental illness.
If I had to find a word to describe the politics I am proposing it would be “heroic,” not liberal, conservative, or even moderate. We need a politics of heroism not a politics of victimhood.
Yes, Bangladesh can develop and save itself from sea-level rise, just as rich nations have; they are not doomed to hurricanes and flooding. Yes, people addicted to fentanyl and meth can recover from their addictions, with our help, and go on to live fulfilling and rewarding lives; they are not doomed to live in tents for the rest of their shortened lives.
And yes, we can create an America where people who disagree on many things can nonetheless find common ground on the very issues that most seem to polarize us, including energy, the environment, crime, and drugs.
Michael Shellenberger is the author of the forthcoming book, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” and writes at michaelshellenberger.substack.com
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