Why can't progressives celebrate incremental progress?
Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good
Nothing is perfect.
That's as true in politics as it is in all other aspects of our lives. Not even the most devoted supporter could plausibly argue that America's first black president was perfect. The same is true of the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton, or of the biggest mass demonstration in U.S. history.
That doesn't mean Barack Obama's presidency, Hillary Clinton's nomination, or the Women's March on Washington were progressive failures. They were, in many cases, very good for progressives. They marked real, meaningful progress. They just weren't perfect.
But all too often, progressives seem inclined to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
After the Women's March on Jan. 21 — which inspired an estimated 3 to 4 million to rally for women's rights in cities across the U.S. and around the world — progressive critiques immediately started rolling out.
A photo posted by Khudejha (@deejbeej) on Jan 21, 2017 at 11:28am PST
None of this is to say that these assessments are invalid, incorrect, or without merit. Many transgendered Americans did feel unfairly left out of the Women's March. A big percentage of white women did vote for Donald Trump. And the American left in general, and the Women's March specifically, surely has a long way to go before achieving the laudable goals of intersectionality. And obviously, any member of any group has the right to speak up when they feel excluded. The march undoubtedly could have been more diverse, more self-aware, and more pointed in its cause.
In fact, not even Clinton — who arguably achieved the biggest mark of progress for women in 2016, even if she fell short of the ultimate goal — made the cut on the Women's March's list of honorees. The March's oversight spurred further dissatisfaction, giving birth to the hashtag #AddHerName.
Obviously, this isn't the first time women have debated how warmly to embrace Clinton. No woman should feel compelled to support a political candidate just because of a shared gender identity. But for proponents of equality and women's rights, Clinton's historic nomination should have offered at least some cause for celebration. But many bristled: They wanted a woman, just not this woman.
Feminist Camille Paglia, for one, refused to celebrate a woman who has "ridden" on her husband's "coattails." An intersectional feminist suggested the color of Clinton's skin made it hard for her to fully appreciate Clinton's accomplishment. "The election of a white woman to the highest office doesn't say a whole lot about my feminism," said Imani Gandy, co-host of the This Week in Blackness Prime podcast.
Obama, too, has faced criticism from the left for not being enough:
Though columnist Julia Craven gives a nod to how Obama is seen "as an indication of how much black Americans can accomplish," she criticizes Obama for avoiding appearing "too black," causing him to fall short of "fully doing what needed to be done to improve race relations."
The writer wasn't alone in thinking that. Van Jones, Obama's former special adviser on green jobs, said that "sometimes it felt like he was president of everyone except black people." Activist Al Sharpton conceded Obama "never gave [the black community] a bill that hurt us," but he "would have liked to see the Obama years do more."
Those are legitimate criticisms of Obama. But so often these days, "not enough" is equated with failure rather than what it actually is: good but not great.
Things can always be better. And activists of all stripes should never stop striving toward something better. Indeed, progress could never be achieved if people simply sat back and said "good enough." But progress is often incremental. Even when a step in the right direction carries with it traces of society's multitudinous shortcomings and failures and inequalities, it can still count as forward motion. Sometimes it's okay to celebrate the good, even if the good is far from perfect.
The Women's March wasn't a flawless demonstration. But millions of people still showed up and took a stand for what they care about and believe in. Clinton might not be the ideal feminist, and her campaign was certainly not free of poor decisions, but at least we can finally say a woman won a major political party's presidential nomination — and the country's popular vote. Obama might not have made as much progress as some hoped he would, but at least, after 43 white men, America finally had a black president.
These evaluations may seem to lack nuance. But at their core, each of these accomplishments still contains an obvious win for liberal values that can — and should — be celebrated. And if liberals can only be satisfied when perfection is reached, they will never satisfied.