Redneck Greens: A call to universalize the Left
The truck in front of me, a sleek, yet oddly bovine red pickup, bore one huge word spelled out in vinyl letters across the back window: R E D N E C K. I remember witnessing the derogatory power of that word as a kid; when effectively employed it could generate black eyes. Apparently, now it’s different. Like "queer" or "geek," the term has been, through the wonder of irony, reclaimed as a badge of honor, at least in some circles. One look at the truck—no claptrap rustbucket, but a just-washed, out-of-my-tax-bracket, new Dodge Ram—suggested as much: this statement came from a place of power, not weakness.

It’s a lesson in how words shift meaning through use and—sometimes— concerted effort. It happens all the time in politics. While polls show a majority of Americans agree that the government should pursue progressive aims—a safeguarded environment, accountable corporations, well-funded education—few people welcome the tag "liberal" to describe their beliefs. We have conservatives and their shrill neoconservative cousins to thank for this. The same people who dubbed the wealth-redistribution levy on inheritances the "death tax" and an ideology that threatens the health of women "pro-life." Even the fact that they’re called "the Right" is disconcerting. Thing is, though, to a growing number of Americans, that’s what they are.

Which is why progressives must continue to reconsider language. While John Kerry tries out a sloganeered jujitsu move, attempting to borrow the force of Bush’s troop-killing, tough-guy bumpersticker "Bring 'em on," I'm suggesting something outside the realm of action movies--from the heart of humanism. We need to strip away the rhetoric to reveal our underlying, universal beliefs: doesn’t every parent want safe food for their children? Aren’t we all—lefties and rightwingers—concerned about the hypercommercialization of youth, breathable air, drinkable water, fair pay for a job well done? "In the political arena we generally cannot convince people of anything they do not, in some sense, already believe," writes Jonathan Rowe in Yes Magazine. "But we just might be able to convince people that what we say is really what they think already." It’s not what we believe, it’s how we talk about it.

Of course, Republicans perfected "talking the talk" long ago. The Clear Skies initiative is titled to obscure the fact it weakens the protections of the Clean Air Act. The under-funded No Child Left Behind initiative, despite its empowered, feel-good moniker, is hurting America’s schoolkids. And the comfily named Log Cabin Republicans makes space in the GOP for gays and lesbians, despite fiercely anti-queer stances by the administration (not to mention the February recess appointment of William Pryor, a judge who likens homosexuality to necrophilia and bestiality). There’s a lot in a name, apparently. So maybe we should reconsider ours. To create a party that welcomes a wider swath of the forward-looking, people-focused citizenry, that welcomes treesitters, Lieberman Democrats, and farming environmentalists alike, perhaps we need to seize the power of the term "conservative."

Quinn Brisben, a 67-year old white teacher long employed at African American schools in Chicago, discusses such reclamation in Studs Terkel’s book Hope Dies Last: "When people tell me that they are conservative, first question I have is, what do you want to conserve? If you want to conserve the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, I am with you. If you want to conserve the English language to the point where high school kids can understand Shakespeare plays, I am very much with you. Decide what it is that you want to conserve."

Reggie Prim, a community activist in Minneapolis, has already decided: he proposes a new wing of the Democratic party, the conservative progressives. "I want to conserve the progress we’ve made in the last 30 years, and I want to conserve the progress of the Civil Rights movement and the women’s right movement and the gay rights movement. I want to conserve that progress, so I’m a conservative progressive."

This is not mere wordplay: the term "conservative" is completely up for grabs. Consider: Republican president Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act. And it’s a Republican, George W. Bush, who is working to roll back these key environmental protections along with some 200 others. No party owns the word "conservative"--and, if the Republicans ever did, they can thank George W. Bush for letting the trademark lapse.

But fusing preservation and progressivism has another component: deleting "liberal" from our political vocabulary. "Say no: 'That’s not me. I’m sorry, I don’t know who you’re talking about. I'm a progressive,'" says Prim. "Let’s reframe the argument. Let’s move it away so that if a conservative says 'liberal' it’s something that’s can’t find a home: it’s terminology without an object. It just falls off into space, ultimately without any value. And everybody stops talking about liberals all of a sudden, because no one says they’re a liberal. Then, we’ve reframed the argument and taken back the definitions about who we are and where we stand on the issues."

So let’s open up the Left: welcome, conservative progressives! Step right in, those of you representing The Christian Left, The Moral Minority, and The Radical Center (to borrow a term from Ted Halstead and Michael Lind). We’ve even got room for the "redneck" in the pickup truck. How do I know?

As a middle-class central Wisconsin native known to chop wood, bowhunt, and don the green and gold (and sometimes blaze orange) during football season, I speak with some authority. My heritage—growing up with 80 acres of woodlands to traipse through, a trout stream, and a half-acre garden plot—makes conservation, conservatism in the truest sense, a key value. Prim suggests that people like me, and those to my right—like Roy Weitzell, a hockey-lovin’, bluegrass listenin’, University of Alabama–educated DNR employee I met awhile back in St. Paul--establish our own wing of the Democratic Party:

The Redneck Greens.

I'm only half-kidding. We need a group for those of us who want to preserve the environment either out of a sense of symbiotic respect for the land or a pragmatic responsibility to protect what we’ve enjoyed and profited from all these years. Like the environmental justice movement that sought to include those most affected by bad environmental policies—the poor and people of color—a new movement must welcome nontraditional environmentalists: sporting greens, the urban poor, farmers, and "mainstream" people who, rather non-militantly, love the earth. Maybe they won’t protest the occupation of Iraq or cheer that San Francisco is performing gay marriages. Maybe they will. Either way, they can call themselves progressives.

In addition to reclaiming the labels we live by, we need to rethink the vocabulary that perpetuates our country’s polarized, left-right mindset. Thomas de Zengotita, in his January 2003 Harper’s essay "Common ground: finding our way back to enlightenment," argues that once we rethink our postmodernist penchant for identification and labeling we get down to something more basic: "all else being equal, every human life is, by nature—that is, simply by virtue of being human—equal in value to every other and therefore entitled to whatever benefits or protections are at issue in the struggle for access. Everything hangs on the ‘therefore,’ on whether or not it actually operates this way in our political thinking. If it does, then we have found what we need—the basis for a coherent ideology that promises unity for progressives at this critical hour."

Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich puts this in practice every day. For example, he considers water not as a concern of the left or right—not as a tug-of-war between corporate rights and communal values—but in broader terms we can all agree with: water is a human right. Similarly, gay marriage—like the miscegenation laws that once dictated who blacks and whites could and couldn’t marry—is really about freedom of association, about human rights.

When framed like this, who can disagree? "Let them try to make hay out of the term 'progressive,'" says Prim. "Who’s going to say, 'I’m against change for the good'?"

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