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The perils of purity politics

How ideological rigidity undermines progressive change

No matter how fiercely you advocate for progressive change, a chorus of critics will inevitably pounce, angrily proclaiming that your efforts just aren't enough. They're too little, too late. They're problematic.

And while it may be tempting to bow to the pressure of the self-appointed arbiters of progress, giving in to their demands is a surefire path to stagnation and ineffectiveness. 

The impulse to denounce others for perceived ideological impurity stems from a deep-seated need for validation and a sense of moral superiority. When the world feels frightening and beyond our control, calling out others for their supposed shortcomings provides a seductive illusion of power and righteousness. It's a way of asserting one's ideological bona fides, of positioning oneself as the true standard-bearer of progressive values. But it's no more than Puritypolitik legerdemain. 

By setting an impossibly high bar for what constitutes "true" progressivism, the purists effectively create a circular firing squad, one in which no one can ever measure up to their exacting standards.

For decades, LGBTQ activists pushed for the right to marry, facing fierce opposition from social conservatives and religious groups. And when the Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2015, it was a momentous victory that represented a seismic shift in public attitudes and a significant step forward for equality. It applied pressure on countries like Australia to follow suit.

But even after this historic achievement, some enlightened souls insisted it was A Bad Thing. They argued that marriage equality was an assimilationist goal, one that reinforced heteronormative power structures. Some equated celebrations as a form of bootlicking. They accused those who celebrated the decision of selling out and abandoning the radical roots of the LGBTQ movement. And they spurned the people on the ground whose lives were changed by the recognition of the union and their love. 

In a sane world, gay marriage was cause for celebration, a momentous achievement that moved the needle in the right direction. But in purity politics, it could never have been good enough.

There will always be those who shout that progressive legislation doesn't go far enough. Folks who are one bad tweet away from insisting that incremental progress is somehow worse than no progress at all.

The result is ideological paralysis, in which even the most well-intentioned efforts are met with scorn and derision. The tragedy is that this dynamic plays directly into the hands of those who oppose progressive change altogether. By dividing the progressive movement against itself, the purists effectively neutralize its power, rendering it impotent in the face of reactionaries and adherents to the status quo.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The antidote to the poison of purity politics is a kind of pragmatic idealism, a willingness to embrace incremental progress while keeping one's eyes firmly fixed on the long-term goal.

Progressives shouldn't abandon their principles or settle for crumbs. But progress is a marathon, not a sprint, and the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. Progressives must be willing to take the Win, even if that Win is imperfect or incomplete.

To some, that statement alone is evidence of craven cowardice. I'm quite willing to accept that opinion and stamp your Most Progressive Poster card. But I'm unwilling to give into the self-righteous nihilism that says no step forward is a step far enough.

No matter the issue – whether it's racial justice, economic inequality, or climate change – there will always be those who insist that anything short of total, bloody, and immediate revolution is tantamount to betrayal.

But the reality of change is that it's messy and incremental. The path to a more just and equitable world is winding. For all its historic significance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not eliminate racism overnight. Despite its many flaws and limitations, the Affordable Care Act has provided health insurance to millions of Americans who previously went without it. While far from perfect, the Paris Agreement on climate change represents a step in addressing the existential threat of global warming.

None of these achievements was enough to satisfy the purists, and none will ever be. But that doesn't make them any less important or worthwhile. And it certainly doesn't mean those who fought for them—the activists, the organizers, the politicians who put their careers on the line—were sellouts or traitors to the cause.

Progressive change is a collective endeavor, achieved through the efforts of many different people toiling in many different ways - the hard work of grassroots organizing and movement-building, the messy work of coalition politics and legislative wrangling, and the unglamorous work of incremental reform and compromise. And, of course, as uncomfortable as this might be to peddlers of outraged superiority, the hard work of reaching out to the center and the center-right and creating a space where swing voters can be reasoned with.

This is the essence of what it means to be progressive. It's not a rigid adherence to a set of ideological litmus tests. It's a commitment to the formidable, messy, and often frustrating labor of making the world a better place, meeting people where they are, building bridges rather than burning them, and finding common ground.

Let the purists howl, and the critics snipe. Let them wrap themselves in the cloak of ideological purity and cast aspersions on those who dare to celebrate a Win in the face of long odds. Ignore the quote-dunking and the second-guessing. Tune out the voices of those who would rather tear down than build up.

Progress is possible, change can happen, and a better world is within our grasp—if we have the courage and perseverance to keep fighting for it instead of fighting each other. 

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