As I was reading Dave’s top 5 political influences, I couldn’t help but notice that we shared two of them. I do want to mention that I don’t name these people necessarily because I agree with everything they did (all people are flawed), but because of their influence on my way of thinking (or not thinking, as the case may be). I’m also going to cheat, and list a couple together. In no particular order, I’ll list my 5:
John Adams/Thomas Jefferson & Abraham Lincoln: Being a student in part of the American Revolution, you can’t help but be awed at the profound role that Adams & Jefferson played in the formation of the young Republic. For one of the first times in history, a small group of people, professional revolutionaries in a very primitive sense, who had written voluminously about how a free republican should be structured, had the opportunity to build what they wanted. Both are tragically flawed figures: Adams for his Alien & Sedition Act, and Jefferson for being a hypocrite in some of his most important things that he wrote.
I tend to lean towards Adams as the more sympathetic of the two of them, as he was at least consistent in doing what he said, and saying what he did, while Jefferson’s actions ran against his principles on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, they both played an extremely important role in the conscious formation of the young Republic, and the famous Adams-Jefferson correspondence, which fills a volume or two, is an incredible archive of the informal musings and debates of two of the greatest American intellectuals of their generation.
I add Lincoln to the mix, because his role in dealing with one of the first great crises that could rend the Republic in two. Again, while history has certainly painted him very well, Lincoln stands as a model, often repeated, of how American politicians would deal with the issue of race. Lincoln didn’t believe in racial equality, and many of his actions were cautiously timed and carefully thought through so as not to anger his more conservative constituents, as well as frustrating those who (in my humble opinion) were both more principled and radical in their quest for racial equality. This pattern would be repeated during the Civil Rights movement, with almost the same verbatim arguments.
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I add, like Dave, Eugene Victor Debs. Again, the man wasn’t perfect, but there is something so sublime, and so pregnant with meaning to boldly declare, “I am for socialism because I am for humanity.” Being one of the first clear and articulate voices of American socialism would be enough to put him high on any progressive’s list, but add to that his fight for the freedom of expression, culminating in his defeat in Debs v United States, and his relentless pursuit of electoral success even running from jail, winning nearly a million votes in 1920. Like his many socialist brethren across the world, Debs joined the tiny minority in America who opposed World War 1, which is what ultimately led to his jailing.
Also, like Dave, I add Trotsky and Lenin. Like Adams and Jefferson, they were men who made it their lives’ work to understand the nature of revolution, the means to create revolution and what to do afterwards, and a progressive would be remiss in not studying their example, as much for its positives and its negatives. The fate of the Russian Revolution seems over with the fall of the Soviet Union, but their analyses of revolution, capitalism, and imperialism remain relevant to this day.
I add William Brennan (in office ’56-’90) and Thurgood Marshall (’67-’91), who may be a bit unknown to the British crowd. Both were United States Supreme Court Justices, and the most clear and articulate voices of their generation and (sadly, for my generation) to the present of a progressive view of the law. Brennan’s writings, although sometimes criticized as pompous and arrogant, demonstrate the empowering possibilities of our laws. I’ll give just a little quote: “Our amended Constitution is the lodestar of our aspirations. Like every text worth reading, it is not crystalline. The phrasing is broad and the limitations of its provisions are not clearly marked. Its majestic generalities and ennobling pronouncements are both luminous and obscure. This ambiguity of course calls forth interpretation, the interaction of reader and text.” What’s so important about Brennan’s philosophy is that it rested on a modern interactions between interpreter and text, not the historic searching and speculation that is so marked in conservative originalism.
Thurgood Marshall was one of the greatest lawyers to ever appear before the Supreme Court. As a lawyer with the NAACP, he worked to desegregate the armed forces with President Truman, overturn restricted covenants, and in his greatest triumph, overturn Plessy v Ferguson with Brown v Board of Education in 1955, ending school segregation and eventually all segregation, at least at a legal, if sadly, not at a practical level.
As a judge on the Supreme Court, besides being a fervent proponent of civil rights, offering his fellow Justices his first-hand experiences with the degradations of discrimination, he was also a zealous opponent of the death penalty with Justice Brennan, both of them opposing it out of principle, supporting every single subsequent defendant (of hundreds, if not thousands) who petitioned the Court to oveturn their death sentence. Marshall’s greatest strength, I think, lay in his recognition of the practical applications of decisions, and their actual effect on human life, as shown in his concurrence/dissent in Hogson v Minnesota (1990) where he vehemently opposes a law that would require minor, unemancipated women wishing an abortion to notify both parents or seek a judicial bypass (justify their decision to a judge):
“This scheme forces a young woman in an already dire situation to choose between two fundamentally unacceptable alternatives: notifying a possibly dictatorial or even abusive parent and justifying her profoundly personal decision in an intimidating judicial proceeding to a black-robed stranger. For such a woman, this dilemma is more likely to result in trauma and pain than in an informed and voluntary decision.”
Lastly, I add my family. From disparate roots, they all embodied a profound sense of social justice. My mother’s father was a labor leader in the City of New York before working as a social worker. My father’s parents met in a “Walking Club” (I guess you walk together in these clubs) of the YCL (America’s Komsomol) and remained Party members for much of their lives, imparting to my father his activism, making him a very active member of New York’s anti-war movement and progressive movements in his youth. Both my parents passed on their values to me.