On Father’s Day, Lena Dunham shared the story of how she had her first period while hiking with her dad.
For Dunham, it was a cool story about her dad. For Lola, the tampon brand who Dunham endorses, it was an opportunity for branded content. But for People, it was news. In their Celebrity Bodies section, they published a story entitled “Lena Dunham’s First Tampon Came From Her Dad.” To them, this was notable feminist news, not just a cute childhood story and a good advertisement for Lola.
Journalist Jessica Huseman of ProPublica reacted to the story this way.
When I read Huseman’s reaction, I asked myself, “Is it really so bad to treat this like it’s news? Is it really so bad to exaggeratedly praise a dad for helping his daughter?”
In many cases, the answer to this type of question is, no, it’s harmless. But the answer in this case is, yes, it is very bad. Because this desire to single out and elevate individuals for doing slightly more than the bare minimum isn’t just a dumb but cute feature of American culture. It is a mentality that holds back progress and keeps America conservative.
Authors of articles entitled “Look at This Competent Dad!” are probably not producing content in a vacuum when they decide to put those words out there. They, most likely, are responding to something that they see in other people: a desire to feel like One of the Good Ones. People read “This famous dad is not terrible,” and think, “Yes. I, too, deserve praise for being less terrible than a bad person.” This is the desire of dads who want praise for carrying tampons, the fantasy of moms who want bragging rights for having husbands who follow directions, and the ambition of younger folk who hope to one day be seen as one of these exceptional Good Ones. Clicking a “Competent Dad” article makes you feel like that dream is achievable: the dream of achieving hero status just by doing the bare minimum of non-sociopathy.
But this mentality leads you to do more than just click silly articles about how remarkable it is that a father is capable of being a parent. A world where you see yourself as one of the Good Ones also leads you to reject the idea of a world where you’re not. It can make you averse to the idea that being Good is normal.
This, for example, is why both Republicans and Democrats reject universal, guaranteed healthcare.
For the Republicans, it is, among other things, a desire for a world where people depend on private charity—a world where people depend on Good Ones. When pressed for their vision of a better world, many will describe a world like many American states in the early 20th century, where good Christian charity was people’s only hope, because there was nowhere else where the poor could get healthcare, food, or shelter.
When Republicans look at the welfare state, they see a world where people in need are liberated from the whims of private charity. That disgusts them. A world where a functioning government keeps people alive is a world where the pious and heroic are less important. If rich people pay their fair share in taxes, they are just participating in society, like everyone else. But if the rich get to hoard much of their money while cutting public services, then every rich person who gives to charity gets to be one of the Good Ones, as opposed to (the horror!) a regular member of a functioning society.
While Republicans unabashedly believe in a world that rewards certain poor people for being workaholics and/or religious, many Democrats have a worldview that’s slightly less dangerous, but more subtle in its nastiness. While many, if not most, Democrats believe in combatting that Republican dystopia with an alternate society where everybody contributes a little and the whole thing basically functions, the most powerful Democrats believe—much like their Republican counterparts—in a world of powerful individuals being the Good Ones.
The Democrats’ obsession with keeping government welfare programs, but means-testing them in order to help as few people as possible, isn’t just a compromising response to Republicans who want to eliminate those programs altogether. For many Democrats, means-testing people in order to avoid helping as many people as possible is the entire endgame. They don’t like the idea of a world with widespread, quality public services that almost anyone can use.
As with the Republicans, they dislike that world because it isn’t sexy and doesn’t make any individuals seem heroic. They prefer a world where only the most downtrodden and desperate get help. If you’re helping everyone, then you feel like a regular piece of a working system. But if you only help the most helpless, then you feel more special for helping them.
And most of all, the Democrats’ identity as the Good Ones holds back progress because nobody makes them look Good as well as Republicans do.
A world in which Democrats are effective at defeating Republicans and successful at making lives less miserable for the people who vote for them is one where they are known and judged as decent people who have substantial power and are doing their jobs. In the current world, they are known as Good Ones fighting an uphill battle and they can get their base to judge them by the low standard of “not as bad as the Republicans.”
Progress means knowing what a better world would look like and trying to move closer to it, even if you do that incrementally and slowly. But what Democrats call incremental progress, compromise, and “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” is, in effect, maintenance of their delicate balance with the Republicans.
Progressives who voted for Obama precisely because he promised a public option and Clinton didn’t helped to give him the nomination in 2008. Those same progressives forgave him for the ultimate disappointment that was Obamacare because they saw Obamacare as incremental progress toward something better, such as a public option, or even a single-payer system where the government provides Medicare-for-All.
But the most powerful Democrats don’t see Obamacare as incremental progress—they want progress to end there. This has to do with the sponsorship deals that they have with insurance companies, but I believe it also has to do with their identities. A world with single-payer is a world where it would be dangerous for any party, Democrats or Republicans, to try to take it away from people, and, in a world where nobody wants to ruin a popular program for fear of getting their whole party voted out of office, the Democrats would lose their identity. They would rather be the party of the unpopular ACA because, in that situation, they are the heroic defenders of a problematic program against something worse, as opposed to the competent maintainers of a government program that (like the public healthcare systems in other first-world countries) works because it succeeds at taking care of people and everyone likes it.
The progressive mindset is a broad one—I’d say it encompasses everyone from those who fight to make the world a better place to those who do very little but recognize that changes must be made, even if that disrupts the world that makes them comfortable. At the bare minimum, it means resisting the urge to resist progress. To be open to the idea that you’ll have to pay more taxes, in the hope that you’ll get more out of your tax dollars—that is minimally progressive, but it is still progressive. But to be attached to a society that makes you one of the Good Ones is to be like William F. Buckley: standing athwart history, yelling (or, if you’re a Clintonite, smoothly asking) for it to stop.