There is one barrier that, perhaps more than any other, stands in the way of many progressives living a happy, self-actualized life: the view that being a progressive automatically dooms you to a life of unhappiness, or sets you tragically apart from the mainstream of humanity. This view is promoted by people on both the Right and the Left, for different reasons.
It’s obvious why the Right wants to convince people that being a progressive makes you miserable: it supports their agenda. The more people who believe that progressives are losers, loonies, flakes, tree-huggers, bleeding-hearts, impractical dreamers, “out-of-touch with the common man,” “Hollywood elites,” “Eastern elites,” etc., the easier the Right’s job is. These and other misconceptions have been deliberately and aggressively promoted by rightwing strategists all the way back to at least the 1950s (cf. McCarthyism and the demonizing of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as an “egghead” intellectual). “Liberals as losers” can, in fact, be considered one of the Right’s most successful pieces of propaganda: successful because vast numbers of people, including many progressives, believe it.
It’s trickier to figure out why some on the Left would promote this misconception. Some activists have probably unthinkingly bought into the Right’s propaganda, while others may use the misconception to justify their own failure to self-actualize and build happy lives. Still others may mistakenly feel that they don’t deserve to be happy, or shouldn’t be happy, in a world in which so many others are suffering. Misguided viewpoints such as these are also often used as a cover-up for a deeper problem that keeps activists unhappy: low self-esteem. People suffering from low self-esteem often feel they don’t deserve to be happy or have their needs met, and so they often build lives for themselves that are characterized by deprivation. (Recall Gloria Steinem’s story, and also the discussion on voluntary poverty, in Part I, Chapter 13). There is simply no reason to live this way, however—and doing so will probably make you a worse, not a better activist. So:
• If you suffer from low self-esteem, work to create a healthier self-image for yourself. This may require therapy and the other tools discussed in Part III.
• If you’ve bought into the misconception that progressives should be unhappy, work to embrace a more positive vision.
Remember that many of the most joyful and empowered people around are progressive activists—people like Granny D, Julia Butterfly Hill, Jim Hightower, Frances Moore Lappé and Dr. Patch Adams. (You can probably think of other examples in your own community or movement.) These people, and not any unhappy activists you happen to know or hear about, are the ones whom you should be modeling your life and career after. Remember that working to be happy is not only not selfish, it is, according to Lakoff, your moral imperative.
What about the undeniable fact that many progressives are unhappy? Well, examine any population and you’ll find many unhappy people. If progressives have their characteristic woes—many of which derive from the strain of living in, and being in constant struggle against, a society at odds with their values—so do corporate executives or any other group you can name. For every progressive struggling with poverty or alienation, there’s a middle manager trying to figure out how she can escape the fate of being “just one more meaningless cog in the wheel.”
The reality may be that most progressives—and, especially, the older, “settled” ones—are actually happier than most conservatives. This is certainly one conclusion that can be drawn from the “strict father” model Lakoff says is common to conservative thought, and which I discuss in the remaining chapters of this section. It’s important to understand the roots and framework of conservative thought, not just as an antidote to conservative propaganda, but so that you can more persuasively present your progressive ideas, both to the conservatives themselves and those in the political middle.