There’s a growing class of people who consider themselves enlightened seekers of social justice, who are at the same time quite optimistic for their own rising social and economic status. I call them UMPs: Upwardly Mobile Progressives.

Sounds fairly harmless…

I believe UMPs are being cultivated as shills and shields for a new plutocratic ruling class. The strategy is to drown out the disgruntlement of the vast and increasingly disenfranchised underclasses by buying the acquiescence of a growing legion of safely well-to-do UMPs who are given license (encouraged, even) to protest injustice – so long as they do it where it doesn’t count.

I’ve made a little chart to demonstrate the inverse relationship, for UMPs, between proximity to power and willingness to take a stand against the unjust behavior and power-consolidating activities of power brokers. That is, the nearer UMPs are to a source (or potential source) of wealth, status, privilege, or entitlement … the less courageous and vocal they are in bringing honest challenges to the decisions or motives of that power source, or of the “tribe”over which that powerful entity holds sway.

At best, the behavior pattern I’m describing represents a lack of political pluck. At worst, UMPs are prone to lend visible support and explicit legitimacy to forces that obscure and exploit imbalances of power and privilege.

UMP Political res



I understand UMP political behavior this way:

UMPs think of themselves and want to be remembered as people who work to make the world a better place for everyone. They put their humanitarian values on display by showing up at protest marches, offering inspiring social justice-minded messages on social media, initiating vibrant but aimless dialogues about race and class, and posting yard signs and bumper stickers: all concrete evidence of their progressive credentials .

This is a practice now commonly referred to as “virtue signaling.”

But in day-to-day brushes with the purveyors of influence who also happen to be perpetrators of inequity and injustice, UMPs are unlikely to take any assertive action that risks costing them the entitlements offered only to reliable apologists.

Have a look: the political behaviors that map on to the four Quadrants of my graph can be roughly characterized as follows:

Quadrant A: Toxic Neutrality – When power makes itself felt, when a strong influencer is present and palpable (whether or not in the flesh), when the boot comes down or the table is pounded or the finger is pointed – these UMPs fall back on the chief survival tactic of those desiring to validate or maintain their better lot in life: Toxic Neutrality.

Toxic Neutrality is the fear of taking sides, masquerading as an ethical decision to take the high road. Examples of toxically neutral behavior are Zen-like mantras about the nobility of choosing non-action, and high minded rationales for “staying out of it,” both of which safely avoid offending Goliath (the purveyor of plutocratic prestige) while doing the least possible harm to David (the actual victim and purported ally).

Toxic Neutrality is often accompanied by feeble gestures of solidarity with the victims of injustice (e.g.: cautious looks of empathy; effete statements of support that simultaneously signal readiness to back down and run for cover, and encouraging social media gestures periodically sent to the underdog to signal empathy without risking loss of position or privilege).

Toxic Neutrality (the favored status-preserving refuge of a significant cohort of UMPs who are generally thought of by their peers as social justice seekers) serves as pervasive and powerful reinforcement of unjust behavior and abusive policy, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) the fact that it draws little attention to itself. In exchange for this authority-legitimizing stance, Toxic Neutrality is rewarded with the guarantee of continued social and economic security.

Stay neutral and you stay on the payroll.

Quadrant B: Change Agency – Behavior that maps onto this quadrant demonstrates a willingness to assume risk – a readiness to sacrifice safety, reputation, status, or privilege – in order to oppose inequity, confront abuse of power, and seek restitution for injustice. This is the individual who risks being exiled, expelled, or publicly shamed. This is the person who puts upward mobility on the line in exchange for political impact.

Quadrant C: Flaccid Resistance  Eventually the power brokers have to leave the room. When there is scarcely any likelihood of ever making eye contact with them, Flaccid Resistors are willing to present bold, memorable, and even visionary challenges to the status quo, to existing power structures, and to long unquestioned social norms.

Flaccid Resistor UMPs are, however, adept at ensuring that no proximal influencer will ever perceive him- or herself (or his/her tribe) to be the direct target of their criticisms.

Flaccid Resistance satisfies the thirst to express high ideals, but unwittingly serves to inspire, embolden and unify more flaccid resistance, while dodging the risks and costs of real change agency.

Protest marches, yard signs, and petitions are the impotent political actions characteristic of this quadrant. Enter a powerful influencer into the work space, and the resistance quickly loses its stiffness.

Quadrant D: Enlistment – sometimes shrugged off as “just going along.” In this quadrant, the power broker and his Hammer of Injustice are remote in terms of time, distance, or degrees of relational separation. The UMP nevertheless does his bidding, often under the watchful eye of faithful lieutenants who are authorized to dispense entitlement and status to the loyal Enlisted. The reluctance of the Enlisted yields to an increase in conscience-protective degrees of separation (time, geography, relational separation) from recognized abuses. Political behavior in this quadrant is unhitched from its ideological anchor and tends to be accompanied by elaborate rationalizations (“Where else would I work?” “How would I pay the bills?” “I can’t afford a pay cut.” “As long as I close my door and do my best work, I don’t really ever have to deal with the jerks that hired me.”)

If Upwardly Mobile Progressives are willing to look in the mirror, we can’t help but recognize that (even among those of us who are strong enough to resist active Enlistment) Toxic Neutrality and Flaccid Resistance are the twin self-deceptions that define most of our political behavior. Moving safely back and forth along the red line of the Political Pluck curve, we can feel good about our own convictions and reputations, while also bringing home the benefits of the silent but visible support we offer the power brokers.

For, at the end of the day, if so many thoughtful, vocal, fist shaking, meme-posting, placard-bearing, social justice-seeking progressives are nevertheless willing to carry water for efforts that (through conscience-protective degrees of separation) serve to disregard dishonest dealings, affirm ruthless assertions of injustice, and propel the engines of economic disparity … what are all the posters and protests for?

For Upwardly Mobile Progressives, Kindness is Everything … but only on their multi-meme yard signs.