What is the appropriate political strategy for progressives in the United States? What paths should we pursue – given the high rates of inequality, poverty, and injustice in the country; given that political elites are apparently not committed to social reform; given that a significant majority remains passive despite social democratic appeals? Some dream of a near-future in which our present efforts lead directly to triumph and transcendence. Much more likely, we progressives will have to concede that the short- and medium-run tides of history are not essentially favorable. This essay argues that prospects for a decisive electoral realignment, sufficient to carry the left to victory, are quite slim. Realism instead dictates that we develop strategies suitable for the losing side.
The problem is not new. In November 1934, during the depths of depression, more than ten thousand jammed Madison Square Garden in New York to witness a debate between Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party, and Earl Browder, General Secretary of the Communist Party, over the road ahead for the American working class. The Socialists at the time declared their independence from Franklin Roosevelt and his popular New Deal, offering principled critiques in the interest of the weak and exploited. The Communists, by contrast, espoused a united front against rising fascism, ultimately endorsing Roosevelt’s reelection and dissolving as an electoral political party. Neither approach brought widespread popularity or policy influence. By the early 1950s, both parties were vulnerable to repression and moved rapidly toward oblivion.
Yet again, our country is beset by economic instability, political alienation, and a growing right-wing threat. Yet again, progressives are searching for the appropriate path forward. To many on the left, the purpose is righteous, the call for action indispensable, and the times allegedly auspicious. There is even a curious optimism to be witnessed. From the alienated mass, repelled by absurdities from Republicans and the incapacity of Democrats, a new partisan arrangement might arise. Progressive forces would lead the reinvigoration of American political life. They would end the dominance of corporate capitalism and forge new alliances among the distressed, dispossessed, and oppressed. Consolidating left, labor, and liberal factions, they would build a new, inclusive, effective governing majority under democratic socialist auspices. Realignment hopes have long been expressed by progressive writers, such as Alexander Hernández in a recent issue of Socialist Forum. My purpose is to sound a skeptical note and then to offer an alternative.
Within the socialist tradition, realignment strategy is especially identified with Max Shachtman and Michael Harrington. It is grounded on findings from academic social science. The core observation is that US electoral dynamics are best understood as punctuated equilibria. Socioeconomic changes are continuous, driven largely by the uneven path of capitalist accumulation, yet the political system is more inflexible, constrained by the symbols and identifications, the party configurations and policy agenda of the prevailing regime. Periodically, however, every generation or so – often associated with a decisive election, third party movements, and heightened political intensity – the lines of partisan cleavage are shattered and rebuilt. Dysfunction triggers readjustment of the political landscape. New issues emerge salient, new alliances are constructed, new party allegiances are formed. In political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s view, developed in key works such as Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics, realignment is the American surrogate for revolution.
In the literature, there have been five secular realignments in US history: following 1800 and the initial division of politic.al elites into Federalists and Republicans; following 1828 and the democratizing movements associated with Andrew Jackson; following 1860 and the Civil War; following 1896 and conflicts over corporate industrialization; following 1932 and the New Deal. Many scholars have identified a sixth domestic regime, emerging somewhat more gradually from the late 1960s through the 1980s, associated with rising racial and identity-based voting, new geographical divisions including a distinctive pro-Republican shift in the South, and divided party government notable for policy frustrations and institutional stalemate.
Using generational logic, some have forecast a new convulsive realignment for the present era. If so, social democratic strategy reasonably should focus upon seizing the opportunity. One approach argues that the road to progressive dominance lies with ideological purity, refusing contamination from the center, to present to the restive public an unblemished alternative. A different approach, like that articulated by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, imagines an emergent liberal-Democratic governing alliance founded upon the various exasperated and minority constituencies from the current party, coalesced around a vibrant “Progressive Center.” One can almost hear echoes of the 1934 Madison Square Garden debate.
The essential question remains – are there signs of a latent progressive coalition in the United States? Are there social forces awaiting potential mobilization? Interest cleavages available for exploitation? Ideological propositions appropriate for reorienting and reintegrating public attention? Are there indicators that the American polity is even minimally prepared for a decisive, transformative left turn?
We have a very, very long way to go. According to a poll commissioned by The Economist, only 9% of respondents self- identified as Socialist and 15% self-identified as Progressive (the two categories cannot be summed as the respondents were allowed to tick multiple items, suggesting considerable overlap). The Pew Research Center, using a variation upon the one-dimensional left-right scale, found that only 6% of the public classified themselves as Progressive-Left. An enormous percentage – 98% – of that Progressive Left considered themselves Democratic Party supporters or leaners. Yet, reversing the calculation, among Democratic Party supporters or leaners, adherents of the Progressive Left constituted just 12%. Compared to all respondents, the Progressive Left tended to be white non-Hispanic, better educated, somewhat younger, and more politically engaged. Importantly, this was the only sub-group in the typology where democratic socialist political leaders were viewed favorably by a majority. All other Democratic/liberal groupings did not express positive views for democratic socialists (nor of course did centrists and right-of-center identifiers of various sorts). Even within the self-identified Progressive Left, more than 1/3 did not express positive opinions for democratic socialists.
Moreover, there is absolutely no visible recent trend of rising public support for the progressive position. From a study by Morning Consult, only 7% of respondents considered themselves “very liberal” in 2017; similarly, only 7% of respondents considered themselves “very liberal” in 2022. Very liberals comprised a small percentage by age, race, and party identification, with minimum temporal variation over the five-year period. Despite Sanders and Trump, despite economic instabilities and street protests, despite alt-right crimes and the weakness of the Biden center, the progressive cause does not seem to be making headway among the American public.
Not only is there a long way to go, but many people in these days of mounting polarization seem quite loath to travel. Many of those who have made a partisan journey have proceeded in the wrong direction. Systematic research, like that of political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in Democracy for Realists, has found that party identification is less cognitive and more affective than generally believed. In part, political parties are composed of demographic group identities – religious, racial, ethnic, occupational, regional. Individuals often affiliate with parties because “people like me” tend to belong to the Democrats or the Republicans. Moreover, party itself is a group identity. It establishes an emotive attachment akin to fandom or teamsmanship. Party, according to Achen and Bartels, “constructs a conceptual viewpoint” by which its adherents make sense of the political world. Despite our rationalizations, party supplies a “framework” that “identifies friends and enemies,” “supplies talking points,” and “tells people how to think and what to believe.” Arguments from the opposing political tribe hardly receive attention or credence. The implication is that voters are not especially open to rational conversation and conversion. Approximately 90% of American voters are constant in their partisan preferences, election-to-election, regardless of candidate or circumstances.
Psychological partisan rigidity has been fortified by heightened political polarization. In recent decades, especially among those engaged and active, party identification has become stronger and more encompassing. Compared to previous eras, there is greater consistency of opinions, more association of opinions with perceived party positions, greater bimodality separating self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans. Mirroring the growing antagonism across party elites, voters are now taking more extreme stances and showing less support for conciliation. Partisans are increasingly likely to take informational cues from confirming sources; they commonly misperceive reality in comforting directions. Data even show that party solidarity affects personal relations. A growing share of voters are expressing discomfort at the prospect that their children might marry inter-party. Americans voice strong discontent with their political system. Yet the extent of profound, entrenched, and inflexible partisan differentiation in the present polarized era does not appear conducive to reconstructed cleavages and secular realignment.
There have been some statistically significant movements observed across American voters. The most noteworthy shift in recent decades has involved sorting. Conservatives on various issues have become more consistently Republican; liberals have become more consistently Democratic. This has made the parties more one-dimensional, reducing chances for cross-party policy cooperation. The most significant area for sorting has concerned race. Until the middle 1960s, both major US parties contained constituencies that favored and opposed civil rights protections. This is no longer true. The transformation in racial voting has not been confined merely to the South, nor limited to the mid-twentieth century. In 2007, prior to the Obama presidency, US whites split approximately evenly in party identification. In 2010, they were 51-39 percent pro-Republican; in 2016, they were 54-39 percent pro-Republican. The change came overwhelmingly from those who did not attend college. While explicit anti-Black animus seems to have declined over time, there remains a strong presence of cultural racism (namely, the idea that Blacks are lazier and less attached to the American Dream). Moreover, the rate of white self-identity and defensiveness has been rising, a reaction to demographic and cultural changes in the country. About one-fifth of whites now believe that, as a group, they suffer illegitimate disparities in treatment and fear future discrimination. Certain Republican politicians, most notably Donald Trump, have been adept at activating such feelings for electoral gain. The implication is that, as a feature of American politics, white truculence will not simply fade away.
Nor is the US political system particularly responsive to popular shifts in opinion. Separated institutions sharing power slows the legislative process through the need for multiple institutional approvals. Electing one person per geographic district rather than by proportional representation distorts seat/vote ratios. The House can be gerrymandered in favor of prevailing interests. The Senate advantages smaller, more conservative states. The President is not directly elected by the people. Members of the Supreme Court serve lifetime terms. This constitutional structure was not designed to react quickly and efficiently to the wishes of the democratic electorate. Moreover, electoral participation in America is constrained, lobbying efforts overrepresent the elite, and the exigencies of campaign finance converts politicians into commodities for purchase and biases policy outcomes toward oligopoly. It is no surprise that the US does not rank among the top twenty in the various cross-national rankings of democracy.
The two-party division of American politics will most likely remain, with elections intensely fought. The good news is that the reactionary right does not seem destined to win every contest. The bad news is Democratic Party’s base constituency is not ripe for capture. The data considered here indicate little potential for such a major transformation, and certainly not in a progressive direction. Electoral mobilization within the Democratic Party might bring occasional local victories but will not succeed in annexing the national party center. Electoral mobilization through third parties might escape the dangers of cooptation but will not bring much popular support. Long-overdue actions to secure basic rights by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality appear both improbable and regrettably destined to repel as well as attract. In sum, prospects for democratic-socialist realignment must be considered distressingly meager.
Despite present frustrations, optimists within the democratic socialist community have pointed toward positive indicators, seeking signs of left dominance in nascence. One argument is that many progressive policies command widespread public support, opening a window for potential realignment. Substantial majorities, for instance, believe that mothers should receive mandatory paid maternity leave, emission standards for automobiles should be higher, laws covering the sale of firearms should be much stricter, healthcare for all Americans is a responsibility of the federal government. Regrettably, the data show that opinion poll responses on particular issues have minimal conversion effect, failing to produce alterations in wider, stable partisan proclivities. Another argument is that liberal politicians are not homogeneous, and that many might potentially be included in a left-of-center coalition, effectuating realignment. The social science literature on critical realignment emphasizes the relevance of new political cleavages, not merely shifting percentages along existing ones. The litmus test, therefore, must be whether sympathetic liberals will abandon internal party civility in an attempt to reconfigure the lines of political conflict. Few seem presently inclined.
A third argument is that democratic socialists have had notable successes organizing at the local level, fashioning multiracial working class movements dedicated to community empowerment and mobilization on important causes. The project is certainly valuable. The geographic fragmentation of American politics presents organizational opportunities, but it also limits the extent of those opportunities. Relative success in one locality is not easily universalized, especially as the US has experienced increasing residential segregation over time. A fourth argument is that the US is rapidly approaching a catastrophic moment during which all political alignments will dissolve, creating an opening for reconstruction. It is a position taken by Marx and Engels, nearly 175 years ago ironically, that our tactics should be crafted upon the anticipation of accelerating crises and imminent revolution. To the radical Marxist, reform policies merely expose the limits of the capitalist system, rendering the plight of the working classes slightly more tolerable while breaking their innate revolutionary strength. Major earthquakes, of course, are notably hard to predict and their aftermath hard to control. Our world might well be slouching toward Gomorrah, suffering agonizing drift and decay, yet this is quite different from the traumatic regime collapse necessary to shake people from conventional attachments.
Although hard to admit, we must abandon the hope for an inclusive, left-oriented majority mobilization among the mass of ordinary working Americans, despite the overwhelming relevance of the democratic socialist agenda. This does not necessarily entail defeatism. With so many people in need of relief and redress, it seems practical to orient our vision away from the improbable future. While remaining restless in our demands and impatient with present policy, we must focus on creative engagement, maximizing leverage from the limited resources at our disposal. The absence of prospective victory does not imply demoralization. Instead, there is value to be found, for the short- and medium-run, in developing aggressive strategies for the losing side.
Moral philosophers have long debated how one should act if major transformation is excluded from one’s calculations. No cataclysmic last judgment. No greatest good for the greatest number. No secular “New Jerusalem” founded on American shores. Why should teachers spend time perfecting their lessons when most students will forget them? Why volunteer to feed the homeless, for there will only be another line of homeless tomorrow? Why donate to some activist organization, or help craft another high-minded resolution, or attend this weekend’s demonstration, when there are so many just causes before us and so many wrongs to be righted? Political and social relations might on occasion be reformed but rarely transfigured, and even piecemeal reform requires enormous work and perseverance. Despite staunch efforts, inertia tends to dominate. We all would like to believe that good acts cumulate into social change, that through solidarity and commitment “a better world’s in birth.” Yet the songs of experience, as Blake called them, teach that our grandest hopes often dissolve into frustration, disillusionment, and burnout.
If Macro-Justice is generally beyond our control, Micro-Justice should become a positive commitment of daily life. We must practice kindness and caring, build community and mutual cooperation, and treat others as they would wish to be treated (a far wiser maxim than the conventional “golden rule”). We do this not because we expect reciprocation, not because we anticipate great outward diffusion. It would be nice if our actions have such a widening effect, but this is neither likely nor necessary. Micro-Justice does not require the expectation of cumulative results. Brute consequentialism lacks the potency to motivate necessary struggles. We should commit to Micro-Justice, day-by-day, simply because it is the decent thing to do.
Micro-Justice does not function as a salve to one’s conscience, but as a manifestation of conscience. It does not provide an escape from social frustration, but is an expression of basic humanity generated from the midst of frustration. Classical discourse often focused on the concept of virtue. What kind of person do we wish to become? How should we live, as principled individuals in an unprincipled society? What are the attributes of moral character, and how should these be reflected in our mindset, judgments, and behaviors? None of us is perfect, but most wish to believe that we are essentially good human beings. We examine ourselves, inside as well as outside, when we stand in front of the mirror each morning, and we prefer to like the person that we see. We will denounce cruelty and organize against oppression because the virtuous person cannot simply sit idly by when others suffer needlessly. We will widen the domain of integrity especially within our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, our habitual locales where relatively small endeavors can beneficially impact the lives of others. We will promote civility, participate in civic associations, and treat others with caring and equal respect, as these are the admirable dispositions of the good citizen.
Classical authors, moreover, emphasized the necessary attachment of practical reason to virtuous motivation. Right intentions must move in right directions. The puzzle here is political action under conditions when systematic victory escapes our grasp. With a glove, we should give support to moderates when they stand against the emergent American right-wing that is truly dangerous to women’s rights, racial sensitivity, welfare consideration, and overall democratic state capacity. It would be wrong to underestimate the threat from the political right, for it pursues policies inimical to progressive caring and kindness. Nevertheless, with a fist, we should not merely concede to the moderates. Their criticisms of far-right abuses often function to disguise an unwillingness to offer a far-reaching reform program and advocate strongly on its behalf. Mere encouragement is not enough. Unless pushed and prodded, moderates will tend toward pleasant words and deficient action. In the meantime, the US experiences income inequality at levels not seen since the late 1920s, comparative high poverty rates, and near stagnant median real wages. It has among the highest rates of infant mortality for the advanced industrial nations. It ranks 24th in environmental performance, 24th in social progress, 26th in democratic practices. The strategic challenge, therefore, is to combine the fist with the glove.
Condemned to the losing side does not mandate passivity. We firmly refuse to abandon the struggle but need to design our approach to maximize the leverage available. Basic progressive policies, many of them fundamental to the advancement of social justice, now languish at the outskirts of the political agenda. Yet our prospects for impact through the ordinary channels of political influence are low. It is necessary to acknowledge that triumphs will be partial and piecemeal, in accord with our limited power to influence. These will be at best ameliorative rather than transformational, for the entrenched regime will not sacrifice more than it can certainly afford. We would have to confine ourselves narrowly to a few key issues, enormously less than the preferred agenda, enormously less than American society deserves, because our resources are few and ought not be scattered or diffused. Moreover, strategic action when the normal routines of politics are not accommodating requires assertiveness and creativity. Here, I will discuss three possible strategies: the politics of embarrassment; the politics of marginal voting; and the politics of electoral challenge. The examples will focus on national level politics, but the lessons are not confined there.
The politics of embarrassment: My local congressperson is an enormously wealthy liberal Democrat serving a relatively safe district. She prides herself on her efforts to end child poverty, is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and seems especially interested in moving into the House leadership. She likes to think of herself as one of the good people in Congress. It is our task to make her feel that she isn’t.
Imagine 500 or more letters and emails sent directly to her each week, emphasizing that the US still ranks near the bottom of the advanced industrial nations in child poverty rates and in rates of infant mortality. Imagine that these messages chastise her for inaction and specify that she and her Democratic colleagues will be held personally responsible for some specific standard of improvement, for example 10% per year. Imagine periodic demonstrations and sit-ins at her district office to reinforce the reminder of past failures. Imagine confrontational delegations of impoverished parents and mothers of deceased infants, drawing sympathetic media coverage. Imagine blunt questions and challenges on the topic whenever she appears in public. Imagine, further, that such tactics were applied to 15 or 20 prominent liberal legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
No doubt, these are efforts from the weak, intended to prompt some degree of responsiveness from legislators who might otherwise rest quiescent and self-satisfied. Mainstream Democrats are under no obligation to react. They might well become annoyed by such a concentrated campaign of articulated disappointment, for they have become accustomed to high praise merely for resisting conservative erosions. They are certainly not used to well-publicized withdrawals of legitimacy, particularly from actors on the “correct” side of the partisan divide. It is unfortunate but true that the mainstream needs prodding to exhibit a positive commitment to the nation’s children. The shaming politics of strategic embarrassment can provide a spark to awaken the sleeping giant. The strategy should not be used indiscriminately for it requires considerable engagement and effort. It works best for issues with substantial public support, visibly identified with the progressive project, where the US lags behind other, comparable nations. If it succeeds, the weaker side can seize the agenda, gaining some recognition and advancing the cause of social justice.
Marginal Voting: In an exercise often given to social science undergraduates, we posit a hypothetical majority-rule legislature with three unified factions: one with 47% of seats, one with 45%, and the third with 8%. Which faction is most powerful and which is least? The answer is that all three have equal power. No single faction by itself constitutes a majority. Any two of the factions in coalition can construct a majority. Without some coalition, legislative stalemate occurs. This calculation, if used wisely, can open the door to progressive policy influence beyond our actual numbers. The fact that the Republican far-right has been clumsy when adopting versions of this strategy in recent years should not automatically disqualify it from the progressive repertoire.
The object is not to deprive the Democrats of needed votes, thus handing power to conservatives on social justice issues or when the national interest is at risk. There will still be plenty of opportunities for leverage, combining fist-and-glove. For example, there are internal party votes, including the selection of leadership. Imagine that the Progressive Caucus highlighted two or three issues (among my personal favorites are mandatory paid maternity leave, indexing the minimum wage to the poverty rate, and restricting carbon emissions). To receive progressive votes, a leadership candidate must commit to placing these issues at the very top of the party’s priorities for the coming term, accompanied by public hearings and major legislative efforts. If not, the caucus would withhold marginal votes, usually not permanently, but at least for three or four ballots. The national news media would inquire, establishing a venue for progressive voices to dominate the public debate, and pressing moderates to act.
There are few limits to the fist-and-glove strategy if the Democratic mainstream are a minority. The slender progressive caucus can freely, aggressively demand overdue legislation, knowing that the chamber is tilted against them anyway. Moreover, there exist ample opportunities to be seized when the Democratic mainstream is the majority. At times, the progressive caucus using the tools of marginality can force acceptance of an important amendment to some proposed legislation as a required condition for their votes. Alternatively, progressives might announce and then strategically agree to withhold their challenge, grudgingly giving their needed endorsement to minimally acceptable legislation in exchange for clear promises and concessions in other arenas. Finally, the progressive faction can refuse to contribute its support for a mainstream effort, exercising decisive power by killing off an inadequate proposed adjustment to the status quo. The challenge is to decide when each of these approaches is appropriate, utilizing maximum leverage while minimizing social cost. It is a matter of negotiating with awareness and skill. The essential lesson is that an organized progressive legislative faction can generate considerable influence, even while admitting it will most probably never dominate the political realm.
Electoral Challenge: There are a number of liberal legislators who are not living up to the potential of their districts. They should not be granted re-election unopposed. Progressives should take full advantage of the fragmentation of American representative institutions, with each officeholder elected separately, for this allows us to selectively determine who does or does not deserve challenge. Progressives should take full advantage of the system of candidate selection through intra-party primaries, for it allows us to divert votes from mainstream liberals without reciprocally empowering the conservative right. Aggressive challenges would be avoided in borderline districts, where it is predictable that a leftward shift by the Democrats would help elect a steadfast Republican. Apart from those limited situations, opportunities abound. Most Congressional seats are relatively safe for one party or the other. That very safety has allowed some Democratic incumbents to become lax and comfortable, neglecting the express interests of their constituents. Internal primary confrontations stand as our means of rectification.
Insurgent primary victories in safe-seat Democratic districts virtually guarantee additional strength to the progressive faction in Congress. With more members, its ability to exercise marginal strategic leverage grows. Public attention is increasingly drawn to the social democratic agenda. However, there are benefits even when insurgents lose in primaries. A wake-up call has been sent to the liberal incumbent. It now becomes sensible for them to shift somewhat leftwards, in words and in the actions entailed by those words, to deter the threat from future challenges. Even the worst-case scenario, when the incumbent prevails in the primary despite remaining obstinate, is not especially terrible. Local organizers will have acquired experience and potential candidates will have time to further prepare the groundwork in the community, for elections are periodic and social needs persist.
The strategy of electoral challenge assumes that progressive forces have limited accessible resources and restricted opportunities to seize a legislative seat. There is no cost-benefit advantage in those districts where challenging a mainstream Democrat from the left merely redounds to advantage a conservative Republican. Yet there is strong cost-benefit advantage, and absolutely no grounds for hesitance, where a safe Democratic constituency shows latent progressive tendencies or suffers social injustices long neglected by the party center. Deciding where to attack requires political understanding, to focus efforts where they can be effective. We certainly should not be dissuaded from venturesome action by traditional slogans regarding friendship left of the partisan divide. To the losing side, partial gain, achieved wisely, is much preferred to no gain at all.
Let us sing the song of Don Quixote, battling undeterred for high ideals beyond the possibility of achievement. Romantic dreams for reconstructing US society will be unrequited. The lesson of ultimate realism is that progressive forces have failed to carry the day. Powerful interests, ever watchful, are generally content with the status quo. The myths of acquisitive individualism largely have triumphed over the promise of democratic socialism. The broad voting public is entrenched in its current partisan patterns and is not listening to – is not especially interested in – the message from the democratic left, regardless of its validity and relevance. There will be no forthcoming critical realignment. We progressives must lose our illusions, but not our commitment to human rights and social justice. We must therefore fashion an optimizing strategy from the losing side.
Progressives must avoid the temptation to find comfort and easy community in conversations focused simply upon identifying and condemning threats from the political right. No doubt, the contemporary right is dangerous and must be rejected. This should be an important part of our agenda, but not the consuming part. Rejecting the right will not by itself ennoble America. The campaign to repel the right, even if periodically successful, will not energize a new coalition sufficient to ennoble the country. Yet disappointment regarding America’s probable political future cannot dissuade us from a commitment to America’s present. It is our responsibility as democratic socialists to establish a limited, sophisticated, practical politics, employing the fist as well as the glove, capable of extending our political leverage beyond sheer numbers.
Micro-Justice, focused especially in the home, workplace, and community, is the positive project to treat others with caring and respect. It reflects a daily commitment to live with ethical sensitivity, an indicator of the good person we would like to be, active within the good society we would wish to produce. While our actions are incapable of establishing a different society, there do exist aggressive strategic routes capable of exercising some influence. My argument rests on two basic assertions – that neither the Democratic base nor the Democratic establishment have developed significant attachment to the social democratic agenda, and that the US ranks below other advanced industrial nations on most indicators of social welfare and well-being. We proceed with no expectation for dramatic transformation. It would be a victory, under prevailing circumstances, to effectively help pry open the policy agenda, extracting from the prevailing regime concessions it is not voluntarily willing to cede. As Don Quixote insists, “It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succor them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings.”