The Real Progressives
posted at 2:10 pm on March 2, 2010 by CK MacLeod
In a comment at my home blog, and in related comments at her own blog, J.E. Dyer has ably encapsulated the negative responses of numerous conservatives to my post on “The Point of Being Annoyed with Glenn Beck.” J.E. concedes some of her own hesitations regarding Beck (as she did, implicitly, throughout “Beck and the Legacy“), but also expresses incomprehension regarding one of my main criticisms:
How is it dehumanizing invective to refer to progressivist political ideology as a cancer on the American polity? It would be one thing to say the metaphor is inapt. I don’t think it is, but one could argue the case dispassionately. Another criticism that wouldn’t necessarily be a reach would be that it’s hyperbolic. Again, I don’t think it is. I am convinced that progressivism is antithetical to limited, constitutional government. I think Beck is correct that progressivism and limited, constitutional government can’t coexist. One of them has to recede, be defeated, dissolve over time. They can’t occupy the same space.
I really don’t see what’s out-of-bounds about putting this in metaphorical terms as the operation of a “cancer.” Is it the metaphor, or the basic proposition, that you find so offensive…?
Well – both – except that I never expected anyone to care whether I personally was offended by GB and the to me unfortunate resonances of his rhetoric. My concerns initially were that Beck’s approach might be politically counterproductive and potentially dangerous, and that it would be rightly taken as offensive and extreme, or just plain nuts, by others. I see no gain in making Frank Rich and David Neiwert look relatively reasonable, however briefly. I am equally concerned, however, about how “the basic proposition” may be taken and acted upon by us – by conservatives.
Setting aside some important differences between J.E. and Beck, I fundamentally disagree with their characterization of the struggle before us – as a matter of theory, because I do not believe that progressivism, so broadly defined, could ever be completely eradicated; and, as a matter of practical politics, because I believe that total war with progressivism is neither practical nor desirable. I believe that such a war would fail, and, in failing, be highly destructive to those who fought it. Furthermore, as a missed opportunity, it would be tragic.
Contrary to Beck and J.E., I see little difficulty in “co-existing” with a conservative progressivism. J.E. defines progressivism as “antithetical” to constitutional conservatism, but even that definition suggests a relationship of mutual dependency, not a fight to the death – a dialectical yin and yang of the sort that the American system and the Constitution itself were designed to synthesize and re-synthesize, not to settle perfectly and forever. The Founders were not utopian fantasists.
Those who have lately been using the word “progressive” as a curse word, or who have been using “progressive,” “statist,” and “liberal” interconnectedly and even interchangeably, may refuse to believe that an authentically conservative progressivism could even exist except as some demon sheep in wolf’s clothing. Others may identify progressivism with the tedious nostrums of Barack Obama, the legislative misbirths of Reid and Pelosi, the musty interest group agenda of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or the pretty vicious rants of sundry nutroots bloggers. Yet as I’ve participated in discussions inspired by the “War on Progressivism” – to use my co-blogger adam k’s term – I’ve increasingly seen a conservative progressivism, a radical reform conservatism, traced out as the course conservatives have been, will be, and in my opinion should be following in response to the challenges of our times.
A lifelong independent, I voted with enthusiasm, if in the end not much hope, for the conservative progressivism represented by the McCain-Palin ticket of ’08 – the “original mavericks” dynamic duo that briefly held the national polling lead before being overwhelmed by the politics of the financial crisis. Since that election, the Republican center has moved further to the right, allowing us to reverse the order of the two terms (just as many would have been happy to invert the ticket): I will therefore say that I was cheered by the recent progressive conservative victories of Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Scott Brown, just as, earlier in 2009, I was cheered by the use that California voters made, in one of the first practical political expressions of Tea Party sentiment, of the ballot initiative process to reject tax proposals and instead require budget cuts.
Those who are unfamiliar with, or who have been too distracted to recall, the positive narrative of progressivism may not recognize that citizen referenda were a centerpiece of genuine Progressive Era reform. They may not realize that, when they support ballot initiatives to pass tax reform, restrict public services to illegal immigrants, defend traditional marriage, recall out-of-control liberal officials, and so on, they are walking down a path marked out by the original progressives – the real ones, from back when progressivism was progressive, before it was melded with statism in the cauldron of megalomania, world war, and global depression.
Rising figures in the national Republican Party, the leading New Republicans, fit neatly within this progressive conservative framework. Representative Paul Ryan comes from the ancestral home of progressivism, Wisconsin. His Roadmap is, among other things, a courageously ambitious yet pragmatic blueprint for reform, intended to bring government, including a longstanding societal commitment to care for the elderly and vulnerable, closer to the people, for the sake of greater efficiency and effectiveness, alongside the destruction of undemocratic and corrupting concentrations of power – all foundationally, capital-“P” Progressive goals.
The difference between Ryan’s progressivism and Obama-Pelosi-Reid’s is that it leads to less state, not more; greater individual freedom, not less. The Democrats, Progressives in Name Only, remain committed, as they have been since Professor-President Woodrow Wilson, to the latest and greatest intellectual fashions of the year 1900 – from the eugenics and “scientific” racism that live on in Planned Parenthood and obsessive race consciousness, to the illusory advantages of administrative giantism. Republicans like Ryan have assumed the liberating, decentralizing spirits of our age, understanding in a way that the first progressives couldn’t how choice and markets on the human scale organize themselves more efficiently, productively, creatively, and equitably than centralized bureaucratic structures can.
Not too long ago, a guy talking about major reform of entitlements along the Roadmap’s lines would have been laughed out of “serious” politics as a dreamer. That he’s instead the Republican people are listening to is, for lack of a better word, progress.
There are many other New Republicans who might deserve mention in this context, but it’s worth returning to Governor Palin, the focus of so much unhinged wrath from the progressive pretenders. The story of Palin’s rise reads like a classic fable of first wave progressivism, only more so, in that she represents in her person a dream that the Progressive Era Suffragettes could only dimly envision. To her credit, she has openly and gratefully acknowledged her debt to them – as in her speech at Dayton, accepting the VP nomination, “88 years almost to the day after the women of America first gained the right to vote.” She had earlier assumed the governorship as the tribune of a mass democratic demand for ethical reform and the defeat of deeply entrenched and just as deeply corrupt political forces – the “old boys network” and its very old-fashioned, very 19th Century patronage machine. One of her favorite words – though her coaches may yet get her to drop it – is “progress,” which, uniquely, she uses as a transitive verb.
It was in this mode that Governor Palin was introduced to the nation – the “Alaska Maverick” who bucked the system. Unlike any of her current rivals within the Republican Party, and very few outside of it, that Sarah Palin commanded majority support in national polls from an electorate desperate for change.
As governor and vice-presidential candidate (before the squalls hit), Palin embodied authentic, classic progressive politics at its revitalized best. Like Ryan, she shows that progressivism does not belong to one side. At its inception, progressivism was neither rightwing nor leftwing, neither elite nor popular, neither religious nor secular, neither statist nor libertarian. It was all of those things and more – and it has never been a single, coherent, fully self-contained political philosophy that could be isolated and safely extracted from the American body politic.
Progressivism simply stood for the determination on the part of countless people, most of whose names have been forgotten, to address the great ills of the age – conditions of life, work, and political affairs that few reading this essay can realistically imagine. It was propelled among other things by crusading journalists – some of them a bit reminiscent of certain contemporary talk-jocks and TV hosts exposing the gross inequities and hypocrisies of our times. It was spread by deeply patriotic citizen activists, many of them involved in politics and insisting on their right to be counted for the first time, ignoring ridicule from the elites of their day: I can’t help but be reminded of the Tea Partiers.
As noted in regard to ballot initiatives, the original progressives believed in direct democracy. Some, like T.R. in his failed third party bid to re-take the presidency, even called for national referenda and recall of federal officials as a check on misgovernment. Today’s self-styled progressives, by contrast, call upon a partisan congressional delegation to ignore popular sentiment and pass a massive Health Care Bill negotiated with a raft of special interests. It’s fallen to conservatives to respond with a cry of “Here, the People rule!”
Modern American liberalism can be defined as “statist progressivism,” “elitist progressivism.” Its end point isn’t the freely expressed popular will, but the ossified bureaucratic state – or worse. This line of development now having run its course into profound exhaustion, liberalism has turned its version of progressivism into its own opposite, a contradiction in terms: reactionary progressivism, progressive stasis – Obamaism.
Radical reform conservatism on the rise – as in 1994, as in 1980 – drives leftwing reactionaries out of their minds. It doesn’t depend on enemy conspiracies and caricatured scapegoats, but instead unites people from the center to the right around a pragmatic and desperately necessary, yet innovative and even visionary, agenda – rescuing the progressive spirit from those who have turned it into a mere statist prop. It could triumph in 2010 and beyond. We can know that, because we can see it already winning.
cross-posted at Zombie Contentions