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The Real Progressive Speaks!
(preface to a reply to commenters)

posted at 3:09 pm on March 13, 2010 by

Our opponents like to call themselves “progressive,” and they have in mind a tradition of political activism that goes back more than a century.

That tradition includes some things that have become accepted, largely uncontroversial features of American politics and culture – such as voting rights for women, the direct popular election of senators, and popular primary voting for party nominees. The tradition includes other things that most progressives would rather we all forget was their work – national income taxes, say, or prohibition of alcohol sale and consumption. And the tradition also includes immense political and economic commitments – like Medicare, Social Security, and the vast regulatory bodies of the state – that are a constant source of dispute and disagreement even among those who support their aims unreservedly.

But it’s not just or even mainly such measures – measure after measure after measure, good, bad, and indifferent, the vast majority expanding government at the expense of private initiative and investment – that progressives want to recall.  They also want to associate themselves, ahead of anyone else, with the good old very popular, very American idea of progress.

They want us to believe that they stand for progress, because they know that their fellow Americans believe in progress.  The know that America is the true home of progress, and America has welcomed and has given birth to more social, technological, economic, and political progress than any other country.

That, I believe, is what the great progressive Ronald Wilson Reagan had in mind whenever he spoke with his inimitable optimism about the American future.  It’s what made him able, in his last major political address, to respond to the Democrats’ empty calls for “change” by declaring to his fellow Republicans, “We are the change!

I heard a gasp or two when I described the Gipper as a great progressive.  I’m not referring to President Reagan’s early years as a Democrat and a union leader, or to his admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for whose importance most progressives wouldn’t consider a new face on Mount Rushmore grand enough – if they could, they’d carve up his own mountain for him.

Nor am I referring to President Reagan’s occasional dalliances with impure conservatism.

I’m referring to what Ronald Reagan recognized long before most people of his day, and what he meant when he told the nation 30 years ago, upon being inaugurated for his first term, “Government is the problem.”

Actually what he said was this, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

Ronald Reagan didn’t pretend that there was no crisis in his day, or that he didn’t see any evidence of crisis, or that government is never the solution to problems.  His words rely on the opposite assumption, though we can leave it to scholars and historians to explain which crises Reagan believed government could solve.

Reagan also didn’t pretend that his political opponents lacked good intentions, that they didn’t want to solve the crisis.  What he realized, and in fact had long understood, and what he explained to the nation upon assuming the presidency, was that to progress – to venture unshackled into the future by “the problem,” which was actually a great complex of problems – we needed more than anything else for government to get out of the way.

Today, one decade into the 21st Century, more than 100 years since politicians in both parties and new parties first started marching under the banner of Progress,  we have every right, we need perhaps even more than Reagan did, to ask this question:  Where and what is the real source of progress?  Who, today, deserves to be considered “progressive”? Who really is ready, who really has the courage, imagination, and foresight, to embrace the future?  Who are the real progressives?

NEXT: On the Constitutionalist Response

cross-posted from Zombie Contentions

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For my money, the best statement on “progress” and what it means in an American context, is Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:

“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

Today’s “progressives” are, when viewed from the proper historical perspective, complete reactionaries trying to drag the world back to a more primitive view of the relationship between the individual and the state.

venividivici on March 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

venividivici on March 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

Great passage, thanks for that!

CK MacLeod on March 13, 2010 at 4:18 PM

A second on the thanks to vvv for the quote and link. I remember someone — I think it was one of NR’s writers — quoting this very passage a long time ago (10, 15 years?) and have wanted every since to have it at my fingertips.

J.E. Dyer on March 13, 2010 at 4:29 PM

Nice job, CK! And great pull, venividivici. I’d say that a progressive may likely argue that they are “progressing” past equal opportunity to equal outcomes. To that line of reasoning I’d respond that if I knew beforehand every game would end up in a tie, I’d rather not play.

John the Libertarian on March 13, 2010 at 6:29 PM

Great post, great quotes. I will add the words of the prescient G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), greatest British writer of the 20th century, who gives us a new perspective on the meanings of progressive/conservative (please excuse the length – it’s all so good, I can’t edit!):

“We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

“But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before. Thus England went mad with joy over the patriotic monarchy of Elizabeth; and then (almost immediately afterwards) went mad with rage in the trap of the tyranny of Charles the First.

“So, again, in France the monarchy became intolerable, not just after it had been tolerated, but just after it had been adored. The son of Louis the well-beloved was Louis the guillotined…. So again, we have almost up to the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start) that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men. … We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.

“This startling swiftness with which popular systems turn oppressive is the third fact for which we shall ask our perfect theory of progress to allow. …Christianity spoke again and said: ‘I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin.’

“I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword; here I confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really (when I came to think of it) Christianity is the only thing left that has any real right to question the power of the well-nurtured or the well-bred. I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: “It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance.” It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule.”
Orthodoxy, 1908

Rosmerta on March 13, 2010 at 7:16 PM

venividivici on March 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

Excellent, thanks VV.

To that I would add,

Ecclesiastes 1:8-10 (New International Version)

8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

TBinSTL on March 13, 2010 at 7:24 PM

Oh how I love “…government is the problem”. If I knew how to embroider, I’d make a sampler with this and hang it on my wall…including the date of course so future generations would know to whom I’m referring.

jeanie on March 13, 2010 at 9:16 PM

beating a dead horse here. Progressivism has nothing to do with constitutional government, or the founders, it has not changed in a hundred years, except to substitute identity politics for overt crackpot “pseudo-scientific” racism, and there is no political advantage or need, nor is there an ounce of honesty, (political or historical) in smallgov pro-liberty side foolishly trying to co-opt the label because it sounds good.

Conservatives and constitutionalists will ALWAYS be the targets of progressives, and progressives, whether Dem or Republican, will always be peddling the “move aside for progress” meme, complete with elitist sneering, social justice/collectivism, and “living constitution” nonsense as accessories.

What is this, strike 5 now? Somebody let this poster know he’s out, and needs to sit down.

rightwingyahooo on March 14, 2010 at 8:55 PM

That, I believe, is what the great progressive Ronald Wilson Reagan had in mind whenever he spoke with his inimitable optimism about the American future.

In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny:

“I hear ya knockin’, but ya can’t come in!”

rightwingyahooo on March 14, 2010 at 9:00 PM

You just had to do it. You had to take the best 20th century POTUS and one of the top 5 overall, and drag him thru the latrine of American progressivism.

Thanks a lot. No really.

rightwingyahooo on March 14, 2010 at 9:05 PM

At some point, you really do need to just stop digging. It’s getting desperate.

TheUnrepentantGeek on March 17, 2010 at 5:10 PM