Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Progressive versus Progressive

I'm going to cross-post here a series I'm doing over with our peeps at the Power Line blog on the difference between today's so-called "Progressives" and the original Progressives of a century ago.  Here's the first post, slightly amended.  

Progressivism is on a lot of peoples' minds these days (including mine), chiefly because liberals have embraced the name as a way to escape the bad odor that has attached to liberalism since the 1960s.  (Or, as I described it in my recent lecture on the subject, "it comes to first sight as a way for contemporary liberals to reboot a disfavored franchise, sort of the New Deal and Great Society as re-envisioned by J.J. Abrams or the Coen Brothers.")  It is a clever way of associating themselves with an older moment in American history--the Progressive Era--that featured bipartisan consensus in many ways, since Progressivism was the property of both political parties, and with the positive-sounding term "progress," as no one is actually against progress as understood by common sense.

But are today's "Progressives" actually faithful to the older Progressive tradition they are claiming? I'm going to start doing a short Power Line series on this question, because the answer is not so clear cut. In some ways the answer is certainly yes. Two in particular come to mind: the impulse for centralized political solutions (which means a bigger federal government), and the disregard and/or disdain for the principles of the Constitution and our Founders.

But in other ways today's Progressives depart radically from the Progressives of a hundred years ago. Two come to mind as we approach the 2012 election season. Teddy Roosevelt and his "Bull Moose" Progressive Party saw itself explicitly as a bulwark against socialism, and TR and other leading Progressives rejected the language of class conflict. Most of today's Progressives are stealth socialists, and make class conflict a central organizing principle.

Second, the Progressive movement, and TR's party in 1912, was suffused with the spirit of Protestant evangelical Christianity, as Sid Milkis points out in his fine book on the 1912 election.  The conventioneers sang and swayed to Christian hymns including "Onward Christian Soldiers," and TR's famous oration to the convention began with the ringing call that "we stand at Armageddon" ready "to battle for the Lord." That kind of language at a Democratic Party convention today would get you arrested; no group is more estranged from the agenda of today's Progressivism than Protestant evangelical Christians. William Jennings Bryan, were he alive today, would be run out of the Democratic Party faster than you can say "Joe Lieberman."

Discussions - 5 Comments

Looking forward to this series of posts. Your point about class conflict is a really fine one, and not one I've seen before.

Like you, as a reader of S. Kurtz, I take seriously the charge that (at least for most of his career) Obama was a "stealth democratic socialist."(But unlike Kurtz I don't think this label quite works to describe him for the past five or so years.) In many ways, I think the real content of the augthies Democrat embrace of the "progressive" label over the "liberal" one(granting that for many it was content-less instance of strategic rebranding) was a staking out of a coalitional/ideological space which joined a) hard-core (i.e. NOT New Democrat) liberals, b) adrift or stealth democratic-socialists (i.e., Obama-types), c) open democratic socialists, and d) other sundry radical-leaning types (Black Nationalists, Greenie-extremies, etc.)

I see little evidence that our contemporary progressives have seriously sought to identify themselves with, and nurture themselves ideologically from, the original progressives. Very few of them are really taking up R. Rorty's 1992 call to pick up their Herbert Croly and John Dewey, let alone their Wilson, in the post-1989 era in which Marxisant thought must fade away.

This is why I wrote the following for a (largely positive) review of Pestritto's books for Perspectives on Politics: "There is...reason to worry that the popular impact of the broader West Coast Straussian attack on the progressives may have some deleterious effects. It will not be terribly helpful if “progressive” becomes a blanket explain-it-all word in the popular conservative vocabulary, particularly given the parallel yet slightly earlier and totally unrelated revival of the term’s use in the popular liberal vocabulary. While it is perfectly fair for conservatives to demand that our self-identified progressives...respond to Pestritto’s charge that the historicist premises, statist preferences, and anti-constitutional tendencies of Wilson and company represent the real “roots” of their politics, it will not be helpful if they get in the habit of assuming that those who identify themselves as progressives hold the views of Wilson, Croly, or Hegel."

There really are number of striking similarities with, say, Obama's rhetoric, and that of the original progressives, but not much evidence that he or his allies have thought through progressivism's "foundational" claims. So, we need to analyze today's progressives with greater attention to how they DEPART from original ones, even as we note how in many areas they (often instinctually, it seems) follow their lead.

I wonder what Roosevelt and other progressives meant by "socialism" in a period that, after all, predated the Russian Revolution. TR didn't use the word "regulation" when talking about industry, he used "control." When he does talk about socialism, he tends to associate it with general radicalism, mob rule, lawlessness, atheism and immorality. A. Mitchell Palmer's characterization of communism in 1919 follows the same lines--he doesn't so much focus on the assault on property as he does on attacks on the church and the family. It makes me wonder whether these guys might not have been perfectly satisfied with some kind of European-style democratic socialism, assuming that it took place in the context of a more or less traditional social setting.

Actually Liberals haven't been liberals for about 100 years when they morphed into Progressivism. And they ceased being progressives in the 1970 when they morphed into watermelons environmentalists.

The left no longer believes in person liberty as a protected right and they don't believe in progress as many of their leaders talk about dedeveloping the West.

It is a sad state of affairs.

Good thought: So the socialists approved by TR would be those Marx spends so much time attacking in the Commie Manifesto. And recall here Wilson's early equation of socialism and democracy.

Hum... I don't know. I think the focus should be upon how a thing is defined, by whom, and once defined how it retains staying power in its formulation by corresponding to reality for a period of time.

It is rather cheap to agree with what you say, and I think I can afford it here.

I actually wonder if it even matters what "progressivism" is. Or if "proggressivism" might not simply be a general ethic or outlook in a certain field.

It seems to me that proggressives or conservatives might gravitate to different fields.

That is it is an ideology that exists independently from monetary consideration and acts to prop up supply of available labor in a given field.

In other words, take "Multiculturalism" which philosophically on the right and in language(but I repeat myself), is a sign post or buzz word for something bad.

But if you are reasonable you don't give intellectual property to framing what a thing is, i.e. the tea party to Craig, but you also don't let the AEI say what "Multiculturalism" is or "Proggressivism" is.

If you want to know what "Multiculturalism" is you google search the thing, find the true believers and figure out what it is they do.

So Multiculturalism is defined as the product created by the National Multicultural Institute.

One of the products/projects is combating human trafficking.

So we can say that folks who attack "multiculturalism" are as foolish as hard core atheist who from an over analytical purity, act to undermine a spirit of beneficence.

In other words who is to say that the progressives in spirt(those who believe the message) aren't the ones working in low paying jobs.

Indeed almost by implication from Adam Smith we can know that people who believe in causes are willing to work for less doing them.

Public defenders, food bank operators, teachers, volunteers. It certainly seems to me that there is an ethics and ethos which undergrids a lot of the social fabric, be it catholic social work, or the ACLU aided public defender working on a §1983 case.

While the stock market is difficult to time, I think this is easier, than actually comming down on the side of "conservatism" or "proggressivism" given the flux and invariability of meaning, effect, timing, product and social effect.

I don't think the stock market is a random walk, but I think Political Philosophy is.

I don't mean to say that politics isn't predictable, but I don't feel it is ethically predictable.

In the market the morality/objective is clear: maximize profit. What you are trading is somewhat clear, the products the companies create are somewhat clear, you have fear, fundamentals and technicals. You can follow the oil reserves in the Bakken, the patents for craking held by Haliburton, the environmental concerns about poluted groundwater. In some sense you even start to follow politics.

But political philosophy in the largest sense as Progressivism doesn't have an objective, other than maintaining a perilous ballance and equilibrium between all the goods that man as man could find praise worthy and good. In fact politics includes administrative agencies and the legal framework of policy that control the market. So it already includes the fruits of what some would call proggressivism. It is the study of political reality with an interest in maximizing equilibrium between all possible moral and material values, with the hope that the world doesn't end up belonging to grasshoppers.

Maybe you aren't Aristotelian enough, to realize that practical wisdom is not science, therefore while there are sometimes bright line legal rules, the entire process is subject to infinite adjustment, and it is simply hubris to stare into the palantir and declare for the triumph of a fixable political principle, which one could claim governs all the others. It is a random walk, because the cheap attempts to claim knowledge of history are limited, so our sense of basis is invariably shaky and seeped in the tea of reliance, brewed in a cup of laziness.

Just because the Proggressivism is an uncomprehensible random walk doesn't mean technical knowledge of it isn't usefull for timing the market, which is a more clearly defined subject.

But perhaps I am simply confused.

Can we define the scope of applicability of Progressivism? (If we do define it is it binding?)

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