What Progressivism Is (Updated)
Back in 2010, Paul Ryan told Glenn Beck:
…what I’ve been trying to do is indict the entire vision of progressivism because I see progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the big government problems that are plaguing us today and so to me it’s really important to flush progressives out into the field of open debate.
(Beck responded: “I love you.” No, really.)
…those first progressives, they tried to use populism and popular ideas as a means to getting — detaching people from the Constitution and founding principles to pave the way for the centralized bureaucratic welfare state.
In his column yesterday, George Will parroted Ryan’s lines on progressives’ supposed anti-Americanism:
Four years ago, Barack Obama was America’s Rorschach test, upon whom voters could project their disparate yearnings. To govern, however, is to choose, and now his choices have clarified him. He is a conviction politician determined to complete the progressive project of emancipating government from the Founders’ constraining premises, a project Woodrow Wilson embarked on 100 Novembers ago…Progress, as progressives understand it, means advancing away from, up from, something. But from what? From the Constitution’s constricting anachronisms.
This progressives-as-un-American-transformers narrative is almost completely nonsense. The original progressives were almost entirely concerned with rehabilitating the American Founders’ ideals in a new political and economic era. For example, Woodrow Wilson revered Alexander Hamilton for his “deep and passionate love of liberty, and that steadfast purpose in the maintenance of it.” He argued that no one but Hamilton “could have done the great work of organization by which he established the national credit, and with the national credit the national government itself.” Wilson is hardly alone. Progressive intellectual John Dewey recognized and celebrated the permanently Jeffersonian core of the American political tradition. For Jefferson, Dewey wrote, “it was the ends of democracy, the rights of man—not of men in the plural—which are unchangeable.”
Dewey’s progressivism consisted in the next sentence: “It was not the forms and mechanisms through which inherent moral claims are realized that are to persist without change.” And that, by the way, is the small kernel of truth at the core of Ryan’s and Will’s attacks on progressivism old and new. Most progressives believed in the profound importance of the Founding’s ideals, but they realized that some of the Constitution’s rules were being used to perjure those very ideals. The ends of democracy are the key. Always have been. The specific means—can we elect our senators? Can presidents run for office interminably?—are considerably less important. Of course, that’s what most Americans (especially women and non-white citizens) believe, if you ask them about the details.
(Dewey and Wilson are hardly the only examples of early progressives who loved the American tradition. Other than Charles Beard and a few other minor figures, almost everyone was on board with the line of argument that I’ve just sketched. Even Herbert Croly, in a strange way.)
Conservatives (then and now) will have none of this. They see progressivism as an attempt to transform and abandon the Founding’s principles (or a project aimed at “detaching people from the Constitution,” etc). For these folks, real Americans venerate the original Constitution in every aspect. They believe that America means limited government along precisely the original lines. Just don’t ask them anything about women’s suffrage or the direct election of senators or the “Three-Fifths Clause,” etc (usually).
Lamentably, Will and Ryan’s rhetoric forms the conservative rule, rather than the exception. As I’ve recently written (and also here), today’s Right leans heavily upon a narrow and shifting definition of who counts as American. This is part of a parallel concern—today’s conservatives are obsessed with maintaining semantic control over The American Idea: What sort of country are we? For the Right, we’re the Founders and Ronald Reagan and victorious armies and we’re certainly Christian and we all agree that the wealthy’s consumer choices drive prosperity both common and individual. We’re
Austrian trickle-down economics and the Gilded Age and rugged individualism. Progressives have different policy goals, so they’re not just our opponents—they’re not our fellow citizens.
It’s a depressingly tribal approach to politics—especially for a political movement that supposedly prioritizes individualism so highly. Whence this concern with thick cultural definitions for the American political community? What of pluralism and freedom?
Maybe there’s something reassuring about seeing conservatives paint the whole of progressivism as un-American socialism—at least it’s not implicitly racist. Tea Party vitriol for our first African-American president has frequently crossed that line. No one’s accusing progressivism (or progressives) of being an Indo-Kenyan-born Black Nationalist Christian Islamofascist State Socialist Weak-kneed Pacifist Who Apologizes for America (though there IS some rhetorical overlap). There’s a least a bit of proof that ugly conservative attacks on the “American-ness” of various leftists isn’t always racist. So that’s something.
That’s still just the coldest of comfort. Conservative rhetoric depicting “liberals” as horrifying parasites was pretty much conclusive. The term’s dead in the water. Led by Beck, Ryan, and Will, they’re doing the same thing to “progressive.”
But if progressivism isn’t American, well, then, neither are our national parks. Or women voting. And so on and so forth…
(Note: You should really read Kyle Cupp’s post on notions of American identity.)
Just saw this, from Mitt Romney’s No Apology:
Progressives, on the other hand, rejected the notion of universal truths, objective judgments, and, ironically, progress itself, embracing neutrality among competing belief sets and rejecting the primacy of Western civilization, the great thinkers of the ages, and the principles espoused by the Founding Parents of the nation. In their view, all cultures are of equal value.
Not sure that this means much of anything…except that the GOP ticket is rhetorically united on this point. They’d rather dismiss ideas than engage them. (For the record, Romney’s only partially right on one of the historical claims he makes in that passage.)