“In a progressive country, change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change, which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.” – Benjamin Disraeli
Conor’s recent piece takes conservatives to the woodshed for their harshness towards modern ‘progressivism’. Ethan’s post in response brings up one of my favorite conversations which is the discussion of progressivism and where it fits into our modern political labels. This seems like a good place to jump into the fray.
As some readers may know I started my blogging career with The Big Stick, the name taken from Teddy Roosevelt who is one of my intellectual heroes. A major part of my early agenda there was pushing my ideas about a new Progressive Conservatism modeled after TR and to a lesser extent Dwight Eisenhower. I noted in my comment on Conor’s post that the problem with the modern use of ‘progressive’ is that it has been bastardized into a code word for ‘liberal’. To be fair, I believe that basically all liberals are progressive. Likewise conservatives have been so critical of the term in recent years that it’s easy to see why no one could believe progressivism could exist on the Right. But it isn’t that simple.
My understanding of progressivism at its core is the acknowledgement that society moves forward and change can be a good thing. To unpack the quote from Disraeli at the start of this post, the question for democratic societies is not a choice between change or no change (because change is inevitable) but rather a choice between untested and theoretical change or a cautious change that honors the best of American social, political and national traditions.
Though contemporary political jargon seems to disagree with me, I believe you can be a ‘progressive’ and be a conservative. You just have to be willing to move forward instead of spending all your time glorifying Reagan and Goldwater. There are many political observers who would balk at the suggestion that a conservative would champion causes such as worker rights, gay marriage or the antiwar movement but there are plenty of conservatives that do.
In the comment thread for Conor’s post Tim Kowal leaves an excellent comment which reads in part:
It was conservative values, actually, that gave Progressivism its start. It was only later, when the success of the project was established, that liberals largely took over the project. But there’s a fundamental difference between the ways conservatives and “progressives” go about their respective values projects. For conservatives, values arise from and are tested in society, and only later make their way into our political and legal institutions. That is, government is meant to play a supporting role in the underlying society’s culture and norms; it is not meant to conceive and advance and foist them on society who otherwise would not go along with it.
This is exactly what a Progressive Conservatism looks like. Change is going to happen and the government’s role is to support the process, not take over. Government provides a framework to support change and when necessary slows it down to a speed society can handle. The analogy I have always used is that liberalism is like a teenager behind the wheel of their first car. They drive fast because the point is to get where they want to go and safety is a small concern. Mainline conservatism is like the elderly driver who fears everything on the road and drives so slow that they actually cause more problems than they prevent. Progressive Conservatives are like the middle-aged dad in the minivan. They set the cruise control at five over the speed limit because it gets them a little faster, yet they drive responsibly and keep the family safe.
Some specifics: Gay marriage is a good example of progressive conservatism. The Left wants gay marriage yesterday. The Right wants it never. Progressive Conservatives are the folks like myself that are moving forward towards legalization but with caution. We have to be convinced but the important thing is that we can be convinced. The rub for liberals here is that sometimes we are slow to arrive at the same conclusions they do and sometimes we never get there. What I also see is progressive conservatives willing to move forward but because they don’t go far enough they get zero credit. So progressive conservatives might support civil unions for same-sex couples right now but because it’s not marriage, they get no credit for moving forward. They are lumped in with other conservatives as obstructionist. This kind of absolutism seems unfair.
Progressive conservatives can and usually do look forward. We accept all sorts of change every day. But we do it with caution and we also believe that tradition plays an important role in our culture. That means that change in institutions, especially social institutions, should be undertaken with care. Teddy Roosevelt was a forward-thinking supporter of labor but he also said that the organization and protection of labor cannot come at the expense of capitalism. He also wanted labor kept out of politics. Balancing progressive goals with conservative values is exactly what progressive conservatism looks like.