1. Today’s conservatives consider progressives to be not just political opponents, but also un-American.
2. This is historically inaccurate. Most of the original progressives aimed at recuperating the nation’s core Founding ideals.
3. Furthermore, I argued that attacks on progressivism’s credentials as American was emblematic of the sort of rhetoric that poisons political discourse and makes future cooperation less likely.
Though I disagree with nearly everything in Tim Kowal’s reply, it’s important to note that he accepts my first claim—or if you prefer, that his post is evidence that my first claim is correct. Indeed, he concludes:
Progressivism may be defined, at least in one important respect, by its view that process is less important than policy, generally speaking. Progressivism thus defined—as a movement fundamentally defined by its ordering of policy over process—is at odds with ideas that, according to conservatives, define what Americanism is. In other words, the Progressive vision of Americanism is directly at odds with the conservative vision of Americanism.
Stipulated. Anyone who claims that conservatives DON’T attack progressives’ American-ness will have to deal with Tim and I. No pretending that I’m just making this stuff up, ok? Otherwise Tim and I will make you go read his post again.
Since we agree on this point, it follows that most of our disagreement concerns the historical accuracy of conservatives’ accusations. I provided several pieces of historical evidence in an attempt to show that the original progressives revered the Founders and were guided by recognizably American ideals. I tried to show that Woodrow Wilson is a more complicated figure on these grounds than he is often considered. I admitted that Charles Beard was probably the sort of anti-Founding guy that conservatives had in mind—even though he’s hardly representative of all progressives.
Tim responded with a passage by Elihu Root on government’s general impotence to solve most problems. Tim then concluded, absent further evidence, that progressivism values policy over process, and conservatives’ concern for policy is what leads them to place progressives outside of the American tradition.
I don’t think that either of us has offered anything approaching conclusive historical proof of the whole of progressivism’s original (or current) character. This is a blog, after all, and we’re operating in short posts. Indeed, In my followup post, I admitted that progressivism was not unitary on the Founding, and offered Charles Beard as evidence.
However, even with the limited evidence now on the table, there are a few things worth noting.
First, the distinction Tim makes seems highly suspect. As some of Tim’s commenters noted, there’s scant evidence that conservatives are uniquely concerned with process. Tim conceded that yes, sometimes conservatives ignored or bemoaned political process, but he maintained that this was an exception–not the rule. For progressives, meanwhile, he holds the reverse to be true.
I think that he’s wrong. Tim’s argument seems like a distinction without a difference, given his admission that neither progressives nor conservatives are famous for their respect of process, but once again, neither of us has yet provided sufficient historical evidence to conclusively make that claim (I take some comfort in the modesty of my position, though: the evidentiary bar to claim that progressivism is not homogeneously un-American or anti-Founding is lower than for the claim that progressivism IS inherently both of these things).
Second, suspending my disagreement for a moment, let’s entertain Tim’s claim: what if progressives always DID/DO give primacy to the Constitution’s ends, rather than its means? What if conservatives prioritize the processes over the document’s–and the ensuing tradition’s–content?
Which view would be more American?
I submit that the Founding’s enduring ideals constitute the meat of the tradition. Over the years, we have swapped out many of the Founding’s procedural rules, but we have never seriously called the Constitution’s ends into question. Most Americans would happily accept the aims listed in the document’s Preamble as their country’s guiding principles. Few would cite the document’s specific processes as the source of their patriotism–as so many have been abandoned or superseded. Very few twenty-first century Americans are prepared to lay down their lives for the Three-Fifths Clause or white male suffrage, etc. Plenty would happily take that risk to protect the political goods they enjoy as Americans. The American tradition has always been about its ends—not its specific processes.
Indeed, if the American tradition is truly constituted by adherence to process, Abraham Lincoln slips right through the cracks in his habeas corpus suspensions, Emancipation Proclamation, “New Birth of Freedom,” etc. Dewey did call Lincoln “our most beloved American.”
This clarification hints at the difference between Tim’s version of progressivism and mine (from my original post):
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.
It’s one thing to argue that “some of the Constitution’s rules” diminished democratic life in the twentieth century and quite another to argue that progressives view “process as less important than policy” or that they don’t care about any “ideals about process.”
Tim doesn’t touch specifically on the final claim of my posts: the appropriateness of conservatives’ attacks on progressivism’s American-ness. However, he does insist that it’s substantive, not personal. “Nor does any serious conservative make this debate personal,” he writes, and goes on to accuse me of being unnecessarily “divisive.”
The cavalcade of deeply personal reactions to Barack Obama’s election would suggest otherwise. Last year polls showed that fully 51% of Republican primary voters believe that the president was born overseas. Like it or not, that’s a significant wing of the American Right, and they DO insist that the nation’s leading progressive is not sufficiently American to politically participate. Say whatever you’d like about that, but it’s certainly a personal attack on Obama’s suitability to govern—not based on substantive evidence.
But more importantly—to me, at least—is how these arguments go for garden-variety progressives like me. Any progressive who’s recently been called out as an un-American socialist over the Bush tax cuts can attest to the fact that conservative invective on this point is almost always personal. Here are a few verbatim responses I’ve gotten in recent email conversations with conservative acquaintances (again, these are all in response to my support for reverting to the Clinton-era tax rates for very wealthy Americans, not any extraordinarily radical position):
“Something awful has happened to you. You’re not the man I thought you were.”
“You’re a socialist and you don’t love America either???”
“Poor slobs who only make $200,000 have a hard time making it in this country nowadays.”
It’s obvious to me that conservatives are part of the American tradition—and I don’t think that their various policy victories are somehow sundering the exceptional thread tying us to the Founding and to each other. Most of my conservative buddies don’t feel the same, sorry to say.
Note: I’m sorry that it’s taken me a bit to respond to Tim’s post. I’m doubly sorry that I haven’t had the chance to respond to Mike Dwyer’s excellent post on Progressive Conservatism (I have thoughts, but no time to get them all down on “paper”). I felt pretty guilty about stealing all of the oxygen on the front page last weekend, and vowed to put away
childish things blogging for a while. I wouldn’t have written this post, except that I thought Tim deserved a response, since he took my prior posts so seriously. All of that said: this post is my final contribution to this conversation.