• Josh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Progressive? Part 1


The conservatism I wish to defend in the pages of this blog rejects a simplistic, bilinear paradigm that pits every political viewpoint on a scale of Left vs. Right. Nevertheless, the familiar Left vs. Right model is frequently used to express our political differences as it’s easy to absorb visually. In these series I’ve compared and contrasted conservatism to many ideologies that might be considered “on the Left”—such as classical liberals, socialists, populists, and secularists—but I have not yet compared and contrasted conservatism to the collectivist “Left” because no such monolithic ideology exists.


But just because “the Left” doesn’t represent a single-minded ideology it may not be entirely fruitless to compare and contrast conservatism with contemporary progressivism; the closest thing to a uniform “Left” we have in the United States. To that end I would like to dedicate this series to untangling progressivism, both how it might be understood to be part of the broader Left as well as how progressives differ from one another. And, of course, to explore what the conservative has to say on the matter.


The fact that those who may broadly be called progressives very much do differ from one another should not be taken for granted. It is often challenging to spot the nuanced differences in some group when one is standing outside looking in. Just as some on the “Left” are guilty of viewing conservatives too narrowly as being alike in motives and mindsets—“Anyone who voted for Trump must be a racist”—it can be just as easy for conservatives to attribute some uniform malady or nefarious intent to explain the complexities of the modern Leftist.


With that caveat in mind, I would like to begin this series by attempting to define progressivism from my admittedly disadvantaged perspective of viewing the “other side” from a biased, conservative lens. However, I dare say that reading progressive sources attempting to define progressivism themselves can sometimes be no better. Attempting to define the very things you believe creates its own special kind of bias. As a Twitter follower, Daniel Zene Crowe, rightly observed: “Today, ‘Progressivism’ is as doctrinally opaque as ‘Liberalism’ was in its day, largely for the same reasons. Self-description invariably begins with platitudes and descends from there: To be a Progressive means to bravely stand against exploitation, cruelty, heartlessness, injustice, and despotism—you know, the evil platform of The Enemy.” In other words, “we stand for good things and those other guys stand for bad things.”


Couldn’t a conservative claim to be all about pretty much the same thing? If we’re going to make any—if you’ll pardon the pun—progress in understanding progressivism we must be able to understand progressives as they understand themselves shorn of platitudes and banalities that confuse more than they clarify. Further, we’ll need at least some understanding of how progressivism differs from the past to the present and how progressives in the present differ from one another.


This is an enormous endeavor, and I will admit to only being capable of laying out some cursory thoughts in the posts ahead that will, I’m afraid, fail to satisfy all or even most progressives who read this series that I have correctly defined their views—Let alone persuade them that conservatism is a better alternative!


With those stipulations out of the way, let’s charge ahead. In Part 2 I’ll explore some of the history of progressivism and how it differs from the progressivism of today. Then in Part 3 I’ll attempt to define some of the differences between progressives today. After that, I hope to share some thoughts on how progressivism differs from conservatism.


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