• Josh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Progressive? Part 4 (Progressive Paradox)


In my woefully brief review of the history of the Left in the United States, beginning in Part 2 and continuing in Part 3, I may have left the reader with the impression the Left has historically been rather cohesive. The reality is that there are just as many variants on the Left, both now and in the past, as there are on the Right. And even though America’s populist/progressive movements had many similarities, sometimes their differences were more pronounced than their shared ideas.


Historian Joseph Tartakovsky describes these variants by juxtaposing famous historical figures on the American Left:

“Progressives like Jane Addams, the Chicago social worker, eagerly embraced immigrants, while others, like California governor Hiram Johnson, fought to keep them out. Socialists like Eugene Debs thought Progressives stole his platform, while Progressive anti-socialists, who were far more numerous, saw their movement as checking America’s leftward drift. Progressive philosophers like John Dewey imposed Darwin on every student; William Jennings Bryan, Wilson’s first Secretary of State, ended his career, in the Scopes Monkey Trial, trying to defend American students from Darwin.”

Progressivism contains multitudes. And, while each of these differences may be interesting in their own right, there is, in my view, one predominant difference that has remained to this day: the paradoxical objective of the Left to empower both the people and the experts.


The Progressive Paradox

On the one hand, we see in the Left the adulation of the little guy, of the downtrodden masses long neglected by the powerful elites or those who wrongly benefit from their privileged, inherited positions in a society built on structural inequalities. Many on the Left express a great deal of faith in the people and care deeply for the unmet needs of the many.


Some see political, cultural, racial, and sexual distinctions as tools that may be misused by the powerful to divide and control and they see in the people a brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity which can and must overcome these obstacles by realizing their true common purpose and common foe. A world in which every voice is lifted onto an equitable plane of dignity and enfranchisement is a world of liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice.


On the other hand, the Left has immense confidence in the ability of a rational, educated, and highly intelligent state to bring about such a world. They are suspicious of the chaotic nature of untethered capitalism or the prejudices of cultural traditions and prefer to designate the proper experts to produce outcomes that benefit society as a whole. Progressives look to science and experts to resolve societal ills from access to healthcare to adequate housing to employment to economic stability and growth to social justice and much, much more.


The Source of the Paradox

This progressive paradox emerges because of the dual values on the American Left of liberalization and perfectibility. By liberalization I mean that desire to level traditional hierarchies and privileges and to elevate those who are perceived to be marginalized and disenfranchised in a search for social justice. As such, progressives pride themselves on aiding those who would otherwise be unable to help themselves. Thus, a democratizing spirit colors their rhetoric and some even go so far as to advocate for the right to vote for incarcerated felons.


And by perfectibility I do not necessarily mean a dogged faith in the ability of humanity to reach terrestrial perfection—though that idea may be present in some progressives—but in a general faith in our ability to set things right and improve our condition. This is what Leo Strauss referred to as progress in the “emphatic sense” which “presupposes that there is something which is simply good, or the end, as the goal of progress. Progress is change in the direction of the end…the idea of progress presupposes that there is the simply good life and that the beginning of life is radically imperfect.” The conservative is oriented towards the idea of return or, at the very least, of cultivating and maintaining the good things we have. Progressives are attuned to the idea of a brighter tomorrow.


It may even be fair to say that progressives were historically more optimistic in the idea of progressing toward human utopia prior to the bloody wars of the twentieth century and the cynical and nihilistic malaise of our current political discourse. Leo Strauss observed that the emphatic meaning of progress had “practically disappeared from serious literature.” As such, “people speak less and less of ‘progress’ and more and more of ‘change.’ They no longer claim to know that we are moving in the right direction. Not progress but the ‘belief’ in progress, or the ‘idea’ of progress as a social or historical phenomenon.” Nevertheless, even the progressive chastised by the realities of the past century has not lost faith in the possibility of progress.


Where the conservative looks for tradeoffs to balance competing interests and order societal goods, the progressive looks for solutions our problems. Yuval Levin argues that progressivism begins from “that sense of human perfectibility and also an enormous confidence in technical knowledge in politics—applying technical knowledge as a way of addressing public problems—and from an immense confidence in democracy, and the idea that if only the people have their say, if they’re liberated from those oppressive institutions…then they will make the choices that empower the right experts to make the right decisions.”


To recap, progressivism is the belief that we can progress in our human condition; that such progress includes an expansion of individual liberty, self-actualization, and equality; and that such progress is possible through science, reason, and the virtuous intentions of those who possess the knowledge necessary to improve our condition. Many progressives share a bias that the many prefer their policies and that if progress is forestalled, it must surely be due, at least in part, to the disenfranchisement of the people or the selfish intentions of the elites.


The Paradox in Action

This paradox can be observed even on the far Left outside of the United States. Sir Roger Scruton considered it to be one of the most interesting paradoxes of Marxism that it “combined a theory of history that denies the efficacy of leadership with a revolutionary practice that has depended entirely on leadership for its success, and which has been able to consolidate its hold on power only by establishing habits of reverence towards the revolutionary hero.” In Marxism the people are promised a classless, stateless society. But such a society does not arrive organically or passively, and everywhere it becomes the duty of new elites to shepherd us towards this new world.


The milder form of the Left found in American liberal progressivism also contains this paradox. Progressivism is both “populist and technocratic” says Yuval Levin. “It wants to empower direct democracy but also wants to have the healthcare system run by an MIT professor.”


This paradox does not betray a fatal flaw in progressivism any more than the paradox of order and liberty found in conservative thought would invalidate conservatism. What it does represent is a challenge to progressive ideas and the potential for the Left to arrive at very different conclusions on how best to resolve the paradox. Some do so by leaning heavily to one side over the other. Others find a way to balance both interests so that neither side appears favored over the other.


Take, for example, the writings of historian Thomas Frank who proudly stands with the more populist elements of the American Left:

“Populists both loved knowledge and rejected professional elites. The reason was because the economic establishment of that age of crisis was overwhelmingly concerned with serving business, not the people. The Populists mistrust professional elites, in other words, because from their perspective those elites had failed.”

Though Frank speaks the language of the populist Left, he is not rejecting the dual values of the people and enlightened elites. Rather, he is rejecting a particular group of elites who, to Frank, did not have the best interest of the people in mind and had “failed”. The solution was to empower the people via a powerful state run by those who had both the knowledge and the compassion to help them. Precisely who fits this description defines much of the division of the Left today. And that is where we’ll pick things up in Part 5.


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