Part I of a Series on Progressivism and its weaknesses.
In a post entitled “Making Ideals Effective” posted on September 29 of last year, the Great and Powerful Wizard of Wes (otherwise known as President Michael Roth) expressed hope that his administration would make progress toward “offering the very best progressive liberal arts education in the world.” Understandably, the author of this piece was scandalized by the designation– the very best progressive liberal arts education in the world? Surely, the President did not have the temerity to actually claim that Wesleyan was explicitly endorsing one particular political movement?
Naturally, the author did discover later that President Roth was simply displaying his usual tendency to favor boilerplate inspirational rhetoric, and that any search for meaning in said rhetoric would be as fruitless as searching Castle Dracula for memorabilia from the Vatican. However, whatever Wesleyan’s future, the President’s words had some prescience– supposedly “progressivism” is the new movement in power, and we must all adjust ourselves accordingly to the changes in rhetoric. That is, assuming we want to fit in at the right cocktail parties and not use gauche, archaic terms like “small government,” “personal responsibility” or, god forbid, “freedom” (honestly, how retro can you get? This isn’t the eighties anymore, grandpa!) “Hope,” “Change,” and “Efficiency” are the words now.
So be it. Progressives are in power, and progressive rhetoric is what we will hear, especially rhetoric about hope, change and efficiency. But hope for what? And what are we changing? And efficiency in achieving what? Surely, all types of efficiency aren’t acceptable (Ted Bundy was, for instance, a spectacularly efficient mass-murderer). How can we normatively distinguish between which aims are sufficient fodder for our efficient methodologies? And how are we to determine what problems need solving, or what policies need changing to solve those problems, or whether those problems are problems at all?
As of now, the progressives seem to have no answer. Of course, this may be a function of the fact that the author “does not understand the Left at all,” but perhaps that problem can be avoided, since even a few reliable organs of left wing thought claim to hate progressives (though they call them “liberals” — an outdated, but still understandable term). The author acknowledges that the question of whether progressivism really belongs on the Left at all deserves a column of its own, but for now, let us assume that progressives are at least to the left of those calling themselves conservatives, and that the author uses the term “left” only to mean “left, relative to his movement.”
But still, there are potential objections. After all, one could retort that progressives do have answers to the pressing questions of the day, which the author has ignored because he is a narrow-minded ideologue who has never ventured outside his comfort zone. The author denies the accusation, on the grounds that if one is even remotely conservative, it is not possible to operate in an ideological vacuum at Wesleyan. The existence of a conservative thinker at Wes is saturated with opportunities to observe how progressives live, sleep, think and argue, and one is often forced to take advantage of those opportunities, whether one wants to or not. Absent utter blindness, it is possible to discern certain trends which may be colored by the conservative viewpoint, but which are not fabricated out of whole cloth. Moreover, whatever people at Wesleyan may believe, the author has not always been a reactionary of the Right, and that many of the criticisms he will voice of progressive thinking are reasons why, prior to his career as “the Wesleyan Voldemort,” he rejected the idea of being a progressive despite growing up in a very unfriendly environment for conservatives. Therefore, even if the author has imagined the following criticisms, it should still trouble the progressive reader that his movement could even give the appearance of meriting them, much less driving away a potential convert by virtue of their existence. Therefore, even if one rejects the author’s diagnosis, they should worry themselves about the symptoms.
In making his critiques of progressivism, the author assumes that the people who purport to be progressives mean what they say they mean, and want what they say they want, and will act on their ideas. This basic assumption of honesty is really the only way one can criticize an ideology, rather than specific purveyors of that ideology’s exegesis. As this is the first of what will probably be many articles on progressive political philosophy, the author will confine himself to one issue for now — the gap between progressive intentions and progressive tactics.
If nothing else, the modern American progressive is defined by his singular ability to be well-meaning. Progressives are very fond of diagnosing problems, and often have very good intentions with respect to solving them (there are exceptions, see also Margaret Sanger, Benito Mussolini). Moreover, in contrast with the radical, the progressive’s good intentions are usually “good” by an obvious, socially acceptable (if not always philosophically defendable) definition of the term “good.” At his best, the progressive becomes the righteous crusader for the worthy cause, the noble paladin astride the white steed of liberty, equality, and fraternity. At his worst, the progressive becomes Maximilien Robespierre in Birkenstocks.
Unfortunately, due to the progressive’s approach to solving problems, the latter type of person is often the more common instance of progressive zeal. It is not so much that progressives are evil– most are too shallow to touch the deepest, slimiest elements of human nature– it is that the anatomy of progressive ideology suffers from two fatal flaws: a tin ear and a heavy hand. Unfortunately, the latter problem often causes the first, since many progressives revert to boxing the ears of their opponents when they feel threatened. This sometimes leads to progressive-on-progressive beat-downs, and as a result, everyone emerges more politically deaf.
This tendency to box the ears flows from the greatest weakness in all progressive thought: its “shortest distance between two points” approach to problem-solving. To illustrate this problem, the author will elaborate. Suppose we all agree that increasing poverty is a problem (not always a realistic assumption, but we’ll continue). The progressive reaction to this will be to suggest that we drag in the most powerful, most heavy-handed actor (frequently the government) possible to “solve” the problem of increasing poverty. This is the simplest, most intuitive response possible, and it requires the mind to travel the shortest logical distance to get to it, hence the appellation “shortest distance between two points.”
A good example of the problem with this brand of thinking comes in the recently released stop-motion film Coraline. The eponymous protagonist, while exploring her home, notices a fold in the rug and instantly jumps on it. The fold reappears somewhere else, so Miss Coraline jumps on it again, this time causing it to fly between her legs. She jumps on it a final time, and it splits into two, larger folds which emerge on either side of her. Disgusted, she gives up. Similarly, the progressive is often blind as a bat where unforeseen consequences are concerned. This is partially due to the hysterical, urgent style of progressive politics (“We can’t just leave them to starve!”) and partially due to the fact that progressives seem to frame problems as bridges to be crossed when they happen, rather than grasping the inherent causal factors which requires so many bridges to be built in the first place.
It’s no surprise that when they come crashing down, progressives are bewildered. How they cope with this bewilderment is a matter for another time.