Part II of a series on Progressivism and its weaknesses.
In his speech before Congress last Tuesday, President Barack Obama did his best to sound as moderate, measured and non-confrontational as he could, and given some of the bickering that’s been going back and forth surrounding the by-this-point infamous stimulus package, this was at the very least a move designed to throw cold water over the heads of debaters. Unfortunately, this cold water wasn’t the only thing sending shivers down the spine of every right-thinking American, for while President Obama’s speech struck a somewhat schyzophrenic balance between dire warnings about the current state and sunny projections about the future, there were elements of the speech which betrayed a fatal lack of knowledge on matters of economic importance, as well as veiled notes of autocracy, belligerence and central planning.
And so it is with every powerful progressive in a crisis, especially if it’s their ideas that got us into this mess in the first place. The progressive mind is admirable for its flexibility, versatility and capacity for reason, but one thing it cannot cope with is failure. Granted, all political groups have difficulty understanding that certain of their ideas have failed as implemented, but in the case of progressives, this problem is especially strong, and it is the place from which every critique of progressivism ought to start.
Now, there are two very important elements of progressive thought, which I touched on previously, that need to be established again: firstly, progressives have a preoccupation with well–meaning gestures and secondly, progressives believe their good intentions, if combined with power, can solve the myriad problems which they find so easy to diagnose. Keeping with the escription of the two camps of progressive thought by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, these trends are common across both groups, though they manifest themselves in different ways, depending on whether one is examining the “rational” or “radical” camps. For the purpose of these articles, I am speaking solely of the rational camp, considering that my critiques of “radical” progressivism have already been set out elsewhere.
The two intellectual trends mentioned above are easily understood as explanations for the progressive inability to cope with failure. As our own Jonah Blumstein so aptly noted of progressivism in its earlier incarnations, “progressivism…was more of a sentiment than a set of policies.” Unfortunately, despite all its rationalistic trappings, progressivism at its worst mistakes a refutation of policy for a refutation of sentiment. This leads them to develop counterproductive political coping mechanisms which frequently bleed into authoritarianism and lying.
If there is an illustration of this tendency, it is this passage from the President’s speech: ” I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can’t pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can’t get a mortgage. That’s what this is about. It’s not about helping banks – it’s about helping people.” It never seems to have crossed the President’s mind that “helping people” and “helping banks” are not mutually exclusive. Or, rather, it has, but only to the extent that the President blames the banks for being risk-averse. Let’s not forget that if it weren’t for policies like the Community Reinvestment Act (a progressive policy), banks would not have been coaxed into giving loans to those who could not pay them back.
And how does the President propose to fix this supposed crisis of credit, which is really a crisis of trust? By letting a less risk-averse entity (the Government) –with fewer qualms about making unreliable loans– hand them out instead. Discounting all the rhetoric about “consumers and entrepreneurs who keep this economy running,” how is the President going to determine which entrepreneurial ventures will actually keep the economy running, and which are cranky ventures without merit? Moreover, where is all this money for this new lending fund going to come from, if not from the private market? One cannot create money out of thin air — it has to come from someone, and Governments collect it either through taxation, or through inflation, or borrowing, in which case the Government steals it from future generations, thereby robbing credit from future private sector borrowers. Considering that the President’s overriding concern is supposedly to recreate the healthy stream of lending that occurred prior to the meltdown, why is his tactic to remove even more money that banks could be lending and place it in the hands of the Government, supposedly so it can do the banks’ job for them?
And if the Government is borrowing money, then how does the President plan to restore the stream of credit, considering that so many assets are being invested in the United States economy? And why is it the Government’s job to decide who is a viable candidate for a loan, especially considering that the Government has such a lovely track record of determining who deserves loans? Make no mistake, political incentives will be involved, and while the idea of a “right to own a home” or a “right to own a nice car” or a “right not to be stuck in a less-than-optimal State” hold absolutely little weight with an actual bank, these types of humanitarian appeals to emotion work very well on Governments, especially if they’re backed up by cushy campaign finance. The President has no answer to any of these objections other than empty rhetoric, and as such, it is no surprise the markets are tanking in response to his plan.
How does a progressive respond to these objections? With the same response that President Obama gave — those who disagree necessarily must be the evil CEOs who “pad their paychecks” or “buy fancy drapes” or “disappear on a private jet[s].” This persistent demonization of the enemy is a terrible disservice to the progressive cause for two reasons. First, it completely ignores the legitimate objections that form the conservative critique of Obama’s policies. Second, it stunts the growth of progressive thinking, in that it enables progressives to take the easy, authoritarian way out and claim victimization by an evil economic elite, rather than understanding the grievances of the economic elite. This alienates progressives from potential converts and gives those of us on the Right new ammunition.
So why is this style of response so popular among progressives? After all, President Obama is hardly the only progressive to use guilt-based ad hominem attacks against his opponents. Jonah Blumstein is also notable for comparing people to Jonah Goldberg and Bill O’Reilly in an attempt to guilt them by association. It is not my purpose here to unearth the personal reasoning behind such behavior — merely the ideological ones. Why should President Obama feel it necessary to go after CEOs for being greedy, and why should Jonah Blumstein feel it necessary to attack Wesleyan’s conservatives for being psychopathic political bullies who cut off debate on purpose, rather than busy college students who don’t have the time to respond to every comment or care to explain their silence?
There are two answers, one pessimistic and the other optimistic, and both of them are probably true. The pessimistic answer is that both Obama and Blumstein are playing tricks. After all, if one assumes both figures mean what they say, and intend to rebuke their targets directly, one arrives at a tricky rhetorical issue. Rebukes are only effective if one assumes that the person being rebuked will either feel sorry about the rebuke, or will need to feign sorrow for the sake of maintaining their public image. So depending on how you look at it, both Obama and Blumstein are either fielding false rebukes while simultaneously assuming that their opponents aren’t really that bad, or they are asserting their ability to use a particular ugly form of public perception against their opponent and demanding that said opponent conform to the norms of discourse which they prefer in order to avoid such public humiliation. At best, this is disingenuous. At worst, it is a truly vicious form of political bullying.
And the optimistic answer? Refer back to the problem that progressives conflate sentiment with practical policy. The main conservative critique of progressive ideas — that they are unrealistically optimistic about human nature, especially where power is concerned — is very much a critique concerned about the results of progressive policy. But because progressives see their policy as a necessary organic outgrowth of their sentiments, they assume the same about conservatives. So, the hypothetical progressive squawks, when conservatives question the progressive view of human nature, what they must really be doing is asserting that they are the exception to that view. This leads the progressive neatly to the conclusion that conservatives are closet psychopaths, and that the only way to control them is by bullying them and shutting them down.
It’s a pity, because the progressive-conservative discourse is by no means the most contentious in terms of policy, nor is it the most interminable. Radicals and conservatives have much more to debate, and certainly perceive each other as more of a threat. But until progressives climb off their high horses and start entering the battle of ideas in earnest, rather than throwing platitudes at problems, this battle will continue, and as Nikita Kruschev said, “like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.”