Thursday, October 11, 2007

Progressive: the OTHER Third Way

Among the many prevailing bits of tragically misguided conventional wisdom is the idea that the word "progressive" can be used interchangeably with the word "liberal". Pundits use the words as synonyms, while pollsters like John Zogby use a measurement scale of political stances where the position farthest to the left is "progressive/very liberal". Even many on our side have a great deal of difficulty attempting to define the difference.

Most of the time, "progressive" is seen as the positive, new framing of the word "liberal", which is supposed to have been artificially stripped of its positive connotations by conservative ideologues. The best example of this view was seen in Hillary Clinton's response at the Democratic Youtube debate.

This particular view of things may to comforting to those of us on the left: it allows us to avoid painful divisions within our own party and movement, and it gives us a powerful word we can use both to rally our friends and attack our enemies.

The problem is that progressives very different from liberals--and we will never truly capture the hearts and minds of the American voter until we make the separation clear. Until we demonstrate this difference to the American public, we will always be just one major fear-inducing attack or catastrophe away from a terrified return to authoritarian impulses. It gets a little in-depth from here, but please bear with me: it's worth it.

While the battle between left and right has been going on since the beginning of civilization, the conflict between Liberalism and Conservatism as we have come to understand them in Western society today really begins with the Renaissance and the Humanist break from the strict hierarchies of feudalism and the Church, and comes full bloom with the Age of Enlightenment.

While the subject is obviously far too complex to adequately distill into a blog post, the essential battle lines between Liberalism and Conservativism traditionally rested on a conflict about fundamental human nature: from the theological conservatives of the Middle Ages to the Burkeian conservatives of the modern era, traditional Conservatism rests on a belief that mankind is basically evil--and that established authoritarian traditions are the only thing keeping human society from falling into chaos and sin. Traditional Liberalism, on the other hand, rests on the premise that human nature is essentially good--and therefore that given equal opportunities and a lack of inequalities that give rise to conflict, mankind can achieve a future devoid of tyranny, war and suffering. Conservatives, therefore, are traditionally wary of change and apt to view government as a tool essential to the preservation of order, while Liberals traditionally embrace change while putting a premium on individual liberty.

Obviously, this traditional order has been turned on its head: today, in spite of convincing arguments to the contrary, libertarians align themselves with "conservatives" and "neoconservatives" who make radical alterations (i.e., shredding) to the Constitution, while attempting to make radical alterations to the world map with the use of American troops. Meanwhile, "Liberals" find themselves in the uncomfortable position of appealing to the tradition of checks and balances while being more cautious about the posssibility of making rapid changes for the promotion of human liberty abroad, while "neoliberals" interested in "free markets" align themselves (in a most confusing turn of events) with "neoconservatives".

When "neoliberal" and "neoconservative" mean much the same thing, you know it is time for a reconception of the political divide, and a re-evaluation of what we mean by "left" and "right" in this country. kid oakland's fantastic diary on October 7th presents an excellent overview of this thesis--an argument I have also made less eloquently in various fits and starts.

Both Conservatism and Liberalism traditionally understood are at points of nearly disastrous crisis. For Conservatives, the decline of belief in organized religions, the abnegation of longstanding traditions and the extraordinary pace of societal change are terrifying. More terrifying, however, is that fact that society seems to be humming along fine without the need for culture-preserving authoritarian controls: if a multicultural, multiracial, polyglottal, areligious, semi-socialist society can function without adverse consequences, the entire premise of Conservatism is shot. Canada and Western Europe prove the failure of Conservatism every single day, causing great gnashing of teeth and extraordianry antipathy.

For Liberals, on the other hand, the 20th Century served to disprove any notion of the essential goodness of human nature, of the promise of Marxist thinking, or of the ability to transcend war, inequality and suffering. Nietzschian humanism helped give rise to Hitler; Marxism helped lead to the greatest atrocities in human history; and the great Aquarian revolution of the 1960's couldn't even keep that very same baby boom generation from voting in droves for Ronald Reagan.

What we are left with today in the 21st century is a situation nearly unparalleled in human history: on the one hand, the world is more diverse, globalized and uprooted from its traditions than ever before--leading to undeniable progress and prosperity. On the other hand, human beings have been shown capable of a massive selfishness, cruelty and destruction to one another and to our environments that not even our conservative ancestors could have imagined possible.

This is where Progressivism comes in. Progressivism is a new third way that is based not in liberal or conservative ideology but in the pragmatism of reality. Progressivism makes no pretense about the essentially selfish nature of the human condition--but also makes no pretense that cultural bigotry or authoritarian strictures will make any improvement upon it. Progressivism understands that the only way to improve conditions for ourselves and our environment is to look at what works for the common good and what doesn't--regardless of ideology or tradition.

Progressives appeal to the system of checks and balances and to the protections of the Constitution because they are the best way to maximize liberty while protecting us from the selfish interests of the powerful.

Progressives shy away from unprovoked military action overseas because we understand the reality of blowback and difficulty of imposing one culture on another through military force. We do not, however, oppose military action when truly necessary to defend ourselves, or because we are anti-war in general: after all, there really are some very bad people out there who do want to do us harm.

Progressives fear the power of corporations more than that of governments because governments can ostensibly work for the common good when an effective watchdog media is in place, while corporations will only ever work for the bottom line.

Progressives are content to let the free market do its thing when the market is truly free and the consumer is best served--but we are also quick to intercede when the markets are manipulated or cornered, and the consumer is being abused.

Progressives want to do something about the climate crisis if for no other reason than because the cost of inaction will be far greater, on a pragmatic basis, than the cost of action.

Progressives understand that while no one race or people are superior to any other, fundamentalism of any stripe or creed is always dangerous and must be opposed at every turn.


In short, a Progressive uses a pragmatic approach to solving the world's problems, one step at a time and without regard to ideology, with an eye toward the common good. A Progressive is not a starry-eyed liberal who believes in the essential goodness of human nature, or that all wars can be avoided through better diplomacy, or that all cultures and creeds are created equal.

Progressivism is, in short, a real new way forward that upends traditional divisions between the left and right, liberals and conservatives.

And if we make that distinction clear, we can establish ourselves as the vision of optimism and clarity that will lead in the 21st Century. If we fail to do so, we will be painted as pie-in-the-sky idealists unfit to lead the nation in times of peril when liberalism is once again shown to be an inadequate theory for solving the problems of the human condition.

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