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paintingOne of the most interesting developments of the post-Bush years has been the resurgence of the popularity of the term “progressivism.” With that popularity has come, of course, a resurgence of the ideas traditionally associated with progressivism, though highly sanitized. Some very good and well-intentioned scholars and commentators—who in general are NOT aligned with the left—have even attempted to co-opt and redefine the term for their own belief systems. In particular, those who support rather radical free markets have claimed that progress and progressivism can best be attained by the methods (or anti-methods, as the case may be) of competitive enterprise.

Let me make my point as up front as possible. Not only should we avoid ever praising progressivism or the progressives, we should, without hesitation, shun the term and its advocates (while, of course, loving the person).

First, and importantly, the term itself is one of the most tainted in our history as a western people. And it should be. Indeed, it never should have a good cast to it in the least. Ironically, the very people who today claim the mantle of progressive as a force for humanist harmony have almost no conception of its origins as a brutally racist concept. From its origins and employment by Americans in the 1870s, it was associated with anything that despised and attempted to control non-Anglo-Saxon-Celtic (but only the Scotch, not the Irish) Protestant peoples. Germans and Scandinavians were barely tolerable, but not Irish, Italians, Spaniards, Yugoslavs, Jews, blacks, or any other people that didn’t fit a horrendous racialist norm. The WASP stereotype was much more than a stereotype. It was, for many, a reality. The progressives advocated the separation of the races, the stealing of children from parents, eugenics, and the eventual destruction of anything remotely Catholic, Jewish, or not “perfectly” white. They were as arrogant as they were inhumane. It’s worth remembering that Woodrow Wilson, often considered the greatest and yet most representative of the progressives, re-segregated all federal offices in D.C. as well as the military. He also listened in silence as blacks were lynched while simultaneously speaking out against lynchings of whites.

Frankly, the progressives are the very folks C.S. Lewis used as the model of the “conditioners” in his own fiction and non-fiction. They would use nature to dominate others, present and future, for the appeasement of their own very strong if misguided conceits.

Here’s a rather telling example of a leading progressive, writing in 1914.

“These oxlike men are descendants of those who always stayed behind.… To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type. I have seen gatherings of the foreign dashboard in which narrow and sloping floor heads were the rule. The shortness and smallness of the crania were very noticeable. There was much facial asymmetry. Among the women, beauty, aside from the fleeting, epidermal bloom of girlhood, was quite lacking. In every face there was something wrong—lipstick, mouth course, upper lip too long, cheek–bones too high, chin poorly formed, the bridge of the nose hollowed, the base of the nose tilted, or else the whole face prognathous. There were so many sugar–loaf heads, moon–faces, slit mouths, lantern–Jaws, and goose–bill noses that one might imagine a malicious jinn had amused himself by casting human beings in a set of skew–molds discarded by the Creator.” [Edward Alsworth Ross, The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People (New York: The Century, 1914).]

Not to be smug, but show me where a Warren Harding or Calvin Coolidge would ever stoop to such depths. Never, of course. But the progressives, on the other hand, rather gleefully played with the ideas of racialism and scientism and eugenics.

Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner

Second, progressivism as a theory of politics and society demands a dualistic and conflict-oriented view of the universe. All progress comes—in whatever form—from the clashing of the thesis (old) and the antithesis (opposition) to form a third thing, the synthesis. That synthesis then becomes the old and struggles with a new opposition. This is whence the term “progressive” derives, the unceasing clash of impersonal forces toward some utopia in the far or not-so-distant future. Perhaps the best known American progressive historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, explained this best in his 1893 frontier thesis. American history, he claimed, found its origins in the continual struggle of civilization and savagery that resulted not in one winning, but in a synthesis of the two, in Americanization. Turner was actually quite conservative, and his case allows us to realize clearly that progressivism can be as rightist as it can be leftist in its political orientation. One must note, however, that even in the rather gentle and patriotic vision of Turner, there are winners and there are losers. The American Indian, far from being an independent person endowed with dignity and free will, becomes nothing but a member of an impersonal force, doomed to die. The very existence of the American Indian, therefore, serves only as a catalyst for white American civilization to thrive. It’s like the old Far Side cartoon—the Indians impatiently waiting at Plymouth Rock as the Pilgrims slowly make their way over the Atlantic. Oh, to have purpose in life!

Finally, but inherently related to the previous idea, the progressive sought not the traditional common good of a republic, but the general good of a democracy. That is, they cared little about what minorities thought. Indeed, they resented minorities and the power they might wield. The Progressives wanted man to conform in every way. They were the harbingers of the “mass man” so powerful in the main of the twentieth century. The common good seeks the humane for all, while the great good cares only about utility and power.

So, when a well-meaning person claims the mantle of “progressive,” run. For that way lies democratic despotism, fascism, nationalism, socialism, and communism. Madness.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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22 replies to this post
  1. I’ve never liked the term Progressive, no matter how it’s used. It sounded much too self-serving. It would be as if conservatives went around calling themselves “Patriots”.

    So I don’t use the term Progressive. I just use “Left wing”, both for the ideology and the people who believe in it.

  2. Libertarianism is the real enemy of true conservatism. I’d rather be with a bunch of Right Wing “progressives” who actually want to defeat the left and do something then people who “yell stop” at people who attack the Free Market.

  3. I have, in other venues, argued that “Progressivism” is little different from National Socialism. This assertion has been met as one might expect. The Cognitive Elite, the bien pensants, the social justice warriors, are remarkably unreflective.

    Carry on and ad majorem Dei gloriam.

  4. I find the word “progressive” as it is used to day to be an oxymoron. Whenever anyone in my company refers to someone as a progressive I correct them and say “regressive” because that is what their ideology is, ie take us back to the Dark Ages.

      • And most of them involve someone in government bossing someone else around. It is said that George McGovern, well known left wing politician, when he left politics and tried to open a small business, was shocked at the level of taxes and regulations that he and his comrades had spent decades piling up. It never occurred to him that this harmed real people (and their employees), to him and his kind it was all Theory.

        • Exactly that’s why there should only be small businesses (aka Distrubutism). Trust me I work for a large company that is as morally Left wing as one can be, and they are infavor of “free” enterprise. I have to keep my opinions private.

          • And which commissar gets to determine when a business becomes too big and successful? This mindset would have punished Apple once it went from being two guys in a garage to a large company building products intended for mass appeal.

          • Capitalism is as destructive of inherited Traditions as socialism is, they are two heads of the same monster. American conservatives need to defend the Traditions of our civilization rather than bourgeois capitalism which is anti conservative.

  5. In remarks on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President Coolidge noted that Progressivism isn’t progressive at all; in reality, it is backward:

    “About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers….”

  6. “Capitalism is as destructive of inherited Traditions as socialism is”

    Commerce, trade, and industry are as much traditions as any other. They certainly go back thousands of years.

    • .I say this not because of the industry aspect but the decadent aspect you get with capitalism in modern Neo-Liberal America. .I said Capitalism but i really meant to say Libertarian free market Capitalism. I am personally in favor of a kind of Social Market capitalism or a third alternative (i.e. Distributism.) Which can you explain to me why your against?

      • “but the decadent aspect you get with capitalism in modern Neo-Liberal America. ”

        I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you are talking about. What do capitalism and decadence have to do with each other?

        • Planned parenthood and the porn industry work because of it,now can you please tell me your problem with Distributism?

          • Not necessarily, Nate. An economy locally controlled by a “community” may be in favor of porn. You cannot define distributism by your hoped for results. We live in a fallen world. It may be sad, but there is a reason something like prostitution is the oldest profession. And porn may not go away. But also, it depends on how you define the rules of these economic system. We may say that porn should be illegal, and that distributism by definition would make it so. Yet if that is granted, why cannot Planned Parenthood be illegal in some definitions of what a “free market” is? Surely, there are libertarians who are pro-life. They would claim that legal market exchanges exclude the murdering of innocent human beings. Finally, does libertarianism necessarily exclude the existence of distributism? The answer is not necessarily. Why cannot voluntary communities exist based on such an economic system? There are, by the way, many culturally conservative libertarians who share your concerns.

            We do live in a highly centralized world. What is most representative of this is today’s federal government. The Federal Reserve itself causes greater economic centralization than otherwise would be the case, as many libertarian-leaning economists have argued. Anger and disgust at the present system should be directed at the appropriate places, not at what doesn’t actually exist, namely, a free market economy. What I do know is this: all this talk of distributism is worth nothing without dismantling the central state. In practice, I do think you need to become a libertarian in this sense. Take a look, e.g., at “Democracy – The God That Failed” by Hans Hoppe.

  7. In the paragraph describing the thesis,antithesis, and synthesis, it sounds just like Hegel . . . And a rising candidate for the Republicans who claims to use it for all decisions. Some reason for concern.

    • Or like Durkheim and Habermas… Mr. Birzer hits the nail on the head there. We have perpetual conflict resolution where compromise consists of the most powerful actors on either side taking “the best of both” in a dollar-rationalized bastardizations, and in the process throwing their weakest allies under the bus.

  8. Progress is fine and real progress can happen, until it becomes an end in itself. Of course what we have is a cult of false progress, at the center of society. When the biggest crime in a society is being broke and “petit”, no one makes money unless something is being vigorously replaced or destroyed.

    And the plan for the future? It is only to repeat same again.

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