One 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.
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.