“Conservative Progressivism”? Get Real

In Hot Air’s Greenroom, CK MacLeod argues that the Left has unduly hijacked the mantle of “progressive,” and that there can actually be such a thing as “conservative progressivism.”  Needless to say, I don’t find his argument very compelling.

The main problem seems to be the definition of progressivism he seems to accept as his starting point:

Progressivism simply stood for the determination on the part of countless people, most of whose names have been forgotten, to address the great ills of the age – conditions of life, work, and political affairs that few reading this essay can realistically imagine.

He attempts to enlist Sarah Palin and Rep. Paul Ryan as such progressive conservatives—the former based on little more than the fact that she campaigned as a reformer and uses the word “progress” a lot; the latter because he sees Ryan’s healthcare proposals as progressive, and, um…he’s from Wisconsin, isn’t he?

All this really shows is that CK’s definition of “progressive” is so vague as to be useless. What he calls “progressive” basically boils down to the word’s most common usage of reform or “improving stuff.”  Well, who isn’t for improving stuff? Who wouldn’t reform something that isn’t working? But that’s not what political progressivism means.

His characterization of Ryan’s healthcare goals—“bring government, including a longstanding societal commitment to care for the elderly and vulnerable, closer to the people, for the sake of greater efficiency and effectiveness, alongside the destruction of undemocratic and corrupting concentrations of power”—is a little closer, but still misses the mark.

“Bringing government closer to the people” is a value progressives sometimes advanced, via direct referenda, recalls, and such, but this was mostly a strategic calculation, not a political value—as they deemed certain levels & branches of government to be roadblocks to their vision, they experimented with different ways of getting around them.  Regarding “greater efficiency and effectiveness,” we again should ask: who’s against efficiency and effectiveness?  To present either as a defining trait of any one ideology is absurd.

He’s most wrong when he says “the destruction of undemocratic and corrupting concentrations of power” is a “foundationally, capital-‘P’ Progressive goal.” Progressivism certainly styles itself as movement of and for the people, but its conception of democracy—government actualizing the universal will—is not the same as the Founding Fathers’—government by consent.  For one thing, they explicitly rejected the Founders’ belief in clearly-defined limits on government power and dismissed the principles of the Declaration of Independence as applicable only to the Revolutionary era, from which history has since progressed.  For another, their idea of democracy granted the people a say in what goals government should pursue, but they emphatically denied that the people were fit to figure out how to achieve them—better to leave the actual details of policymaking to the unelected, unaccountable “experts” of the bureaucracy. As President Wilson said, “I believe in the people: in their honesty and sincerity and sagacity; but I do not believe in them as my governors.”

Blogger JE Dyer is doing a good job dismantling CK’s assumptions in the comments, and it’s extremely telling that CK’s already been reduced to little more than griping about semantics.

Glenn Beck ain’t perfect, but he does deserve credit for working to educate the country about the American Left’s progressive foundations. Heaven knows our schools and Republican Parties aren’t doing their job in that department…


17 thoughts on ““Conservative Progressivism”? Get Real

  1. Noticed your trackback – I won’t comment on your characterization of my argument except to say that you never engage the descriptions of Ryan, Palin, and the conservative use of direct democracy concretely. Otherwise, readers who care to do so can sample them on their own and reach their own conclusions.

    As for your own take, other than simply reiterating your own position in the abstract and asserting that it’s forceful, you refer to a post in which you rely mainly on Wilson, and secondarily to texts by Croly and Dewey. This strategy has become a commonplace in the contemporary conservative critique of progressivism, although some analysts – such as at the Claremont Review – at least take into account the heterogeneity of Progressive Era movements, an approach that doesn’t require them to attempt to overturn, or, as you appear to do, simply ignore the standard historical reading.

    In my view you are making the error of treating historical progressivism as though it were a coherent political philosophy or intellectual movement more akin to Marxism. Wilson, Croly, and Dewey were all writing relatively late in the Progressive Era, and re-casting it in their own image – or according to their own perspectives. If there is a theoretical coherence to progressivism, it preceded and exceeds such writings, which have to be taken as interpretative, not foundational. To the extent they qualify as in some sense doctrinal, it’s only where they lead to succeeding stages of statist and leftwing/labor progressivism – or to other offshoots of relatively little political significance. Other aspects of the original progressive impetus as well as the progressive legacy persist independently of this intellectual and political project.

    That you refrain from looking at something – the progressivism of Paul Ryan or Sarah Palin, for instance – or for that matter the progressivism, or, if you prefer, crypto-progressivism – of the Founders and of other aspects of the American tradition, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.


    • If you’d like to refer me to someone you consider more representative of “true” or “foundational” progressivism, I’m all ears.

      I’m fully able to acknowledge that Ryan, Palin, and the Founders are “progressive” in the most general sense, but again, that brings us back to the fact that such a use of “progressive” is so vague as to be pointless.


  2. I would refer you instead to the standard reading of progressivism as historical movement, or set of movements, coming to characterize the spirit of an age. It wasn’t born from a godly, or self-impressed intellectual’s brow. I’m referring to Wilson et al, by the way, not to you, although all of us engaged in intellectual work may be subject to some degree of vanity, a desire to see intellectuals as more palpably and immediately influential than they may actually have been.

    If there’s a unifying progressive ideology, it would have to be immanent. Whether the result is pointless to you may depend on what use you expect to make of it.

    In my exchanges with JE Dyer in the comments at the HA post which you deride as merely “semantic,” and in much more extensive discussion at my home blog, I trace a position on the Progressive Era as a typically American phenomenon. In that specific sense, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, etc., are founding documents of historical progressivism just as much as they are of self-styled “constitutional conservatism.” Understanding what I mean by that statement may be difficult if you are already committed to seeing progressivism as fundamentally anti- or un-American, and are viewing it retrospectively with contemporary leftwing Progressives in your foreground.


    • This seems to prove my point for me – if everything conservatives happen to like can be defined as progressive, but so can modern liberalism, are we really talking about something real and meaningful, or are we just trying to twist language to suit our purposes?

      Yes, according to the most basic & intuitive definition of the word “progress,” the Framers can be considered “progressive.” So what?


      • “So what?” I guess it depends whether it matters to you if your critique is merely pat and predictable and inevitably misses its mark due to fundamental aiming errors. You might end up with a way to criticize self-styled constitutional conservatives like Ron & Rand that doesn’t require calling them lunatics and implying that their followers are merely unintelligent or deranged. You might end up with a more systematic and robust way to explain why your support for the security state, your willingness to support conservative citizen initiatives/recalls or alterations in regulatory regimes, your reluctance to indict Lincoln, Bush, and every other significant president for constitutional divergences, etc., etc., aren’t merely opportunistic or resultant from a lack of courage in your convictions. And you also might be able to deal with people (currently) to your left, candidates and fellow citizens, on some basis other than enemy images and rote recitation of received wisdom.

        Or maybe you’ve got it all figured out some other way, or you consider that all pointless. I haven’t browsed around your blog enough to know whether I’ve correctly characterized your political positioning.

        Or maybe you’re actually a follower of Andy Warhol’s “So What?” philosophy. In that case, I apologize if I’ve offended you.


  3. Somehow, I’ve never had any difficulty articulating or defending my views, or distinguishing between “enemies” and earnest disagreement and responding to each accordingly, without appealing to some flowery, amorphous concept of “conservative progressivism.” Nor have I seen any indication that this is a major problem other commentators seem to be having.

    (As a side note, suggesting that the Pauls are something better than the conspiratorial demagogues they manifestly are is a good way to discredit one’s self around these parts.)


  4. Can’t say my stock of credit “around these parts” is a major concern to me. I’ve used the word “lunacy” to describe Ron Paul and his following, too, but it’s also an oversimplification both of his critique and of the reasons people attach themselves to it, and it happens to ignore the places where your views and his may seem to overlap, making you seem almost as much of a lunatic as he is to those unpersuaded by either of you.

    If you don’t ever encounter difficulty articulating or defending your views, then that may mean that your views are predictable and derivative: They apparently present no challenge to you.

    What’s “amorphous” – in the sense of being abstract and formless – is a defense of constitutional conservatism that relies on un-evidenced assertions and theory, and a refusal to confront the evidence presented to you on its own terms – history, including contemporary history, and experience with all of their contradictions and difficulties.

    Enjoy your studies.


    • “…making you seem almost as much of a lunatic as he is to those unpersuaded by either of you.”

      I suspect that this is the real reason for this whole effort to co-opt the “progressive” banner: perceived political advantage. You’ve said as much in the other threads, but I think your case that progressivism can be conservative is much more a matter of window dressing than you care to admit, inasmuch as you haven’t really offered anything substantive to support it, aside from appealing to some “standard historical reading” you claim exists without having made any effort to substantiate. It’s your case, not mine, where I see only “un-evidenced assertions and theory.”

      “If you don’t ever encounter difficulty articulating or defending your views, then that may mean that your views are predictable and derivative: They apparently present no challenge to you.”

      For one thing, I never said I “don’t ever encounter difficulty articulating or defending [my] views”; I said I never encountered any need to appeal to some fanciful “conservative progressivism” theory to do so. For another, the attempt to define your opponents as ignorant or simplistic only reinforces my window-dressing suspicion.


  5. “Standard historical reading” implies a reading so commonplace and non-controversial that you can hardly perform any research on it without encountering it. Here’s an example from the Claremont Review of Books, the introduction to an (ideologically anti-progressive) book review – quoted and linked in the W.O.P. thread at my blog:

    Over a century has passed since Progressivism made its presence known in American political culture. Though library shelves bend under the weight of scholarly assessments of its origins, growth, and impact, the term beggars precise definition. At once over- and under-inclusive, it has become a word of almost promiscuous utility among historians, who have variously deployed it to denote an era, a social movement, a specific economic and political agenda, and a philosophical outlook. Progressivism is all these things, and more. Coming to terms with it is made doubly difficult because reformers of many stripes who often disagreed about strategy and tactics nevertheless claimed the label. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Progressive thought was itself intellectually promiscuous, blending elements of Hegelian philosophy, social Darwinism, and millennial Protestant enthusiasms (among other ideas) into a distinctively American stew.

    You will find similar statements, some stressing the heterogeneity of the movement, others stressing the mutually contradictory elements (laissez-faire-ists vs socialists, public administration enthusiasts vs direct democracy enthusiasts).


    • I’m scratching my head trying to figure out what you think you’ve proven here. “Reformers of many stripes who often disagreed about strategy and tactics nevertheless claimed the label”? So? “Strategy and tactics” are not principles. “Blending elements of Hegelian philosophy, social Darwinism, and millennial Protestant enthusiasms”? That only supports our contention – that 20th-century progressivism is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of the Founding – not yours. Hegelian philosophy and social Darwinism have all sorts of problems in fitting in with conservative or Founding principles, and I’d have to know what exactly the author means by “millennial Protestant enthusiasms” before passing judgment on what that’s supposed to prove.


  6. Do a little historical research, really. The standard reading regarding heterogeneity and breadth of the Progressive Era movements is not hard to find.

    You’re seizing upon the second part of the description where the writer focuses on the “doubly difficult” problems of differing strategy and tactics and the even “further” difficulty of the promiscuity of Progressive thought. Furthermore, most of that “Progressive thought,” from your friends Croly, Dewey, Wilson, and others, comes after the fact of the movement, whose origins on many issues go back to middle of the 19th Century and further. As for “20th Century progressivism,” I’m not aware of the moment that the subject under discussion became circumscribed in that way. Your use of the designation does appear, however, to acknowledge a difference among progressivisms. As for the difficulties of squaring Hegelian or Darwinian worldviews with conservative or Founding pinciples, no one, least of all the Founders, said life would be easy. No one needed to resort to Hegel or Darwin (or Veblen or Croly or Dewy or Wilson…) to justify Women’s Suffrage or child labor laws, neither of which were present concerns of the Founders, though at least a conceptual basis for other Progressive Era concerns can be found in their writings (and, differently, in their actions).

    The concrete political facts are that tools originated in the Progressive Era can serve conservative ends, and have been seized upon by conservatives at the same time that conservatives have adopted other typical progressive ideas, arguments, and approaches – at the same time that the very definitions of “progress” and what would represent progress have been transformed – in reality, our world of “political advantage,” not in a constitutionalist critique of Herbert Croly. The fallacies of that constitutional critique are also indicative, but not in my opinion very significant except to the extent that they may serve to divide, misdirect, and paralyze segments of the political right.


    • “As for the difficulties of squaring Hegelian or Darwinian worldviews with conservative or Founding pinciples, no one, least of all the Founders, said life would be easy.”

      Exactly – easy or not, who says doing so is even useful or desirable?

      Maybe we can finally shed some light on whatever interpretation of progressivism you’re talking about by seeing just which progressive-era tools you think can or should serve conservative ends.

      There’s nothing about examining Croly/Wilson progressivism that serves “to divide, misdirect, and paralyze” the Right at all, given that it’s the progressivism adopted by the modern Left.


  7. Maybe we can finally shed some light on whatever interpretation of progressivism you’re talking about by seeing just which progressive-era tools you think can or should serve conservative ends.

    Or maybe you can re-read the original piece, though there was much I left out.


    • In the original piece, I see citizen referenda, recalls, and the Palin & Ryan examples. I’ll grant you the first two, though neither would hardly be considered central or defining characteristics of the progressivism conservatives object to. As for the Palin & Ryan examples, with all due respect, that claim seems too superficial to even revisit.

      If you have something else in mind, try me.


      • central or defining characteristics of the progressivism conservatives object to

        The question is whether the above corresponds to some essential or irreducible aspect of progressivism, whether, as some apparently believe, you can’t be a little bit pregnant with progressivism.

        My position is that what conservatives object to in 20th Century progressivism – or what you might call ideological progressivism – consists of addition, impositions, reductions, and subtractions regarding historical, concrete progressivism. It’s the elitism in elitist progressivism, the statism in statist progressivism, the Hegelianism in Hegelian progressivism, and so on, that conservatives object to. Meanwhile, the assertion that there can be no constitutional or conservative progressivism, or no progressive constitutionalism or progressive conservatism ignores the progressivism and the dynamic, heterogeneous, and synthesizing nature of the Constitution itself, or the interest of American conservatism in the “conservation” of a revolutionary inheritance: “We are the change.”

        It goes without saying that I disagree with you in regard to Palin and Ryan (or McDonnell, or Christie, or Brown, or Daniels, or even Graham and McCain). We are at an historical moment during which the contradictions of statist progressivism seem on the verge of destroying it, because progress from here requires reduction of the state, in accordance with the popular will, the demands of which are in line with and can be enforced and implemented through classically progressive measures and means – initiative processes, enhanced voter education (another feature of Progressive Era reform), citizen activism, potentially even constitutional amendment – and candidates that appeal to a popular, and largely non-ideological, traditionally American willingness to embrace progress.

        An extreme constitutional conservatism, on the other hand, leads to Paul: The attempt to restore some pure Constitutional Moment that will never be located, because it never existed. It’s fantasy, and the insistence on its realism makes the proponent appear to be a lunatic. Yet every gesture to the left of Paul – a series of compromises with the demands of the security and welfare state, alongside the admission of defects and gray areas in pure constitutionalism – is, in effect, a virtual progressivism. This would be merely an abstract and theoretical observation – if not for the headlines of the day and the demands they make on real candidates, activists, and voters.


  8. Yes, conservatives object to the statism, Hegelianism, anti-constitutionalism, elitism, and such in progressivism as espoused by Wilson & Co., and as interpreted by the modern Left. Is it possible to be “progressive” without being any of these things? Sure, I suppose so, if by “progressive” we simply mean something akin to “reform” or “improvement.” But if we’re not talking about a progressivism that’s a concrete, definable worldview with clear meaning, rather than some “spirit of an era” or mere descriptor, then that again raises the question of whether or not there’s any point to labeling ourselves as such. Surely there are plenty of favorable adjectives we could attach to “conservatism”—“visionary conservatism,” “responsible conservatism,” “prudent conservatism,” “compassionate conservatism.”

    I submit that “conservatism” needs no such descriptors, “progressive” or otherwise. To the extent that any political meaning of the word “progressive” is a good thing, I think it’s already sufficiently captured by “conservatism,” properly understood: faithful adherence to the core principles of the American Founding. That doesn’t imply a refusal to consider new ideas, doctrinaire adherence to every single word the Founders ever said, or even a belief that the Constitution should never be amended—even “conservatism” as “adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried,” as Lincoln says, does not necessarily mean adherence for the sake of its being old, but because we believe that in this case, the old and tried is also right.

    However true or significant the terminology “progressive conservatism” might be in the abstract (and that’s still a case I’m far from convinced on), the fact remains that “progressivism” has strong connotations with the modern, statist Left, and those ties can be traced far back enough that they’re not entirely unfounded—they can’t simply be dismissed as the hijacking of language for propaganda purposes. I can’t imagine that any of these efforts to re-brand conservatism with fashionable adjectives will do enough good to outweigh the inevitable confusion and intellectual muddiness that each would bring…least of all “progressive.”


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