Waxing Un-American

Conor Williams is exasperated and disappointed with the response to his criticism of conservatives criticizing Progressivism.  I’ll excuse his missing my comments, set forth below, which answer his criticism directly.  But on re-reading Conor’s post, I see that he actually had his finger on the answer—that Progressivism subverts process, and process is the thing, if you’re a conservative—yet tucks it away in a passing “by the way” comment.  Here, let me show you.

Conor observes that “The original progressives were almost entirely concerned with rehabilitating the American Founders’ ideals in a new political and economic era.” So far, so good.  Elihu Root observed the same thing, stating that government must “do something more than merely keep the peace—to regulate the machinery of production and distribution and safeguard it from interference so that it shall continue to work.”  And yet, Root went on:

The utmost that government can do is measurably to protect men, not against the wrong they do themselves but against wrong done by others and to promote the long, slow process of educating mind and character to a better knowledge and nobler standards of life and conduct. We know all this, but when we see how much misery there is in the world and instinctively cry out against it, and when we see some things that government may do to mitigate it, we are apt to forget how little after all it is possible for any government to do, and to hold the particular government of the time and place to a standard of responsibility which no government can possibly meet.

Root knew there was a tension between progress and American ideals about process:  limited government, democratic process, respect for individual rights, and so on.  Ah, but the Progressives saw no such tension.  That is because the Progressives adhered to a different set of ideals.  As Conor put it:

“Most progressives believed in the profound importance of the Founding’s ideals, but they realized that some of the Constitution’s rules were being used to perjure those very ideals. The ends of democracy are the key.”

In other words, the “rules” and “procedures” prescribed in the Constitution and in the principles of self-government, separation of powers, and individual rights are merely the “specific means”—no more important in Conor’s view, apparently, than the election of senators or the number of presidential terms (both of which were changed via the Constitutional amendment process, thanks very much).  These American ideals concerning process, for Progressives, are considerably less important than the “ends” that Progressives would from time to time see fit to advocate.

Frankly, I don’t know why Conor pressed on any further since, by this point, he’d already answered his own question:  Conservatives care deeply about process as something central to the American idea, as something that ought to be considered too big to fail.  That’s certainly a point of disagreement between conservatives and Progressives, as I’ll explain in a moment, but we can certainly recognize that it’s the sort of disagreement about what American ideals are.  Conor also runs into trouble when he characterizes the dispute as one over “different policy goals.”  When it comes to the original Progressives, I can’t think of any serious policy differences that incite conservative opposition against Progressivism.  What incites that opposition, again, is exactly what Conor already laid out:  the fact that Progressives are willing to order policy above process.

With that said, I simply don’t see any basis for Conor’s assertion that Paul Ryan or Glenn Beck ever said Progressives are “not our fellow citizens.”  They didn’t say that or anything like it.  Nor does any serious conservative make this debate personal, as Conor suggests when he says that “today’s Right leans heavily upon a narrow and shifting definition of who counts as an American.”  Ryan and Beck talk in terms of a “war of ideas” and “attacks on the American idea,” but again, even Conor recognizes there is a real breach between process and policy.  Nor is it fair to tar the Tea Party as racists on the basis of outlier crackpots.  Even Larry Lessig admits that the Tea Party is a serious force for reform in Congress, having aped Democrats as the only group serious about fixing the venal corruption in Congress—i.e., focusing on process as central to the American idea.

So why make this personal other than for rhetorical effect?  And why use divisive rhetoric when calling for less divisive rhetoric?  Not that there’s any point in asking.  Means don’t matter.

As for my original comments to Conor’s post, I pointed out that attacks on Progressivism often backfire on conservatives because it was conservative values that gave Progressivism its start. It was only later, when the success of the project was established, that the left largely took it over. But there’s a fundamental difference between the ways conservatives and Progressives go about their respective values projects. For conservatives, values arise from and are tested in society, and only later make their way into our political and legal institutions. That is, government is meant to play a supporting role in the underlying society’s culture and norms; it is not meant to conceive and advance and foist them on society who otherwise would not go along with it.

For Progressives, on the other hand, this is exactly what government does. Through either minority factions or temporary populist flare-ups, most Progressive laws are political or factional phenomena that in large part do not reflect the values of the underlying society. Minimum wage or maximum hours laws, for example, are not even the sorts of laws that are traditionally harbored by an underlying society. That is, a conservative society might adopt laws forbidding work on Sunday, in expression of its Christian beliefs and rituals. However, that same society would search its underlying values in vain for anything compelling it to adopt laws forbidding a worker to labor more than 10 hours in a given day. This isn’t the stuff of natural law, after all.  Birth control and “family planning” programs are another easy example: the goal of eliminating children born to poor families is one felt more strongly by government planners than by the society itself.  Thus, you could go through the work of building consensus.  Or, you could, you know, have your Secretary of the HHS pass some regs and off you go.  This stuff is all about the end result, after all.  It’s just getting the policy right while telling a story to the American people.

Progressivism, I think, was borne of two new presumptions: that the federal government should make society “nice” (a justifiable presumption in the example of bringing emancipated blacks “up” from slavery, for example); and, due to technological and intellectual innovations, that government could make society “nice.” With few exceptions, however, conservatives have not sought to advance its policies through Progressivist means since the early 20th century.  Progressivism is about remaking society and propagating values through the law. The law would not be an anchor but a sail. This aspect of the Progressive agenda was clear by the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, who stated: “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life. . . . Our problem is to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”

I do not mean to define Progressivism too narrowly.  My précis, supported by Conor’s original post, is that Progressivism may be defined, at least in one important respect, by its view that process is less important that policy, generally speaking.  Progressivism thus defined—as a movement fundamentally defined by its ordering of policy over process—is at odds with ideas that, according to conservatives, define what Americanism is.  In other words, the Progressive vision of Americanism is directly at odds with the conservative vision of Americanism.

It’s an important debate.  There’s no crying in baseball.  Game on.

[Cross-posted at the main page]

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.

Comments are closed.