Will collectivist oriented social liberals realize that progressivism was a worthy cause that has lost its way?
Over recent years, it has become increasingly clear that significant sections of the American electorate no longer feel that they have the option of voting for politicians and policies that they would like to see represented. Some of this is definitely by design of the system. For some, the Constitution itself strictly prohibits their preferred policies, on the basis that those policies would harm other individuals, and conflict with their own individual rights. For others, entrenched interests have bought off both parties on an issue, leaving you with a functional vote reminiscent of "Coke or Pepsi"?
From their own words, it is quite obvious that a number of people on both extremes feel this way about some issues and, frankly, this is working as intended. Our government has been structured to avoid allowing wholesale appropriation from individuals, or the stripping of their rights as citizens, without due process, and only as an extreme consequence of their own individual actions. However, there seems to be a whole "muddle in the middle" that real progress should be possible on, and yet, somehow seems to remain a political impossibility.
Over the last few decades in particular (with its blooming seemingly during the FDR administration), judicial activism has also been on the rise. How people view the nature and flavor of these judges, and their decisions will vary based on viewpoint, but it has become obvious that, over time, these unelected individuals are seemingly more in control of the future of our society than our elected officials are. To the extent that perhaps our elected officials are trying to do things with legislation or executive orders that might violate the Constitution, this would seem to be a positive thing, assuming that a good liberal would wish to see the Constitution survive intact to protect the rights of future generations. Yet, by the very nature of "judicial review", the courts are speaking on issues of a legislative and executive nature and often having the final say.
We might have some high-minded notions of fairness when it comes to selecting judges, wanting to be able to say that we've been treating the other side with good faith and yet, at the end of the day, this isn't, and can't be, truly a space for compromise. There aren't really multiple ways to do this correctly. The job of justices is to apply the law as written, and to uphold Constitutional rights as written, without word games that try to reverse the meaning of what is written. This creates some serious concerns for those who think that something in the Constitution as written, or something NOT in the Constitution as written that they feel should be there, is holding back the country from the social progress we could be making.
Although many authors have pointed to relevant connections between the "big ideas of modernity" (communism, fascism, and "liberal democracy"), there are many disagreements on where to draw the lines, and what differences to focus on. For the purposes of looking at the flow of ideas from the past into the future, I find that one of the most relevant, is this: all three "big ideas," were forms of progressivism. While I don't think it's fair to look at the flattering portraits of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini produced by mainstream US magazines during their pre-war debut as an endorsement of their later actions, it makes the important point, that they were seen as part of the "us" of the globalist progressive order of their day. These guys were seen as big personalities, with big ideas, making the world a better place, making a real difference... sticking it to the old order. These were men of logic and rationality, who would be taking the fruit of the Enlightenment and using it to harness nature to work for man... including man's own nature.
Quaint notions of old-fashioned religious assumptions about the nature of humanity, would fall away as mere superstition in the wake of the evidence that the scientific administration of government had liberated humanity from its traditional forms of life organization. No longer did we have fallen man, but New Man had arisen from the petri dish of science. When other generations had worked with the crooked timber of a man whose mind was infected with religious hang ups and selfish concerns, progressives would perfect the system that produced a standardized product, a person who could be used as a cog in their societal machine, the raw material for a scientific and rational future.
Then came the harsh reality of World War 2, and the events that led up to it. What seemed like promising, powerful, progressive leaders ended up being violent, brutal, oppressive tyrants. Although this shook the faith of many progressive liberals in liberalism itself, it did not seem to shake their faith in progressivism. The fact that the fascists and communists had betrayed their service to "the people" needed rationalization, especially as the Cold War progressed. Stalin in particular was someone that many social liberals in particular wanted to see as a positive force for scientific rationality as the basis for government, as they truly believed that central planning was the way of the future, and, after all, hadn't he turned on Hitler and helped defeat the Nazis? An attack on communism as an idea, was an attack on progressivism as an idea.
With all of the ugly abuses of Stalin (many in the USA were in denial of this as Soviet propaganda gave them an alternative narrative to cling to) aside, what was really so different about how they felt America was best run? Considering the differences in the material situations of the USA and the Soviet Union, how different were the economic policies of FDR's New Deal, with its wage and price controls, government investment, and large projects for the benefit of the common man, from Stalin's five-year plans? After all, wasn't Stalin just trying to make life better for those he was leading, and wasn't he protecting them from the evils of the inequality of the "gilded age" that FDR was credited for helping the USA recover from? Wasn't it preferable to put the direction of the country under scientifically-sound rule, then to leave it in the hands of the greedy and selfish?
In the rear-view mirror, Classical Liberalism, with its doggish insistence that we allow individuals to influence the direction of society with their own actions, based on their own desires, seeemed not only quaint, but backwards. It appealed to a God that science had made unnecessary, for individual rights that were not only pointless, but actively damaging to the progress of society as its brightest minds would like to direct it. Its ideas of property rights were rooted in the same fetishization of "nature," tainted by a belief in a creator deity, that led man to live always as a slave of the mind to whomever claimed to be speaking for the creator and carrying his message.
To the progressive, classical notions of liberty were in direct conflict with the freedom of reformers to fix society, to move it into the future they wanted for mankind. Yet, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent rise of Reagan and Thatcher, things seemed hopelessly lost. Stalin had been much worse than progressives in the US had ever wanted to believe, China was shifting into an abusive form of capitalism that had as much in common with what the Nazis had been doing (complete with ethnic chauvinism) as it did with FDR's project, and the economic progressive movement seemed dead. Was this really the case, or were appearances deceiving?
In hindsight, it seems relatively obvious what happened. In post war Europe, the seeds of a new progressive movement had been planted. Although this movement had many economically egalitarian thinkers in it, their primary focus was elsewhere, focused on the control itself. The "Progressive Era" had brought many important ideas to think about into the public awareness, and spawned many insightful thinkers to contribute their views on what was exposed, particularly about the nature of control and influence. The science of organizing the economy, had become the science of controlling the thoughts of humans themselves.
A hegemony of ideas, the psychological effects of always being watched by those in authority, the stigmatizing of those who thought differently as being mentally ill, and many other important ideas were brought into the forefront. After seeing the political successes of collectivism in the Progressive Age, to them, it wasn't so much that collectivism was so much the right answer, as the only game in town.
The USA had won the war because they managed to control the minds of their population more effectively than the competing ideologies, was successful at using the "Prussian" education system brought to America by early progressives to promote first patriotism and willingness to sacrifice for their country in the war, and then later to come together in the strength of peace after the war and rebuild the world, then later even to embracing neoliberalism and becoming dedicated workers for the capitalist system.
Simply put, the workers of the world would not unite and throw off their chains, if they loved their chains, and considered them a positive thing, and of their own choosing. The Classical Liberalism which had helped set the goals of the progressive movement, with its egalitarian ideal outcomes, was now a stumbling block for the progressive movement, it insisted on individual autonomy, when further progress in society required centralized control. For Americans to give up their autonomy, they would have to see how insisting on their own freedoms resulted in harm to others.
Today, we are seeing the results of that effort. We have students who believe deeply in social progress, not only making demands that freedom of speech be curtailed because it hurts those who are socially disadvantaged, but also for the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production. They speak of the right for government to make things equal, not the right of individuals to be treated equally under the law. They speak of any movement that seeks a return to something positive about the past, as a movement to destroy the progress that's been accomplished in terms of social justice, literally branding any opposition to their projects as "injustice" in contrast purely by the virtue of being in opposition to their progress.
They have let conservatives trash the label of "liberal" to the point where many literal "liberals" are actually speaking out against "liberalism" (by which they mean progressivism) while being at a loss for a good label for what they themselves are advocating. Yet, as the actions and proposals of progressives become increasingly illiberal, the mask has started to slip. Newcomers to the culture war have spoken sloppily and revealed their true intentions, with their radical honesty destroying decades of hard work by progressives to always ratchet the progress gradually into place, so that its reversal would seem to be a regression to days far enough back that the youth could not remember them, with anyone speaking positively about the past being destroyed as someone who opposes (social) justice. With the increased pace of demands for social change coming from the youth, the project of modern cultural progressivism has been turned on itself. As the center of society tilts more and more towards an actually functional liberalism, that works to increase individual freedom of action, in terms of tolerating those who are different and demanding that they not abuse others, firebrand social progressives have found themselves increasingly at odds with a smaller and smaller nexus of argument, getting increasingly contentious about what goals to focus on next, losing sight of how the progress was being accomplished and preserved in the first place.
How has the resurgence of liberalism been hidden so well? Firstly, there was an genuine resurgence of illiberal thought among the "moral majority" religious conservatives and "neoliberal" centrists in the 80's and 90's. Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, was at the forefront of a movement to censor media of offensive ideas and images. Laws against drug use and possession were strengthened. DOMA was passed, as well as the compromise known today as "don't ask, don't tell", which at the time was seen as a victory for the right of people to let who they have sex with be their own business, and not the governments (but at the expense of being able to do so openly while serving in the military). There was so little difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore (in terms of policy positions on "moral"/social issues) in the 2000 elections that it isn't at all surprising that it was a close race.
In some twisted way, the nanny state government had come to serve the puritans, and the Republicans were pushing big government "welfare" programs. The "neoliberals" were able to support the military industrial complex because, it was being used to spread "Liberal Democracy" ... and created jobs and raised the GDP, they were able to get comfy with corporations that made prescription drugs, banks that lent money to the poor, online speech platforms that allowed progressive ideas to spread, health insurance companies that made sure people got health care, etc. Using "liberal" language to describe their aims, neoliberals were able to cash in on the wealth of corporations, while advancing progressive social policy priorities. Soon, CEOs were joining in, and even sidelining their fiduciary obligations to their shareholders, under the guise of community responsibility and a moral obligation to their "stakeholders" instead. Then we got 2008, and for many, the spell was broken, the illusion shattered, and people decided enough was enough.
Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Movement might have had basically opposite policy preferences, but they were both rooted in liberal attitudes against the socially progressive/neoliberal monster that the banking/corporate/political complex had become. Both movements were furious that at a time where big losses would be taken by "someone", it was increasingly obvious that the little people would be taking the hit while large corporations would get bailed out, in many cases with corporate leadership not only getting to keep the bonuses from the years leading to the disaster, but continuing to receive them even after it was clear that their actions had led to massive losses of jobs, houses/house equity, etc. People who would rather have avoided politics completely and wanted nothing to do with "politicians", were angered into speaking out.
In the case of Occupy Wall Street, for a variety of reasons, this really didn't translate into electoral success (there are many factors for this, including the Obama/Pelosi/Reid corporate alignment, as well as misconduct on the part of individuals in the movement giving them a bad look to the public). In the case of the Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party Movement, a wave of "classically liberal" conservatives descended upon Washington DC, only to find themselves in much the situation they were in when they were voting as citizens: The things they actually cared about just weren't on the ballot. Roughly 3/4 of the budget was not subject to a vote... it was "entitlements" that were on auto-pilot, and could not be cut without amending the programs that dictated their function. Out of the remaining 1/4th or so, half of that was military spending, and the military was having to ask for supplementary funding almost every year just to keep doing what it was doing. The truth was that the economy depended on cheap money from the Fed, it was impossible to meaningfully cut spending, the Republican Establishment was comfortable with both of those details, and the hope for "small government" was basically dead.
Donald Trump is a New York 1980's liberal. His liberalism is just as much one of action and instinct as it is a of principle, but he has time and time again shown a desire to let people live their own lives, as long as they aren't harming others. Unfortunately, it is exactly this type of tolerance that makes him brutally unacceptable to those who oppose him politically from the left. How could he tolerate those who think that "he was a bad guy" is a terrible reason for tearing down a historical statue? How could he tolerate teenage girls in mandatory attendance public schools wishing to keep biological males out of their shower rooms? How could he tolerate due process for people accused of abusing others? How could he tolerate freedom of speech for people with mean, exclusionary, or destructively failed ideas? Under the new social progressivism, the line had been crossed to where liberal tolerance is now seen as allowing a harm, just as under nationalism, allowing illegal immigration (or allowing non-citizens to vote) is seen as a harm against the existing citizenry. Over the course of the last century, social progressivism has managed to pull a full 180 turn to where it now stands in direct opposition to liberalism, and even feels the need to demonize and dismiss "classical liberalism" as the hegemonic mask of a racist and sexist white male imperialism of the 19th century.
This is where we stand today. Ironically, many conservative movements are now effectively advocating "liberalism" in many of its aspects... unfortunately, many conservative movements feel no moral duty to offer tolerance to the social progressives, that even to this day are working actively to destroy any vestige of individual rights by any means necessary. The result in many countries has been one of overcorrection: The same type of "tolerance for us and ours but not for you and yours" that has characterized social progressivism over the last decade has now infected the nationalist populist movement in many countries. Leaders that are standing up for the rights of their people to live traditional lifestyles that social progressives have tried to ban, are now faced with the temptation to attempt to ban and suppress those who banned and suppressed them. Too many have seen the failures of centralized economic planning and rejected it, but evangelizing the idea that "trying to legislate morality is a failed venture", is an intense and ongoing project to those who lived under the oppressive boot of some form of socially progressive political correctness.
We, as would-be liberals, stand at a crossroads. If we continue to allow social progressives to have an unworthy monopoly on the labels of "liberal" and "liberalism", we risk the ascendance of those who would retaliate with the full force of illiberal repression, against those who illiberally repressed them while talking the talk of tolerance. The progressive project without the goal of individual freedom, is closer to an empty totalitarianism for the sake of power and control, than it is to the vision of society that the original, true, progressives had as their animating motives. Any of you who believe that Dewey and FDR truly wanted the good life for American people of the future, should be called to reconsider whether the current direction of the social progressive movement is really true to those goals. The idea behind the original progressive movement, was that the best and brightest among us, would take control of society, and direct its parts, to result in prosperity and the good life for its members... the price of some individual freedom for collective flourishing was not only worth it, but that future generations would look back and see that the trade was worth it... that they wouldn't be willing to give up their good life in exchange for some independence they didn't really need. That's certainly true of some aspects of the accomplishments of the progressive movement. You won't find me out there lobbying for the right of businesses to fire workers injured on the job without compensation, an end to child labor laws, or an end to liability on the part of food manufacturers if their products sicken or kill people. However, does anyone truly think that those gains are threatened by letting people study genetic differences between ethnic groups, the difference between biological men and biological women, whether the Iran deal made it easier or harder to prevent their development of nuclear weapons without being interrupted, or whether Syrian War migrants would be better housed somewhere in the Middle East instead of in Europe?
Many young people get this all too well. "Generation Z" (as well as many of us less conformist types that identify as Gen X or Millennials) understand that equal rights doesn't have to mean extra rights, that if something isn't the governments business, that means they shouldn't be promoting it OR banning it (although regulation might be needed to draw the line where it starts becoming the government's business), and that racial equality starts with holding all people to the same standards, regardless of "race". Young people see through both lines of garbage: Both the type of moral policing that is based on traditional religion, and the type of moral policing rooted in political correctness. Sure, certain batches of them are being suckered into the religion of political correctness in public schools and universities, but many of them hear ideas that don't work, say "those ideas don't work", and look for better ideas. I truly think that we have the potential for a bright new future for future facing form of liberalism... rooted in the virtues of the enlightenment as classical liberalism was, but replacing its appeal to "natural rights" with an appeal to pragmatic results. Respecting the rights of others to live their own lives, as long as they are willing to also respect the rights of others, and stand up and demand the system stick to that, is a time tested idea with fruit that many, I would argue most (of us as Americans, at least) wish to partake of. Putting this argument on a pragmatic secular basis that is inclusive of (but not deferent to) traditional beliefs, is a historic opportunity that we should seize. Allowing people to report reality as they see it, and act towards their own interests as individuals, while taking actions to protect the system that lets them do so, is a system proven to give results.
If you care about the original aims of progressivism, I argue that you should be working to salvage the parts of classical liberalism that animated progressivism. The alternative is an unacceptable choice between totalitarianism on the left and a slouch to an illiberal traditionalism of society as we know it has worked in the past. I would like to believe that we have the majority to hold the liberal center path of individual liberty... but only if liberals are willing to reach out in good faith, proclaim what they know about important issues, and have an attitude of wanting to find a path that works together with anyone who also share the dreams of John Stewart Mills, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey.
Regarding the rest of the world: That's a bigger scope than I'm looking to speak to in this essay. I would say this: When we lead by example, others will want what we have, and we should encourage them in their struggle to secure it... and perhaps at some times, lend a helping hand. Reasonable people can disagree about whether colonialism was a net benefit to the world, or whether it has damaged the credibility of enlightenment thinking in our "post-colonial" age. I see merits to both arguments.