Katherine Gregg had a curious little article in the paper the other day trying to nail down claims of progressives’ political advancement in Rhode Island. Obviously, many of us on the other side of political philosophy will insist that Rhode Island is already saturated with progressive thinking, and that that’s the problem. In the face of the insistence of progressive activists, like Sam Bell, that no faith is true unless pure, Gregg devotes some paragraphs to defining progressivism, and the answer from the governor’s office is instructive (not the least because it comes from the office, not the governor):
Governor Raimondo considers herself a progressive. When asked why, her spokesman Mike Raia said: “At the end of the day, being a progressive means being committed to making progress. And that’s what she gets out of bed to do every single morning. … She is making college more affordable. She has made investments in K-12 education to position kids to be able to be career- and college-ready when they graduate.”
His list is long.
The principle that Raia articulates before his long list echoes that of William Voegeli, in a National Review article exploring what progressivism means to Hillary Clinton: “‘Progress,’ in its most direct, literal sense, simply means getting closer to some objective, one both comprehensible and manifestly superior to the current state of affairs.” Voegeli also observes that without some unifying theme — tangled by its own relativism — progressivism becomes the list of policies and short-term objectives for which President Jimmy Carter was known.
In that regard, one could say that Sam Bell’s progressivism is more tribal than Raimondo’s, inasmuch as he focuses on those items on the progressive list that are in opposition to people he thinks are bad. In this view, Raimondo is “conservative” because “she has very strongly resisted repealing [past] tax cuts for the rich.” Whether such tax cuts might be a pragmatic necessity at the moment in order to continue to make progress is not considered, the “progressive” goal being redistribution of income, whatever the long-term consequences for society or the people who receive the confiscated wealth.
Herein lies the core tension (and profound danger) of progressivism: Because it is built on the idea of progress, it must attempt to inject a revivalist zeal into a movement that refuses to assert first principles. Voegeli quotes a pre-presidency Barack Obama as writing that he rejects “any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.” That this is incontrovertibly a lie is precisely the point. Progressive practices related to, say, ObamaCare and abuse of the judiciary are all about locking future generations, as well as contemporaries who disagree, into a single course, as long as it’s one that pleases progressives and, more importantly, contributes to their power.
The resolution of the core tension, then, isn’t so much a solution to reconcile the logic, as it is a manipulation to make the illogic work for progressives. Thus, Voegeli quotes a 1990s Hillary Clinton revving up her preacher’s pitch by complaining that “we lack meaning in our individual lives and meaning collectively, we lack a sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another,” a sentiment that never quite gets defined to the point at which progressives might have to address (in Voegeli’s language) “the hard questions, the moral and practical ones that matter, are about how to do good, not whether.”
A century ago, progressives avoided the issue through faith that experts, once empowered, would be able to tell us which way to go, as necessary. In the decades since, however, that faith has fallen into simple relativism, as if to say that the problem of which way to go is so complicated that nobody can presume to answer it, ever. Those in the Sam Bell camp are therefore justified in criticizing the Clintons and Raimondos for choosing a pragmatism that benefits themselves and their peers, seeing it as what-is-good-for-us-must-be-good-because-we’re-good-progressives progressivism. And those in the other camp are justified in criticizing the Bells and Carters for their arbitrary and idealistic lists of policies, seeing them as whatever-feels-right-to-us-must-be-right-because-we’re-good-progressives progressivism.
And yet, the Church of Progressivism still must fill its pews, which it does by promising constant forward momentum. Because it is not really a functional philosophy, but a unifying feeling of grievance, it cannot truly manage to make progress for its adherents as individuals. Therefore, it is in constant search of traditions that it can leave behind and radical changes that it can impose for the future so as to create the illusion of forward motion. Given its coalition, it cannot follow the process that experts would tend to advise: taking small experimental steps and evaluating the results before taking more.
Unfortunately for us all, a wounded culture that insists on hobbling blindly forward will inevitably become turned around and head backwards… if it doesn’t fall into a ditch.