(Re) Defining Progressives

With the emergence of Howard Dean as the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination, the portion of the American polity that powered the rise of Dr. Dean – the self-anointed “progressives” – deserves more attention. Their premiere cause over the last year has been opposition to war in Iraq. While I’m sure the protesters who shouted “Not in my name!” and held banners proclaiming “No blood for oil” believed they were arguing for a progressive position and loudly said as much, it seems to me that today’s self-defined progressives are nothing of the sort where foreign policy is concerned, but actually have more in common with the classical conservatism of an Edmund Burke than the liberalism of a John Stewart Mill or Woodrow Wilson.

This may seem counterintuitive, but let me lay out my case. Most people who call themselves progressives (with some exceptions of course) tend to hold the following beliefs: first, American power is suspect, and hence any exercise of it, like the toppling of Saddam, must too be looked at askance. Second, free trade and globalization are harmful to the world’s poor and serve as an example of the exploitation by the wealthy – this is usually blamed (surprise) on the United States. Third, George Bush and John Ashcroft, to lift from Christopher Hitchens, are a bigger threat to this nation and the world than Osama bin Laden. In general, this is the realm of politicians like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Democrat for President) and Ralph Nader – but not Howard Dean, who, to smash some dutifully youthful and leftist dreams, is pretty carefully centrist despite his opposition to the war. Newspapers and media outlets dominated by progressives include publications like The Guardian, websites like CommonDreams.org and MoveOn.org and the BBC. And of course, the halls of the academy positively ring with progressive rhetoric.

This rhetoric reached a fevered pitch last fall, winter and spring when the crisis over Iraq was at its height. One of the most insistent lines of opposition was that America, being a self-absorbed country that lacked the “sophistication” of its critics, had no cultural understanding of the Middle East and thus failed to see that democracy was culturally ill-suited to the region. Indeed, in this view, the spreading of liberty to the Islamic world was just another example of the West’s imperialism. Another trope used to oppose the war was the argument that Hussein could be contained – that he posed no direct threat to the West and that war against him was therefore unnecessary.

These may be valid arguments, but they aren’t progressive ones as has been historically understood. Traditionally, progressives, from Jefferson and Paine through Gladstone and Wilson, have been proponents of the dramatic expansion of human liberties – even if using force is called for and even if conditions are less than ideal. The arguments of today’s “progressives”, however, are more reminiscent of something that Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, would have put forward.

For instance, take Burke’s observation that the manners and customs of a people (i.e., their culture) are what matters politically and that because of this, dramatic political change, which necessarily uproots and changes these long-held traditions, is undesirable; slow reform is a much better alternative.

Now look at the “progressive” line that Iraq is culturally unsuitable for democracy. It emphasizes, as Burke does, the imperviousness of culture to political change. Those who say this may be right (I hope they’re wrong); irregardless of right or wrong, they aren’t progressives as they’ve been known over the last several centuries. Real progressives have traditionally believed that certain human impulses (the impulse to liberty first among them) are capable of overriding everything and lie deeper than culture itself. The belief that some societies may be incapable of liberal democracy is a conservative one and those who call themselves progressive should recognize that their philosophy is anything but.

Moreover, conservatives from Thucydides on have traditionally looked somewhat pessimistically at human nature. The “progressive” movement is rife with this same pessimism, but rather than looking negatively at human nature in general, it narrows the hopelessness to a specific section of humanity: the American electorate and the American republic.

The American voter, in this view, is a creature of the Heartland who (gasp!) likes George W. Bush, guns and prayer, while Dubya reigns imperially over a nation that has been unique in human history for its bad behavior (most who hold these opinions forget what a truly bad country, like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, is like, being swaddled in a “post-historical paradise”).

Taken together, this suspicion of America’s motives and capability for good in the world isn’t liberal or progressive in any way. Individuals labeling themselves progressive have found themselves vitriolically arguing for the anti-progressive goal of preserving the status quo. They have expressed far greater misgivings and resentment towards Blair and Bush, the world’s leading democratic statesmen, than Saddam Hussein ever received from them.

The liberal argument for war was this: Saddam’s regime was a vile tyranny and for that reason – not the threat of WMDs – deserved destruction. Gladstone would have supported such a policy as would Wilson.

But for the present day conservative “progressives” it would have been better to let Iraqis suffer under totalitarianism than to have two admittedly imperfect nations free them. This is why they deserve opprobrium and why those who really do believe in progress ought to oppose them.