Previously I have written about what demarcates conservatism from other political philosophies, and now I would like to examine progressivism in the interest of fairness. As a disclaimer, I must admit that I am not a progressive. This is not a defense of progressivism. Nor is it an attack on progressivism. Just as before, I seek to evaluate a political philosophy prior to deciding whether or not I might agree with it.
When I take a cold hard look at progressivism, I can identify two sets of markers which we can use to identify progressives. We can of course look at policies, but this only works on a local level in a temporal sense because progressives of one age often seek to implement different policies than the progressives of a previous age. To avoid defining progressives in a myopic fashion, let’s examine the philosophical assumptions of progressivism first, keeping in mind that these are often not explicitly stated by progressives, but rather under-gird their views.
- We can become better than our ancestors because human nature is more malleable than invariant, and we can do so through the robust use of science, reason, and compassion.
- We should not rely on history as a guide for what should be done so much as to inform us of what has been tried and has failed to improve the human condition in an effort to avoid those past errors.
- We should think critically about the practices of our ancestors and seek to find practices which are more compassionate and reasonable than traditional practices.
- We should use reason and science to guide our decision-making rather than relying on the established traditions of institutions and cultures.
Just as with conservatism, these philosophical assumptions do not get us to any particular policy platform. One of the difficulties with identifying progressives with any specific policy perspective in the abstract is that their political philosophy doesn’t exist in the purely abstract realm. It exists in concrete societies relative to a baseline in that society, specifically a movement to change that baseline, evaluating it in light of rational ideals. Progressives in a matriarchal culture would seek to implement more reasonable egalitarian policies. Progressives in a culture which had historically valued the arts and farming over heavy industry and hunting would seek to fully utilize the latter methods to foster human progress. Progressives in a society which was profoundly multicultural would be willing to move toward monoculture to solve the divisiveness engendered by competing cultures.
If you really want to understand progressives, my suggestion is to look to the principles underlying their perspective and understand those prior to evaluating whether or not you like it. Understanding their principles before performing the evaluation makes it a lot less likely that you will evaluate them incorrectly and assign views you don’t like to them over-broadly because they happen to disagree with you substantially on many issues in a particular time and place.
Not to mention that even in this particular time and place, progressives vary considerably in their views as to what progress really entails. Some progressives believe that progress means granting equal consideration to animals, and other progressives believe that progress lies in feeding the hungry children in the world, whether with animal meat or otherwise. Progress might be seen as legalizing same-sex marriage by one person and seen as legalizing polygamous unions by another (and for the same motivations). What is progressive for one generation is not infrequently unthinkable and terrifying for another.
Related: Is progressivism egalitarian and authoritarian?
Certainly, contemporary progressives tend to favor centralized control and often support egalitarian causes, however, this is not something inherent to progressivism. Some progressives would prefer distributed control over centralized control, seeing local cooperatives as a more moral means of providing energy services than large energy corporations. Some progressives favor accomplishing progress through NGOs rather than via expanding the apparatus of the state.
Progressives have tended to be egalitarian because contemporary progressivism in the U.S. has roots in the Enlightenment and adopted egalitarian ideals as part of the notion of human progress. In practice, progressives might or might not favor egalitarian policies depending on the issue. Contemporary progressives tend to favor a distinctly non-egalitarian approach to firearm ownership, often while at the the same time favoring a strongly egalitarian approach to health care.
It’s clear that egalitarianism and authoritarianism, while certainly common to progressives in the current era, are not always adhered to by progressives and are not the inevitable conclusions of progressive thought.
Related: Do progressives favor change?
It might seem to be the case that progressives favor change in general if we take a brief glance, but the situation is in fact more complicated.
Progressives typically have a fairly clear set of objectives, social and policy changes which must be accomplished for us to better the human condition. Once those objectives have been accomplished, they tend to be quite assiduous about maintaining the state of affairs which has been achieved. For an example, let’s consider the case of abortion laws in the U.S. Progressives will fight tooth and nail to keep abortion laws from being changed when that change does not accord with their views of a forward-thinking society.
Why does this happen? Unlike conservatives who judge existing practices from a baseline of historical values, progressives judge existing practices against a baseline of what they consider to be the best of contemporary ideals. As the ideals of the world shift around that contemporaneity and it becomes history, the progressives of one generation can become in practice the conservatives of the next as they seek to move society back to the baseline from which they judge existing practices, a baseline which is now rooted in historical values rather than contemporary values. For the progressive, this experience is one of having progress rolled back rather than simply an experience of social change because they view human development through history as a linear phenomenon aligned with our linear experience of time and marching inexorably toward a realization of their moral ideals.