Manhattan Institute

Progressive? Unh, unh.

Don’t validate the Left’s self-cherishing fantasy.

Political Leftists call themselves “progressives” as a form of self-praise, an assertion that their politics represent a higher consciousness than the prejudices of the mob of unthinking deplorables and will lead mankind to a sunny upland where human nature will transcend its baser impulses, and peace and harmony will reign. Conservatives should not indulge them in this self-deception. We should stop using “progressive” as a synonym for the noun “Lefty” or the adjective “left-wing.”

The label springs from the thought of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, whose writings Woodrow Wilson, a founder of Progressivism as an early-twentieth-century political movement, taught himself German to read. For Hegel, history moves from lower stages of human consciousness to higher, until finally it will purportedly reach its goal, man’s full realization of human freedom, both in the sense of understanding it and achieving it. History has a forward trajectory, an arc, whose shape and direction our first professor-president believed he could discern more clearly than the non-Ivy League masses. Hence his impatience with the Founding Fathers’ ideal of self-government. How could the half-educated masses understand justice as well as the highly-educated judges and skilled administrators he believed should run the nation’s affairs? How foolish of the Constitution’s framers, he thought, to believe that the people themselves could know what was good for them!

Though the Marxists turned Hegel upside-down, positing man’s material life as the source of his thoughts rather than vice-versa, the intellectual hubris remained unchanged. Always, there would be a vanguard of leaders and thinkers, who saw through the mystifications of capitalism and perceived the grinding of the historical gears that would lead to that utopia where “to each according to his need; from each according to his ability” would be the golden rule. In this spirit, early in the Great Depression, which many took as proof that liberal capitalism had permanently failed, “progressive” came to be a euphemism, or mask, for “Communist” or “fellow traveler.”

By mid-century, the center-left American mainstream assumed the title of “liberal,” appropriating (and distorting) a British term that had meant a politics of free trade, free markets, an expanded democratic franchise, and intellectual tolerance. American liberalism retained the tolerance, including a tolerance for free enterprise, but its emphasis was on statism, especially the redistributive taxation, welfare-statism, and economic regulation left over from the New Deal, with an admirable leavening of civil rights activism. But for the 1960s student Left, “liberal” became a dirty word. Now it was time for “radicalism,” up to and including the murderous Black Panthers and Weathermen. Out went tolerance, even reason itself (for an impassioned account of this transformation, see the documentary Arguing the World, starring Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, and Irving Kristol). Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance”—an oxymoron meaning punitive, inquisitorial suppression of politically incorrect speech and thought—shoved aside tolerance. In political discourse, entitlement to your own facts replaced entitlement to your own opinion.

And now? With the near-total success of the civil rights movement and the disappearance of the Soviet empire as a threatening example of the inevitable tyranny that Communism entails, the Left’s program has shrunk to campus microaggressions, environmentalist opposition to capitalism, and a reborn socialism among people ignorant of its history and blind to its real-world nightmare in Venezuela or Cuba. Bicycling against global warming, or pointing to micro-groups of supposed victims as objects of Jim Crow-style oppression, is not an inspiring politics and doesn’t hold a candle to shutting up your opponents by mob rule.

Progressive? Hardly. I’ll leave it to you to think up the proper label for mobs who threaten to break into conservative pundits’ homes or hound Trump administration officials out of restaurants, for “activists” who verbally abuse a Fox News host or a reader of the New Criterion on the subway. For now, I’ll stick with “Lefty.”

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