Progressive Hubris

by Jonah Goldberg

Paul Waldman has a chest-thumping post in which he writes, in part:

But it’s never bad to remind ourselves that with the important exception of abortion rights, the culture war moves in only one direction, and that direction is the one progressives want. In all of the spheres the culture war touches on, we’re a more progressive country than we used to be. Gay people can serve in the military, women can own property, beating children is generally frowned-upon, and so on. You can say that’s simply the march of modernity, but whatever you want to call it, it’s a long line of victories for progressives values.

There’s a very high-octane mix of truth, strawmen, and question-begging here (and an implicit admission that progressives are the aggressors in the culture war).

A main source of confusion is Waldman’s inability or unwillingness to differentiate the meaning of “progressive” from the meaning of “good” or “desirable.” Indeed, one could spend a long time taking exception to and even offense at his use of property rights for women and the evaporating social stigma against child-beating as great examples of progressive triumph. But Waldman certainly has a point. Depending on how you define “progressive,” the tide of modernity has generally moved in a progressive direction.

But it hardly seems clear to me that this is the ideological or partisan victory Waldman wants to make it.

There’s a massive amount of whiggishness or presentism at work here. Waldman looks out on the horizon, sees things he likes, and calls them progressive victories. But many of the things he now dubs progressive were not seen as progressive by people who famously called themselves progressives. Eugenics and population control were huge progressive priorities at various points. Thanks in part to conservative and libertarian opposition, the progressives didn’t have their way. Now we look at the results of those progressive failures and recognize them as preferable. But Waldman nonetheless calls these failures “progressive” victories. How convenient.

Quick question: What happens if they find a way to identify gay kids in utero and many women opt to abort them? Will the Waldmans of the world still find abortion-rights absolutism to be the progressive position?

Second, his abortion disclaimer notwithstanding, he’s still cherry-picking. Gun control is a dead letter for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t long ago when no one would have thought that. Global cooperation on climate change? Not heading in too progressive a direction, if you ask me. Racial quotas? Assuming such racialism is “progressive,” why are so many states banning it? Why did the Supreme Court put a 25-year expiration date on it?

Oh, and if everything but abortion is moving in a progressive direction, let us hear no more whining about the extreme rightward tilt of the Supreme Court. Indeed, how does Waldman explain that constitutional originalism (variously defined) is more intellectually mainstream and influential now than at any time in the last 40 years?

Waldman says that, with the exception of abortion, it’s never bad for progressives to remind themselves that they’re basically always right. Really? It seems to me that’s exactly what progressives should stop reminding themselves (and conservatives and libertarians, too, by the way).

Even if you are willing to concede that history has been advancing in a “progressive” direction, it is dangerous and irresponsible to suggest that it must be that way. Technology — the real driver of the trends Waldman sees — has mostly been on the side of individual empowerment and liberation, but there have been times when it has not. To assume that current trends must continue blinds us to the fact that God laughs at those who make plans.

Perhaps worse, at least from a conservative perspective, it suggests that we should always defer to self-described progressives about where to go next. After all, if the progressives have won everything, why not listen only to them?

Well, to pick one example of many, if we always listened to them, we would have largely done away with the free market, as was desperately desired by such progressives as John Dewey, Jane Addams, Henry Wallace, and Michael Harrington. Without the free market, you don’t have the kinds of technological breakthroughs that make progressive victories — including environmental progress — possible.

Now, I fully expect to hear from some progressive who says, “That’s BS. Today’s progressives don’t want to get rid of the free market, we’re not socialists . . . oh, and we’re not eugenicists or population controllers, and blah blah blah.”

Well, putting aside the fun argument about what today’s progressives do or do not want to do, the simple fact is that yesterday’s progressives did want to do these things and after some early victories, they ultimately failed, thanks in part to conservative and libertarian opposition but also to mounting empirical evidence that the progressives were simply on the wrong side of history.

This is hard for some progressives to accept, because to them, being progressive means never having to say “We were wrong.”