Is President George W. Bush the new face of progressive reform in American politics and do Democrats now don the mask of the status quo? Some observers, particularly liberals, scoff at this idea, but growing evidence suggests. Bush’s platform has a long pedigree in the morally based progressive tradition in American politics.
The media have largely missed this developing reversal, largely because it refuses to acknowledge Bush’s motivation to help people by dismantling the traditional welfare state, replacing it with programs that fall under the rhetorical rubric of “compassionate conservatism” and the “ownership society.” Bush’s new “progressivism,” however, also creates some tensions with elements of the conservative community–challenges the Republicans must manage if they hope to solidify their position as the majority party in America.
One person who astutely recognizes this subtle shift in the political tectonic plates is Wilfred McClay, of the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga. Last week Professor McClay gave an insightful lecture at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., titled
George W. Bush’s Evangelical Conservatism: Or How The Republicans Become Red. McClay begins with a symbol: The media’s use of the color red to depict states in the Republican victory column. This hasn’t always been the case: The sea of blue on the map depicting the 1980 GOP landslide was called “Lake Reagan” by Time magazine. But since 2000, Republicans have been the crimson party.
McClay highlights the irony of the changing color scheme. “It’s amazing how willing the democratic Left has been to acquiesce in the loss of one of the most permanent, most universal, and most beloved symbols–the color Red–without serious protest.”
“Red,” he notes, has long been associated with progressive, liberal, energetic, idea-driven reform causes (as well as Communism in the former Soviet Union and China)–including the 1848 revolution in France, and a host of labor parties throughout Europe in the last 200 years.
And just as the GOP has co-opted the progressive party’s color scheme, McClay says the “conservative (Republican) party in America today is the party of progress, of human liberation, of national and international purpose.” The Democrats, on the other hand, are the political Luddites–”the party of entrenched interests, of public bureaucracies and public-employee unions and identity-politics lobbies, the party that opposes tax reform, opposes tort reform, opposes educational reform, opposes Social Security reform, opposes military reform, opposes the projection of American power overseas . . . ” Democrats, he impishly notes, have all but adopted National Review’s famous slogan from its inaugural edition about “standing athwart history yelling [stop]!’”
President Bush’s progressive domestic and international vision is tethered by twin goals–freedom and responsibility. It is a worldview McClay calls “evangelical conservatism.” “Self-government is not possible under the yoke of political or religious tyranny. But neither is it possible in a world in which the formation of character is ignored, and the linkage between our efforts and our results is erased,” he said.
The twin appendages of the “self-governing individual” (freedom) and the “self-governing soul” (responsibility) were the handmaidens of abolitionism and other progressive social reforms of the 19th century. The same intellectual lineage animates the president’s support of American power to promote freedom internationally and his compassionate-conservative ideas domestically. Rather than a new philosophy, McClay argues Bush’s approach “may represent the recovery of a well established and distinctively American approach to social and political reform.”
But McClay concludes his lecture with a warning. Even if “conservative” government pursues policies to strengthen the “self-governing individual” and the “self-governing soul,” it’s still government. And however noble these ends, they may sometimes trump more conventional conservative positions. While sympathetic to the president’s general thrust, McClay argues conservatism cannot abandon its most fundamental mission, “what Thomas Sowell called the ‘constrained vision’ of human existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariable mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people.”
Indeed, President Bush deserves credit as a progressive reformer. So the new color scheme is probably justified. But as McClay argues, as these ideas evolve, “a darker shade of red, one that sees the hand of Providence in our reversals as well as our triumphs,” may be in order. The president’s palate, while promising and much needed, is a work in progress.
–Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.