Magazine | July 7, 2014, Issue

The Always-Already Progressive

Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton — who, readers may not recall, is a former secretary of state and United States senator from New York, and is coincidentally the wife of William Jefferson Clinton — had a somewhat heated exchange with NPR’s Terry Gross over whether there was a political “calculus” behind her flip-flop on gay marriage. Clinton had been against gay marriage as a presidential candidate in 2008, only to come out in favor shortly after leaving the State Department in 2013.

Madam Secretary, who both resented and resembled Gross’s remark, let the host have it for “playing with [her] words” and pivoted to the official script the DNC issued sometime around 2011. Her position, Clinton said, had merely “evolved.”

For her part, Gross seemed wounded by Hillary’s hostility, as if it had been clear she was merely giving her guest a public-radio secret handshake for having been clandestinely pro–“marriage equality” all along, even before it was safe to tell the masses.

But one can understand Clinton’s testiness on the subject, especially considering the presidential overtones, undertones, and plain-old tones of the book tour she’s currently on. Given where her party’s consensus has moved over just the last few years, it’s a dangerous time to have ever been against gay marriage.

That leaves Mrs. Clinton in a dilemma. Either Gross is right, and she’s been misleading voters for years in a kind of time-release Noble Lie — a hypocrisy that was not inert; her husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act — or else she really did hold the views of people her people now consider abominable bigots, and held them as recently as 2012.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also true of Barack Obama, and in the coming years it will be true of just about every nationally relevant Democrat over the age of 45 who is asked about gay marriage. The question will become a sort of quantum-measurement event, which causes the amorphous beliefs of an entire aging generation to collapse into their own palatable “evolution” narratives.

Now I have no problem with the idea that a person’s views on the politics of marriage could evolve over time (mine certainly have). But it makes many in the progressive policy vanguard profoundly uneasy, and forces them to swallow the Straussian view — that Clinton has been One of Us all along, and was waiting for the hoi polloi to catch up — as the lesser of two ills.

The reason they are willing to stomach this level of dishonesty and hypocrisy has something to do with contempt for popular opinion, to be sure. But it is also bound up with what could be called the always-alreadyness of the progressive self-conception. “Always-already” is a clunky translation of a German adverb of art that has its roots in Marx and Heidegger and is still bandied about by the critical-theory set. But for our purposes the important part is that it describes a kind of cognitive point of no return, like the event horizon of a black hole. Once you’re inside it, it becomes impossible not only to go back, but even to conceive what it was like outside.

There are traces of the always-already in the parable of Pandora, or Adam’s bite at the apple: Man is always already fallen. Or, to use a more earthly example, one could talk about the acquisition of consciousness, either by our remote ancestors or ourselves as infants, in these terms. That is, we find ourselves always already cogitating. 

The things about us that are always-already are no longer accidental or even essential properties, but so inexorably a part of our being that they are indivisible from it. And that’s the thing that you have to know about the progressive self-conception, the thing that makes Hillary’s dilemma — either she’s a lying hypocrite or she held Rick Santorum’s views two years ago — so agonizing for her fans on the left. Progressivism, you see, is always already “on the right side of history.”

In practice, this means that once a view achieves hegemony within the movement and is folded into its corporate body of beliefs, it becomes impossible to comprehend a place and time in which a right-thinking person could hold all the other progressive views without holding the newest progressive view. Progressivism short of support for gay marriage isn’t progressivism at all, and in a critical sense, it never was. The principle applies when progressives decide to shed views as well. Progressives were always already against, e.g., sterilization or prohibition.

This always-alreadyness accounts for the frequent conservative complaint that the Left is ignorant of its own history. In the case of gay marriage, always-alreadyness by necessity obscures that some of the earliest organized support came from the burgeoning libertarian movement of the Seventies, whose remnant is now the most vital force in the GOP. So too does it ignore that Barack Obama’s adviser at Occidental, typical among the gay radicals who came up in a pre–Andrew Sullivan world, was utterly indifferent to his pupil’s “evolution” on marriage, viewing the institution as a hetero-bourgeois backwater.

But the myopia of the always-already extends into the future as well. It’s why I am in the habit of asking my lefty friends, as they scoff at some item of red-state backwardness, whether they worry about committing unknowing acts of bigotry for which their progressive successors will judge them.

They’re usually confused by the question. Bigotry is always already conservative.

Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel FosterDaniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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