Magazine | October 14, 2019, Issue

Elizabeth Warren’s Limitless Ideology

Yesterday’s progressive, tomorrow’s atavist (Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images)
Why progressivism can never stop

One of the more revealing moments in Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign came early in the second Democratic debate, held in Detroit in July. John Delaney, a former U.S. representative from Maryland’s sixth district, suggested that her plans might be grandiose. She replied: “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” She was applauded. Delaney did not qualify for the next debate.

Delaney’s comments about grandiosity — he had suggested, modestly, in the previous debate that Democrats should fix broken things and keep those that work — partook of the political virtue of prudence, the calibration of statecraft to circumstance. Warren’s partook of an ideology of progress. On her account, there was no reason to be president simply to govern — still less, one assumes, to execute the will of Congress. The purpose of presidents is to do things that are new.

But the point is finer than that. Warren is emblematic (not alone but in the forefront) of the left wing of the Democratic party’s revelatory shift in self-description: Onetime liberals are now progressives. Liberals believe in the capacity of government to do good. Progressives believe that government’s job is to push society forward toward ever sunnier uplands.

The difference is one of limitation. Conservatism embodies a natural principle of limitation, for one must ask what and how much to conserve. Liberalism, too, permits limitation — Daniel Patrick Moynihan, among others, was an exemplar in this regard — because it allows its adherents to ask how much good government can feasibly do.

The problem with the rhetoric of progressivism is that progress is like wisdom and beauty: More is always better than less. What Edmund Burke said of the Jacobins’ denunciation of limited monarchy is true of progressivism’s attitude toward limited government: Burke observed that the Jacobins were enemies “to limited Monarchy, as monarchy, and to the limitation, as limitation.” Jacobins rejected the idea that there were limits to what they could transform.

So does the internal logic of progress reject limits, when progress is employed as a system of political thought or a principle of political action. It cannot respect dissent because progress is an inherent good, not a matter of dispute. For this reason, Warren describes advocates of progress as enlightened while she characterizes its opponents as categorically retrograde or corrupt. It would clearly be silly to say heads will roll under Warren as they did under Robespierre. But we are nonetheless witnessing the demonization of opposition. Systems that arguably do not even exist as discrete entities — think of the vaunted or denounced “market” in this regard — are “rigged.” Critics are “corrupt.”

Warren is not unique in demonizing opponents. President Trump, whose nicknames for his adversaries are more appropriate to a schoolyard than to his office, has elevated it to a grim artistry. But that is a matter of his personality, not his ideology. The logic of progressivism, by contrast, compels such behavior. Who, after all, would oppose progress? Only those with a corrupt interest in retarding it or those who are insufficiently enlightened to see the path ahead.

Because progress knows no limits and respects no opponents, the only way to defeat a fellow progressive is to outflank him or her by proposing more progress. The result is the sort of ideological auction that Burke recognized in Jacobin France: If anyone “should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular.”

The new dogma of Medicare for All — an apparent repudiation of congressional Democrats’ position in the 2018 cycle that it was imperative to defend Obamacare — illustrates the point. Obamacare had been a major liberal victory, but the logic of progress cannot accept being content with a defense of the program. Progress has no goal line: The field stretches on forever.

One result of this is a politics of enemies — in Warren’s case, the rich. Her plan to impose an additional 2 percent tax on the very wealthiest treats them as objects, which is evident in the fact that her accounting of the revenue that the proposal would generate does not consider the simple human fact that people who are taxed tend to change their behavior to avoid paying. Their wealth is a mere source for an ever-expanding menu of gifts. 

Democrats used to talk about helping with the cost of child care. For Warren, the tax would fund universal child care that was free to those whose income was below 200 percent of the poverty line and that cost no more than 7 percent of income for anyone. There were times when the priority was to allow people to refinance student loans. Warren wants to cancel up to $50,000 of student-loan debt altogether for people with household incomes below $100,000. Democrats once protected — some favored reforming and even limiting — Social Security; Warren wants to enlarge it by $200 a month. Not to worry: The “wealthy” will pay.

What Warren fails to recognize is that the formula of progress that dictates these measures also dictates that they will someday be regarded as the ungenerosity of a primitive people. On the logic of progress, why isn’t free child care for people whose income is below 300 percent of the poverty line better than free child care for people below 200 percent? Why cancel only $50,000 in debt? Why not a Social Security boost of $201 per month? She wants a $15 minimum wage. Setting it at $16 or $20 would represent more progress still.

Under this dynamic, Bill Clinton, once a hero, is recalled as nearly conservative. Joe Biden, once a liberal, is now a moderate. This chase will catch up with Warren sooner or later. She, too, will be the one who wanted the rich to pay “only” 2 percent more.

The point is not that Warren’s proposals are grandiose. They are, but grandiosity at any moment is subject to persuasion or critique based on the circumstances and needs of the time. The point is rather that the political theory she embraces requires the grandiosity to escalate continuously. There neither is nor can be a limiting principle.

One result is that it becomes impossible to revere the past, since anyone from that foreign country must have been retrograde compared with the progress being made today. There cannot be heroes from yesterday, because our forebears cannot live up to the imperatives of the ever-present now. 

Neither can there be lessons from the past, only reminders of how primitive things were. Just now, Warren is heroic to progressives. That heroism is ephemeral. It has to be: Progress demands it. Nor, in the progressive ethos, can there be prudence. Prudence entails measure; progress demands more, always more.

This phenomenon is not limited to Warren; she happens merely to exemplify it. American voters, and especially journalists, are as fascinated by change as cats are by motion. Conservation and limitation do not exhilarate the way transformation does. Donald Trump claimed that his moment demanded transformation. But so did Barack Obama, and so will Trump’s successor. Any one of them might have been right. The chances that all of them are right — that there actually is a crisis of the regime demanding Rushmore-quality presidents on a quadrennial cycle that happens to coincide with presidential elections — are slim. 

Americans have largely accepted a view of history in which conservation and limitation are unacceptable, if only because they are boring. Yet life is limitation; this mortal coil is defined by its finitude. Recall the wisdom of that old-school liberal, Moynihan. A critic of the New Left in the 1960s (note that “new,” it is pregnant with meaning), Moynihan wrote: 

The matter comes to this. The stability of a democracy depends very much on the people making a careful distinction between what government can do and what it cannot do. To demand what can be done is altogether in order: some may wish such things accomplished, some may not, and the majority may decide. But to seek that which cannot be provided, especially to do so with the passionate but misinformed conviction that it can be, is to create the conditions of frustration and ruin. 

That claim is entirely compatible with liberalism. Conservatives invoke it too, and then they argue with liberals as to the proper scope of government. But as Warren demonstrated in her exchange with Delaney, progressivism is inherently antithetical to any such conversation. There is nothing that cannot be done. There is an answer to every problem, and it always begins with “more.”

It is unsurprising that Warren’s views are attractive to excitable primary voters and that the Democratic party, in the age of nominating processes that empower the most partisan voters, has moved left. On the other hand, barely yesterday, defending Obamacare was doctrine. Today, Obamacare was only a first step and single-payer health care is dogma. Tomorrow, the Warrens will be atavists. The auction of progress always consumes its bidders.

This article appears as “Infinite Ideology” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Greg Weiner — Mr. Weiner is a political scientist at Assumption College, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author, most recently, of Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence.

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