Postmodern Conservative

Is Progressivism Dead?

It’s starting to become a commonplace observation that our two parties are converging in a libertarian direction. That means, from one view, that they’re becoming demoralized. Veteran (well, elderly) Democrats, such as Thomas Edsall, are sadly observing that their party’s economic agenda is dead. That’s because younger voters, although loyal to the Democratic party, see its main role as protecting them from conservative moral restraint. Meanwhile, they have no faith that bigger government can alleviate the plight of the poor, and they buy the argument that government can’t afford to do much more that it’s doing. They are, in fact, so post-racist in their interpersonal lives that they even fail to see the need for the “classic” Democratic remedy for racism, which is affirmative action. And they are so post-heterosexist that they don’t see any reason in opposing same-sex marriage, and all gays need, of course, is the leveling of legal distinctions and not quotas or whatever.

 It’s not that young Democrats have suddenly come to conclude that the whole welfare state is unconstitutional; it’s just that they no longer care to devote themselves to defending what probably doesn’t have much a future. Why get excited about Social Security when it won’t be around when I get old anyway?

From Edsall’s point of view, this realignment of Democratic priorities, which can be seen in the president’s focusing his party’s mobilization against Hobby Lobby, Republican religious animosity, and all that, will mean that the Democrats will soon lack the firm spirit of unified resistance to Republican schemes to roll back taxes on the rich, starve entitlements and other government programs, and scale back those regulations that constrain the irresponsible greed of corporations and banks. Not only is the moral energy that drives the Democratic spirit of progressive, redistributive reform almost gone, but the void created by the lack of politicized communitarian compassion in young Democrats will be filled by the insistent and often successful big-money lobbying of business and corporate interests. Our oligarchs remain as energetic as ever.

In Edsall’s admirably judgmental opinion, young Democrats have become selfishly against real equality in their opposition to any kind of moral restraint imposed by government. They’re the party of uninhibited freedom in one’s own personal life. And they are no longer moved by any sensitivity to the injustices of the growing inequality — or the struggles of the failing middle class — that are the consequences of the unmediated effects of the global competitive marketplace on ordinary American lives.

Well, I’ve been saying for a while that big-government progressivism, or the communitarian Left, is dead. It’s great to have a classic and classy liberal agree with me.

The progressivism described by Justice Kennedy in Lawrence v. Texas is still very much alive. Laws once thought to be necessary and proper are today thought only to oppress. And our Framers left “liberty” undefined in the Constitution undefined in order that it serve as a weapon to be used by each generation of Americans in expanding its domain. That progressivism, of course, isn’t especially liberal. It’s part and parcel of the judicial activism defended by libertarians (who usually vote Republican in defense of economic liberty) such as Randy Barnett.

Just as the Democrats are demoralized by abandoning their traditional progressive economic agenda in view of trending opinion, the Republicans are demoralized by abandoning their social–cultural agenda for the same reason.

I want to say that I’m far from satisfied with this conclusion, from either a normative or an empirical point of view. If you look even more closely, you can see a slowly growing movement that’s consistently anti-libertarian, favoring the classic Democratic view on “social justice” and the Republican view on “social ecology.” I’m far from being a part of that movement, dissenting on both its normative assumptions and its empirical analysis. But the possibility of being consistently anti-progressive does, as they say, complicate the picture.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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