The Tyranny Blog


That’s apparently Obama’s official slogan (Someone really needs to photoshop Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, with Obama leading the charge).

Victor Morgan over at the Washington Times has a short precis on the history of the use of the word “Forward” on the left. It’s interesting, but I think he misses the more basic point. “Forward” is simply a synopsis of the progressive understanding of the State. The State has always been seen by the left as the engine of history. When Obama says he’s about going Forward, he’s also saying that he thinks the government is the thing that moves us all forward, that the State is the source of Progress. I have no doubt he believes this. And obviously the government is a major driver of change — however change is a very different thing than progress. Sometimes government driven change is good, sometimes not. The more important point, however, is that government is only one of many sources of change. Technology is at least as important. The car was certainly had a far more profound impact on society than, say, Warren Harding. The birth control pill, antibiotics, the telephone, frozen pizza, etc: These all are far more significant than 99% of what passes for politics.  Culture, religion and demography are also often far more important and relevant than the State. The problem is that progressives tend to see all of these things as products of the State in some way. If we are to go forward it must in the saddle of the State. One could say that if you believe the State is the source of all progress, then everything is in the state and nothing is outside the state. But that’s a point for my old book.

One of the overriding themes of my new book is that this hardwired progressive assumption, that the State turns the wheel of history, is baked into our language and worldviews in ways that we don’t always appreciate. From the introduction:

The Whiggish assumption in contemporary politics that today must be better than yesterday, this year more advanced than last year, this century wiser than the one that preceded it is held most dogmatically by so-called progressives. For them history is a vehicle with no reverse gear, and the engine that powers it is nothing more or less than the State. This is the hardened, metaphysical, dogmatic cliché that makes it possible for journalists to glibly describe any expansion of the government into our lives as a “step forward” or an “advancement” and any retrenchment of government as a step “backward.” A Republican proposal of market-based reform always amounts to “turning back the clock.” As discussed at length in a subsequent chapter, this is the core assumption behind the idea of the “living Constitution”—an idea that assumes with Hegelian ortho- doxy that expansions of the State are the sine qua non of progress (see Chapter 14, Living Constitution).

One small example: During the recent debate over reforming Medi- care, many liberals insisted that any backsliding amounted to a sacrile- gious violation of a fundamental “covenant.” Writing in The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn, a leading health care expert, quotes LBJ’s Medicare law signing statement:

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” Johnson said at the signing ceremony. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.”


“Read those quotes carefully,” Cohn advises us, “because they spell out the covenant that Johnson made with the American people on that day: A promise that the elderly and (certain groups) of the poor would get comprehensive medical insurance, no matter what.” Now I cannot and will not criticize Cohn for believing that the government should ensure that the truly needy and elderly receive medical care. That is an honorable, intellectually defensible position. Though I should at least mention that wanting the needy to receive health care does not necessarily require a vast expansion of the federal government. But my point isn’t to debate the means to a desirable end.

No, the reason why I find Cohn’s argument so useful is that it illustrates the progressive mind-set so perfectly. Cohn argues that LBJ made a covenant with the American people—a covenant is a sacred contract—to ensure that the poor would henceforth and forever get comprehensive medical insurance. Here’s the problem: Presidents cannot bind future presidents, never mind future Congresses. Any law can be revisited, any presidential decree may be rescinded. One would hope that Cohn would recognize this fact given that his magazine routinely argues that not even the Constitution itself should be considered permanently binding and restrictive (which is to say it shouldn’t permanently bind or constrict progressives in ways they find inconvenient). What offends Cohn and his fellow progressives is the suggestion that any liberal victory once pocketed can ever be reversed. Laws and words have no binding power on future generations, but once Team Progressive puts points on the score- board, they can never come off. That is what is sacred, because their conception of history only goes in one direction.

This is the living, breathing heart of the progressive worldview. It is as ideological as any conviction can be. And that is fine. There is nothing wrong and a great deal that is right with having ideological convictions. What is offensive to logic, culturally pernicious, and, yes, infuriating to me is the claim that it is not an ideological tenet. Progressives lie to themselves and the world about this fact. They hide their ideological agenda within Trojan Horse clichés and smug assertions that they are simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to “what works.”

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now. @jonahnro

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