December 15, 2010

The Deconstruction of Obama's Progressivism

The Hoover Institution's Peter Berkowitz in a long but thorough primer on Barack Obama and the sources of his deeply ingrained modern progressivism comes to this conclusion:
One reason for the resounding rebuke delivered by the electorate to the Democratic Party and its leader last month was the immoderation and un-pragmatic character of President Obama’s progressivism. In its pursuit of a transformative agenda, it treated the public as too simpleminded or mean-spirited to adopt the correct policies for the correct reasons. It overlooked that while government is in a good position to provide equality before the law and equal opportunity, it is often a bad judge of what citizens deserve and poorly equipped to ensure equal outcomes. And in seeking to expand government’s responsibility for managing citizens’ lives, it ignored the prospects for diminishing citizens’ freedom.

The president and his fellow progressives needn’t be seen as having acted cynically. In the progressive mind — as illustrated by the president’s rhetoric on the campaign trail and conduct in office, and professors’ theories about deliberative democracy, pragmatism, and empathy — progressives are moderate and post-partisan because progressivism itself is not a flawed and incomplete perspective but rather the comprehensive perspective that has at last transcended the flawed and incomplete perspectives of the past. Progressivism’s vision of reform, progressives suppose, is vouched for by reason, by practice, and by the heart. It is equivalent for them to justice itself.

It follows that those who depart from progressivism are unreasonable, indifferent to or disdainful of how the world really works, and heartless — in a word, unjust. From the point of view of the new progressivism, compromise is form of compassion; it means offering the unreasonable, the impractical, and the heartless a seat at the table and providing them an opportunity to recognize the wisdom of progressive ways. And moderation for the new progressivism is kind of resoluteness; it signifies flexibility, patience, and persistence in pursuing progressive ends.

Confidence that one possesses the complete and final understanding of morals and politics can encourage a politician to think of himself as a transformer and redeemer rather than as a statesman. It can impel a president confronting dramatic electoral backlash to attribute opposition to his party and his programs to a fear that blinds voters to “facts and science and argument.” And it can drive him to rouse loyalists to adopt the ancient warriors’ ethic and declare, “We’re going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.” One reason that progressives under pressure so readily succumb to the common temptation to deride voters who disagree with them as frightened and foolish and to portray fellow citizens as adversaries to be vanquished is that progressive assumptions about knowledge and politics make such conclusions about those who decline to follow their lead hard to escape.
Although Berkowitz delves into the influence of modern philosophers Rawls and Rorty one aspect that I think is always lacking in the explanations of the New Progressives is the influences of the early 20th Century radicals on the Progressive movement; as I have said before these ain't your granddad’s progressives.

The Socialists, Anarchists, and Syndicalist didn’t just fade away; although they all still maintain a web presence  they largely, along with the progressives, melted into the Democratic Party in the 1940s. The last gasp effort for them to stand on their own was Iowa's own Henry Wallace's run for the presidency on the Socialist Party ticket in 1948. Many of their ideas and rhetoric became a part of the progressive movement which today takes the form of anti-capitalism and anti exceptional-ism, while the term democracy no longer refers to a  form of participatory politics but instead is a means of political control.

Taken together Progressivsism  becomes a superiority complex that sees non believers as cattle to be herded and Constitutionalism as a quaint but inadequate means of social order that unltimately must be replaced.

The Berkowitz piece is a long but definitely enlightening read.


Anonymous said...

Nice find.

It's funny. In a lot of ways, the progressives had more of a hold on the GOP in the early 20th century. But somehow the Democrats took in all the peace-creeps, beardo-the-weirdos and socialists.

Scott said...

Good point. FDR saw all those disparate interests, ie labor, leftist, and the social gospel types and was able to merge them into a coalition that has been pretty effective over the years. For the first time that I can remember it seems that the radicals have risen to the top or maybe as the coalition has been marginalized they are now in the majority.

Thanks for stopping by I know its been pretty sparse around here lately.
And Merry Chrismas to you and yours.