The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Michael P. Federici - 08/25/11

Progressivism is intimately tied to modern liberalism and the politics of the welfare state, which holds that the transformation of society can only be achieved by a centralized government that has sufficient power to remake society. In this vein, progressives take up causes that conservatives consider misguided. Examples of progressive reforms would include the Great Society’s war on poverty, the abolition of private gun ownership, and the Eighteenth Amendment. Conservatives criticize progressive reforms because they believe these reforms do not account for unintended consequences, are based on a misunderstanding of the human condition, and fail to accept a degree of evil in the world. Consequently, conservatives often conclude that progressive reforms end up doing more harm than good. For example, abortion, which has been a central reform in the progressive cause of liberating women from traditional sex roles, has helped achieve liberation at the cost of infanticide and the depreciation of human life. Thus, in many ways progressivism is an inclination diametrically opposed to that of conservatism.

The progressive imagination is also manifest in the thought of those who advocate a “living” Constitution. For such thinkers, it makes no sense to adhere to a permanent, fixed constitution if the current generation knows better than past generations what are the true, the good, and the beautiful. The Constitution must therefore be adapted to the times. Justice Douglas expressed this idea in his Gray v. Sanders (1963) opinion. In that case the Court embraced the principle of one-person-one-vote and rejected the framers’ political theory. Douglas wrote that “[p]assage of the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments shows” that the conception of political equality expressed by Hamilton in Federalist 68 in describing the Electoral College “belongs to a bygone day, and should not be considered in determining what the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires in statewide elections.”

Finally, progressivism has in it a gnostic element. That is, progressives believe that they possess the knowledge needed to transform society and human nature. They are greatly dissatisfied with the world as it is and are impatient with life and the very structure of reality because these fall short of perfection or the progressive ideal. These gnostic attributes are part of an existential disposition that fails to accept the permanence of evil in earthly life—in theological terms, original sin. By contrast, most conservatives believe that the structure of reality, including human nature, is permanent. Attempts to transform the human condition end up in disaster, as Huxley and Orwell suggest in their dystopias Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Today, progressive ideas are especially prevalent in international politics. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives both tend to embrace Wilsonian democracy. They believe that if democracy and capitalism are spread through the world, peace and stability will be much more likely. Here again lies the underlying assumption of progressivism: evil is the result of a poorly organized world. Reorganization of the world in accordance with progressive ideas will usher in a new age of freedom, equality, and peace.

Further Reading
  • Carey, George W. A Student’s Guide to American Political Thought. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2004.
  • Gamble, Richard. The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003.
  • Ryn, Claes. America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2003.
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