Monday, March 31, 2008

Progressive Conservatism -or- A brief guide to political ideology

"Progressive Conservative" at The Big Stick requests that I define what I mean by various political ideological labels.

We can make a very useful distinction in politics just by looking at how much one wants to change things, and on what basis, without considering the actual substance of those changes. This analysis is suggested by the literal meanings of words commonly employed to designate political ideologies, notably "progressive" and "conservative".

A radical wants to make foundational changes in society, culture and law. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China, as well as the American adoption of democracy in the 18th century, are paradigmatic examples of radical change. (Radical change is never quite as radical as expected; the Communist party leaders became the new Tsars and Emperors, and the American wealthy became the new aristocracy, today almost completely hereditary.)

A progressive wants to improve her society. She wants to make changes where she beliefs those changes will result making society better.

A traditionalist wants to keep everything more-or-less the same. He is willing to make changes only if some aspect of society is clearly failing.

For a traditionalist, the notion that an idea is traditional (and not an obvious failure) is sufficient reason to preserve it unchanged. For a progressive, that an idea is traditional is not sufficient reason; even if something is working, that it's possible that it could be working better is sufficient reason to change it.

Of course there are finer gradations. A cautious progressive is aware of the law of unintended consequences; she still wants to improve society, but recognizes that changes have to be incremental and evolutionary. Traditionalists too differ as to what degree of failure justifies change.

The specific term "liberal" came into political discourse around the time of the American Revolution and became fixed into specifically democratic discourse in the early 19th century. At that time, the liberals were progressive, at times even radical (they wanted to change things). The conservatives were the traditionalists of that time; they wanted to conserve traditional modes of governance and culture.

Therefore, conservatism became associated with the specific ideas the traditionalists of the late 18th/early 19th centuries wished to conserve: Political authoritarianism, rigid (and usually hereditary) class distinctions, militarism, the positive value of profoundly unequal distribution of wealth, and a narrow withhold-by-default construction of individual civil rights; liberalism then came to designate the progressive changes people wanted to make at the time: democratization, classlessness and/or meritocracy, pacifism, equal distribution of wealth, and broad grant-by-default civil rights.

19th century liberalism has, in general and with no small few setbacks, become traditional, sanctioned by two centuries of implementation in the West. Furthermore, we achieved a very liberal society by the middle of the of the 20th century, and liberals became profoundly traditional, unwilling to improve traditional liberal ideas even when improvement was possible.

We can describe a modern conservative, then, is someone who likes the pre-revolutionary society in general, but without some ideas that are clearly failures. (Few modern-day conservatives consciously want an explicitly hereditary absolute monarchy, slavery or explicit serfdom; most conservatives do favor some degree of meritocracy.) A modern liberal is a liberal traditionalist, who wants to keep our liberal institutions unchanged (or at least unchanged relative to the acme of liberal democracy in the US, pre-Nixon or pre-Reagan).

We are in the weird situation where "conservatives" want to change things: They want to erase many of the liberal ideas implemented since the late 17th century. They're not quite reactionary, they don't want to implement a society that's exactly the same as before the American revolution, but they view as Bad Ideas many of those liberal ideas implemented since then, especially those explicitly contrary to authoritarianism and classism.

So how are we to understand Progressive Conservative (the impetus for this post)?

All modern conservatives are in some sense "progressive", according to my terminology: they want to change modern society. However, conservatives usually bill themselves as traditionalists. They achieve this verbal sleight-of-hand by declaring that ideas implemented since their preferred time (ranging from the middle of the 17th century to beginning of the 20th) are a priori "experimental", i.e. not traditional.

Of course, we cannot expect Progressive Conservative to have employed my idiosyncratic nomenclature. Unfortunately, the subtitle of his blog ("Defining a progressive conservative agenda for the 21st century") notwithstanding, he appears leery of actually defining anything, preferring vague generalities. The sole substantive point he explains in more than a sentence is a preference for environmental "conservation" over "preservation", a position which is still rather vague as to the details and probably unrealistic: with six billion people on the planet, only a very small few could actually use natural areas without turning them completely artificial.

We see a clear preference for traditionalism. He praises the Boy Scouts (an explicitly anti-gay and anti-atheist organization) for their "commitment to traditional morality and values." He quotes Joel Kotkin approvingly for Kotkin's condemnation (itself a canard) of liberalism as indifferent to "traditional American moral or religious ideals" such as discipline and self-reliance. And he states his traditionalism explicitly*:
For me, conservatism is not about a reluctance to change. It is about tradition. Traditional values, traditional ethics, tradtional morality. It is my belief that we can pursue progressive goals within a conservative framework, hince [sic] progressive conservatism.
[emphasis added in each of the above quotations]

*His template does not seem to allow linking to specific comments.

Both his adulation of Theodore Roosevelt and his "specifics",
- A complete evaluation of existing social programs, both public and private. Use a conservative approach to eliminate waste, loopholes and those taking advantage of the system.

- Union busting. The big unions are now as corrupt as the corporations they were created to fight.

- Conservation, conservation, conservation.

- Social justice through a cooperative effort of government, private and religious institutions.

- Education reform across the board based on the traditional model. Elimination of federal funding of education and return power to the states.
reveal (where actually specific; "social justice" is a vacuous phrase without more detail) a classically conservative agenda.

While I'm sympathetic to the idea of trying to redefine terminology by sheer force of will, Progressive Conservative will have to do more than simply employ Orwellian doublespeak to re-define "progressivism" as the conservative traditions established in the first decade of the 20th century and do more to differentiate himself from the garden-variety conservative to have any hope of altering our definition of "progressivism" in any honest, substantive, and non-bullshit way.

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