March 21, 2007
Progressive?By Henry P. Wickham, Jr.
It is time to drop from our political vocabulary the once useful word "progressive." When not deceptive, it is meaningless. It is a word that pretends to be descriptive and informative when it is more often an impediment to thought. When used as self-description, it is inevitably self-congratulation.
Progressive in its more general sense means advancing or making progress. It means increasing or developing, usually in a positive sense. When used in a political context, there is often a connotation of reform and improvement. Advertisers could not have come up with a more attractive label for one with a political agenda.
There was a time in our history when the positive connotations of this word as description of certain political policies were reasonably merited. When African-Americans were suffering the woes of Jim Crow laws and the bigotry that spawned them, efforts to end these conditions were certainly progressive.
Recognition that a functioning democratic republic must have an educated citizenry once led to a broadening of educational opportunities. Concurrent with these growing educational opportunities was a gradual opening of the political process. Candidates began to be chosen in primary elections rather than anointed in backroom deals. There was increased enforcement of voting rights for the disenfranchised. All of these developments could be fairly called progress, and those who advocated them, progressive.
There was legislation to make a more safe, competitive, and fair economic environment, not only among businesses but also between employer and employee. There is no question that the huge strides made in cleaning up the environment were progress. Those advocating these economic and environmental improvements could reasonably call this a progressive agenda.
However, those who call themselves progressive today advocate little that has the merit of these historical incidents of real progress. Just as labor unions and the NAACP are obsolete and crude caricatures of what they once were, so is the term, progressive, when used to describe a branch of current political policy or its advocates. One has only to look at the positions now adopted by our self-described progressives.
The once noble civil rights movement has become a campaign for racial preferences and even the absurd idea of reparations. Gone is the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. who advocated a color blind society where people are judged by the content of their character. For our progressives, advocacy of Dr. King's vision is "code" for bigotry and oppression. Racial and ethnic backgrounds have become the pretext for asserting grievances and extracting concessions. The comparison of Dr. King to the farcical Al Sharpton speaks volumes about the degeneration of what was once a genuinely progressive vision.
Those who call themselves progressives are now wholly-owned subsidiaries of union leadership. Rather than broadening educational opportunity, they condemn the most needy to failing schools. They oppose choice in schools. Judges torture language to eliminate the ability of the poor to attend better schools; all to protect the power and perks of the teachers' unions and the politicians on whom the unions lavish contributions.
One of the first acts of the so-called progressives in the House of Representatives in 2007 was to pass legislation that ends the secret ballot for union elections. What should be a sacred democratic right to a secret ballot has been sacrificed to union power and the uses of physical intimidation.
Our self-styled progressives ape the traditional claim to reform, this term "reform" being as inappropriate as the label, progressive. They bestowed upon the country "campaign finance reform." These laws and regulations protect incumbents, and they make it nearly impossible for anyone not independently wealthy to mount a successful campaign for Congress or the presidency. It is difficult to describe as progress public offices now reserved only for the rich and powerful.
Our progressives continually argue for expanded governmental entitlements, more dependence by the citizenry on our political classes, and the burgeoning welfare state. Old Europe is their model. They tell us to turn over the provision of health care to government bureaucrats under the euphemism of "single payer"; to restrict labor markets and mandate wages in a way that has given Old Europe chronically high unemployment and lower productivity; to raise taxes on the productive that stifles initiative and feeds the voracious bureaucracy; and to restrict trade the result of which inflates prices and restricts consumer choice.
In place of a responsible desire for conservation and environmental protection, they reenact the hysteria generated in 1938 by Orson Wells' War of the Worlds, with global warming serving as the substitute for the invaders from Mars.
Our progressives adopt policies that undermine not just the power of the United States in foreign affairs but also the concept of sovereignty itself. They seek to empower the thoroughly corrupt and ineffective United Nations Security Council on issues of American national security. They advocate that the politicized International Criminal Court have jurisdiction over American citizens and power over American courts.
It is especially damaging for those who sensibly oppose these polices and this agenda to refer to them as progressive. Words have meaning and meaning has consequences. To concede the word progressive is to confer upon these bad ideas all the good connotations of the word. It adds legitimacy that may not be intended. It is to compliment while condemning, and this undermines the argument against these bad ideas.
Of course, the First Amendment protects the rights of Americans to advocate foolishness. Let these advocates take into the marketplace of ideas their desire to burden America with these bad ideas. We can only hope that J.S. Mill is correct and that in this marketplace these ideas will be shown for the foolishness that they are.
However, it is time for truth in labeling. It is difficult for any marketplace to function when things are called the opposite of what they actually are. Let us resolve that from this day forward not to tolerate the calling of any of these bad ideas progressive, and let us resolve to call none who advocate them progressive. If we must call them anything, let us refer to these advocates as Statists, Socialists, Leftists, Euro-wannabes, or Euro-decadents. Anything but progressive. There is no progress to associate with these advocates and their agenda. They don't deserve the positive connotations of the word. It is time for this term, progressive, to join as a historical curiosity terms such as Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Transcendentalists. This banishment will be real progress, and truth its largest beneficiary.
[See Thomas Lifson's comments on the term progressive in our blog today.]
Henry P. Wickham, Jr.