May 2, 2010
Progressive DeathBy Paul Kengor
Progressivism is all the rage nowadays, with liberals having jettisoned the "liberal" label for the less maligned tag of "progressive." In truth, "progressive" is a better name, more accurately describing the movement and its extremely broad, precariously unpredictable direction.
Here is the essence of the problem with progressives and their movement, which is a gigantic problem for all of America: One of the only things we really know about progressives, and that they know about themselves and their ideology, is that they favor constant "change," "reform," an ever-shifting, ongoing "evolution," or, yes, progression. And therein lies an inherent, significant difficulty: Progressivism offers no clear, definable end. The goal post is always moving, forever pushed farther away. Ends are never ends; they always "progress" with culture and society -- all along relying on the ludicrous assumption that the changes are always (or largely) good.
For the rest of us, this ambiguity is troubling -- bordering on maddening -- as we can't, by the very nature of progressivism, get an answer from progressives as to where, exactly, they intend to stop or take the country.
Such lack of clarity can be disastrous for any group, from a non-profit organization to a company and its shareholders. For a political movement, however -- one that endeavors to run a nation (if not a world) and exact policies that increasingly regulate and control individuals and their lives and property -- it is terribly alarming. In fact, it ought to give contemporary "liberals" pause.
Consider what else we know about progressives, evident from a track record of roughly one hundred years: They consistently advocate more and more centralization of power through collectivism and wealth redistribution. Inescapably, this leads to a progressively powerful state, one composed of widening regulations and agencies and departments -- launched mainly under the presidencies of Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Carter, and now Obama -- fueled by a (literal) progressive federal income tax that in less than thirty years skyrocketed from 1% (1913) to over 90% (1940s). It is a one-way expansion of power sliding almost entirely toward the national government.
Needless to say, this is, as a matter of plain fact, fundamentally antithetical to America itself -- that is, our republic as conceived by its founders. The American system is based on limited government, on eschewing a single federal Leviathan, on limited taxation, and on circumscribed control over the citizenry. Of course, to the progressive, this means that the Constitution itself is unsuitable, as it too must always evolve; the Constitution is always a work in progress, never good enough, and certainly not etched in stone. (It's exasperating when progressive presidents like Obama and FDR wrap themselves in a publicly professed love for the Constitution. This is rhetorical pabulum -- mere cynical public relations.)
As for those of us who are conservatives, who basically define ourselves by a shared vision with the American founders as expressed in sacred political documents like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and, among others, the Federalist Papers, progressivism is a political nightmare. For conservatives, the public knows more or less where our goalpost sits: it was erected circa 1776. We believe that America got the framework right long ago.
As one of our few truly conservative presidents, Calvin Coolidge, put it in an extraordinary speech flagged by my colleague John Van Til, we seek "to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound." We believe that the ideals of 1776 must be maintained. That year included not only America's Declaration, which spoke to the ages when it invoked the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but also the essential wisdom of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Going back farther still, conservatives ground their philosophy in the Biblical superstructure of moral absolutes, as did the founders.
Can't our progressive friends likewise give us some semblance of guidelines? Alas, they cannot, by their very definition. And their aversion to absolutes is made far worse by the reality that modern progressives, unlike their forebears at the start of the last century, are shockingly secular. (Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, were devoutly religious.)
Now, with that said, here's where the confusion has the potential to become downright lethal: It's bad enough when progressives get their hands on the federal government. There, their penchant for increased centralization ultimately bankrupts a nation. Yet, think about the consequences of their philosophy when applied to the very life and culture of America. Consider the progression by progressives on Culture of Life issues.
Take the example of Planned Parenthood, dear to the progressive heart. It took off in the 1920s and 1930s under Margaret Sanger, initially as the American Birth Control League. At first, Sanger and friends wanted birth control. They also advocated eugenics. Sanger was a racial eugenicist. She had hideous views, not only toward the poor ("human weeds," she called them), to the mentally disabled ("imbeciles" and "morons"), but, among others, to black Americans. On these last, progressives today dare not raise the grim specter of Sanger's "Negro Project" or infamous 1926 speech to a KKK rally in New Jersey.
But what about abortion? That gets to my general point in this article: The Planned Parenthood progressives weren't there yet. They had to warm up to the annihilation of the unborn.
Indeed, it will shock pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike to hear this, but Margaret Sanger initially denounced abortion. "It [abortion] is an alternative that I cannot too strongly condemn," wrote Sanger in the January 27, 1932 edition of The Nation (page 103). "[T]he practice of it merely for limitation of offspring is dangerous and vicious. ... [S]ome ill-informed persons have the notion that when we speak of birth control we include abortion as a method. We certainly do not."
Nonetheless, for these progressives, what began as birth control and eugenics -- aimed at stopping life at conception -- needed only a few decades to snuff out life after conception, to the point where Sanger's organization is now the world's largest provider of abortion. Sanger's progressive progeny picked up her torch and set the barn ablaze.
As with nearly everything progressives do, where they started wasn't enough. Birth control and eugenics couldn't satiate the lust, which became a bloodlust for "abortion rights." Planned Parenthood's progressives blindly bowed to the next level, beckoned by what Pope Benedict XVI calls "the anonymous power of changing moods and current fashion." (Such power, notes Benedict, crucifies truth.)
And, naturally, once legalized abortion came along, it, too, was not enough, which brings us to where we are now. Today, the progressives running the asylum are telling us that abortion ought to be funded by taxpayers. Here's a new nadir in their evolutionary chain, one poised to poison the very soul of America.
Abortion, likewise, will not be enough; no single issue ever is. So what's next in the progressives' progression in the Death Culture? Euthanasia? That's where their European brethren have arrived. Death panels?
Where does the train stop? Where does the march that advances the Culture of Death finally cease?
It serves us all -- including unborn future generations -- to want answers to some hard questions as far as ultimate objectives are concerned. I beg progressives for some kind of contours, a guess at a vague estimate: Could you please, this time around -- where human life is concerned -- establish some boundaries, set an end-goal or two, offer an inkling of predictability, a modicum of reasonable expectation, some flicker of a suggestion as to where you want to go?
Unfortunately, they can't, as such is the crux of their philosophy. It looks like progressivism is nothing more than another manifestation of the left's rot of moral relativism, changing terms, definitions, and, indeed, truth itself -- on matters like life itself -- as the march merrily moves along.
This is very disconcerting stuff, voted into office by millions of oblivious Americans who mindlessly voted for "change." Well, it is progressive change that they'll now get.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.