As a companion to Henry Wickham's article today on the term progressive, let me offer a few thoughts from 2004.
The word 'liberal' has a bad odor to it these days, a situation which the American left blames on conservatives, accusing them of 'demonizing' it in the public mind. From their perspective, the average citizen is incapable of coming to an independent judgment, having observed decades of failed liberal policies. Instead, it must be evil conservatives who have propagandized the public into believing American liberalism is a failed ideology. The liberals' underlying contempt for the ability of the ordinary man and woman to understand reality and make meaningful choices is once again revealed.
Liberals are not exactly pragmatists, but they have discovered that burnishing the liberal label is a lost cause. So they have adopted a new brand name for their politics, 'progressivism.' A large insurance company (whose principal owner is a major funder of MoveOn.org and other left wing causes) is named Progressive, so the label is already supported by a fair amount of advertising aimed at generating a friendly image. Probably, this is a coincidence. But the fact is that most people have not given much thought as to the real meaning of the term progressive.
Americans are accustomed to thinking of progress as a mostly good thing. Our ancestors left their homelands in search of something better, and millions still come here as immigrants, seeking progress in their own lives, through the boundless opportunities our political institutions and our comparatively vigorous version of capitalism provide. Historically, we are innovators, and innovation is driven by the sense that things could be better. Progress, as we generally understand it, is change for the better.
Capitalism itself is an engine of progress. Entrepreneurs continuously search for new and better ways of providing the needs and wants of potential customers. The 'creative destruction' which Joseph Schumpeter celebrated sweeps away the old and inefficient through the engine of competitive markets. This is genuine progress, as judged by the people making their buying decisions. But this sort of progress is unpredictable and uncontrollable, since it is at the mercy of countless independently—acting producers and consumers.
The left has no use for this sort of progress. There is no room in it for the wise and all—powerful hand of government, which is what the left is really seeking to augment.
Buried in the term 'progressive' (as the left uses it) is the assumption that history is moving inexorably, even if by fits and starts, in a certain direction, one that is understandable to those who possess the secret decoder ring. This is why government is so necessary. It alone can bring order to the chaos and messiness which individuals, left to their own devices, impose on their masters, and on the intellectuals who see so clearly what the rest of us cannot perceive.
You know code they have mastered. It was explained in Das Kapital. Capitalism is but a stage. At the time when feudalism needed to be destroyed, capitalism was a progressive force. But by the late Nineteenth Century, the elect were able to see that it was a malign force, impoverishing the proletariat, and wasting too many resources on needless goods and services, at least as need and worth were understood by Marxists. Capitalism became, and remains, bad.
Progressives are still stuck, conceptually and politically, in the era of railways, steel, sewing machines, with high technology meaning oal tar-based chemicals. The era when labor unions were the defenders of oppressed workers pressed against the margin of starvation. Their current day protectionist policies, as well as their adherence to unions which have become bastions of restriction on free exchange, reveal this nostalgic set of priorities quite clearly.
Economic progress is the last thing in which political progressives are interested. They fight a rearguard action to preserve from progress the entrenched interests which donate money to them, and which depend on government favor to guarantee their security in an uncertain world. Progressives cloak their economic policies in the garb of compassion, an effort to ameliorate the pain that comes with change. They don't dare advocate the logical end point of their economic inclinations, because 'socialism' has even a worse odor than liberalism.
The one arena in which liberal policies proclaim themselves as on an unambiguous path to a better future, with history on their side, is in social policy, especially sexual politics. The family is an anachronism, and the restraints on sexual activity embedded in the Bible and in traditional morality, are all sheer repression, inhibiting the human race from expressing its full potential for pleasure, discovery, and experimentation.
If Marx is the godfather of their economic thought, then Jean-Jacques Rousseau is their social policy great—great godfather. Reaching back a full century prior to Marx, they draw inspiration from a man who taught that mankind is naturally pure, and becomes corrupted by misguided social institutions inherited from earlier eras.
Not for them original sin, or even human nature. We can be anything we want to be, as long as we invent the proper new social constructs to mold our nature to fit our desires.
Every child goes through a stage like this, where every part of the body is to be explored as an instrument of pleasure, before the customs and taboos of society are imposed from without. Sigmund Freud labeled this stage 'polymorphous perversity.' Most people travel through this stage and attain normal adulthood, but some remain in this stage throughout their lives.
Progressives seek to take us all back to that stage, overcoming the repression that Freud outlined as necessary to move past it. In a very real sense, progressives today want to take us back to a pre—adult stage of life.
I therefore propose that we rectify the name of this political tendency, dropping the label progressive in favor of the more accurate term: regressive. Call them what they are: the regressives.