November 4, 2003
"progressives" are conservativeMy Oct. 30 entry argues that today's "progressives" are best understood as conservatives, seeking to maintain a set of institutions that they do not believe are well designed, but which they prefer to the speculative market alternatives promoted by the Right. I did not mean this as a criticism, since such conservatism is valuable. Edmund Burke taught that we should hesitate to overturn interrelated social systems that have evolved over generations; they embody the experience of the people who have learned to live with them. It is easy to prove that their design is inefficient or inequitable, compared to some chalkboard alternative. But radical changes often go awry. On these grounds, Burke rightly preferred the Old Regime in France, for all its aribitrary, wasteful, unjust features, to the revolutionary system that fell apart after it had cost millions of lives. Similarly, I respect people who believe that public schools, unions, and welfare programs are better than the radical alternatives suggested by economic theory. The problem with progressivism is not that it is wrong. Rather, it is politically and rhetorically weak, for it's always difficult to win elections with a grudging defense of the status quo.
I would add that today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve both natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific progress: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They object to the expanding federal power over law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.
This is a selective list. One could mention issues on which self-described "conservatives" are more conservative than liberals are. (The public role of religion would be one.) However, I think we should recognize the deep conservatism of the modern Left—in Europe as well as America—for this partly expains the present political situation. Conservatism is a virtue of so-called "progressivism" today; it is also a profound political weakness.