Less than two years after the beginning of a “new progressive era” in the United States, progressives face the midterm elections saddled with massive political baggage. This may seem like nothing new. Since the term gained currency in the early twentieth century, Russell Kirk, James Ceaser, Jonah Goldberg, and other conservatives have claimed that American progressives share intellectual territory with Marxists, Nazis, and other radical, intolerant atheists. Largely by their rhetorical force, they have converted progressivism into utopianism, bureaucratic technocracy, corporatism, emotivism, anti-Americanism, philosophical non-foundationalism, racism, and so on and so forth.
In other words, for the umpteenth time in the last two decades, the American Left doesn’t know what it stands for. As has become customary, progressives are waiting for their more organized opponents to define the debate, its terms, and their role in it. They are routinely on the defensive in public debate, even when the facts overwhelmingly support their positions. Progressives have been reduced to dismissing their opponents as unfair, as unenlightened, as racists, or as politically incorrect. This needn’t happen. Progressivism is not as amorphous as the current state of affairs indicates. This is no time to despair or retreat; it is a time to reengage and reassert progressive positions in more compelling ways.
So what does American progressivism mean? Start with what it’s not. The Right has long claimed that the Left represents a radical departure from traditional American understandings of individualism, liberty, equality, and justice. Just as those at Tea Party protests demand their country back from usurping politicians, conservative intellectuals have taken to maintaining that American progressivism somehow betrays the American political experiment, feeding right-wing charges that progressives are unpatriotic or out of step with the rest of the nation.
This position rests upon poor intellectual history and strained interpretations of progressive principles. The most substantive of their charges are based on small or irrelevant moments in progressive thought or history taken out of context, while their wilder charges are based on pure rhetorical frustration. Simply put: progressives are not nihilists, nor are they opposed to the American Constitution, nor are they socialists with a utopian faith in inevitable progress. Nothing could be further from the case. Let us take up each of these charges in turn.
PERHAPS THE most pernicious attack on progressivism is the charge of political (or philosophical or ethical) nihilism. With all their talk of tolerance or multiculturalism, aren’t progressives abandoning American tradition and standards for discerning right from wrong? Under no circumstances. Much of modern progressivism is founded upon American pragmatism, a homegrown school of political thought. Pragmatists argue that political rights and freedoms are founded on community traditions and shared history. Rights are not “natural,” but they are still meaningful and extremely important. The pragmatists recognized that rights mean different things in different historical contexts. The meanings of “freedom of speech,” “citizenship,” the “right to vote,” and “property” have changed over time in the United States because of important shifts in public understanding.
Thus, for most progressives, rights represent a wager we have made as a political community, a wager with our fellow citizens as to the sort of life we aim to live. In the United States, the right to vote has expanded over time to include American citizens of all races and of both sexes, because Americans came to believe that this was a better way to live as a political community. This is hardly nihilism or a claim that (in Ceaser’s words) “true democracy is foundation-less.” Progressives only argue that calling rights “natural” artificially fixes their meaning, often in troubling ways. After all, the “natural” right to property once meant a right to own other humans, and the “natural” right to vote originally was limited to white male citizens with a sufficient amount of property. Sanctifying rights as “natural” makes them convenient tools for justifying outrageous injustices.
This approach to rights informs the progressive understanding of and appreciation for the American Constitution. Above all, progressives maintain that its goals are as important as its technical sections outlining institutional design. The American Constitution aims to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” in the name of “We the People.” Constitutional protections of individual property, speech, and conscience are meaningful because they make it possible for Americans to enjoy valuable individual and community goods. They are judged by their consequences, by their fruits. Insofar as American institutions do not lead to the political goods central to the American wager, they fail in their stated purpose.
In the early twentieth century, changes in American social and economic conditions had systematically eroded the worth of constitutional protections of individual liberty. It became difficult to ignore the ways in which regnant constitutional interpretation had arbitrarily damned masses of individuals to desperate existences while rewarding others with outrageous luxuries. Progressive philosopher John Dewey asked Americans to consider the meaning of individual freedom through the following thought experiment: imagine an individual without property, education, or employment. Is this individual free to amass property? Would it matter if she was? Can this individual coherently explain her plight to those with power? Does the right to free self-expression help her obtain their ear? If they hear an inarticulate message from her, will they attend to her needs? Dewey’s point is straightforward enough: liberty is not only a matter of leaving individuals alone. At times, government must act positively to give all individuals a minimum chance to live freely. Put another way, liberty without opportunity would be a farce, if only its social, political, and economic consequences weren’t so tragic.
Dewey argued that instead of deemphasizing relevant constitutional protections of individuals, the state ought to explore ways to strengthen them against newly important corporate forces. He was among the first to note that applying private property protections to corporate and semi-public property presented a direct threat to the liberty of individuals, not to mention a tortured interpretation of constitutional property rights. Constraints upon individual liberty, he recognized, are as much social and economic as they are political. It is in response to such arguments that many conservatives determine progressives to be subconscious Marxists or secret “socialists.” The fallacy of conflating any argument suggesting that market regulation may enhance individual liberty with Marxism ought to be baldly evident. Marx saw politics withering away at the end of history, while Dewey emphasized the value of individual engagement in democratic decision-making. Concern over the use of wealth as a weapon against the less powerful does not make one a Marxist.
PROGRESSIVES’ WILLINGNESS to challenge the hegemony of “neoliberal” interpretations of property rights law often prompts the most vituperative reactions from conservatives. They charge that reconsidering the meaning of various sections of the American Constitution represents a grave threat to its original intent. Against this accusation, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. maintained that the law was meaningful as a source for ongoing interpretation, not as a set of fixed principles. While the Constitution does not permit infinite interpretation, he argued that “in a civilized state it is not the will of the sovereign that makes lawyers’ law, even when that is its source, but what a body of subjects, namely the judges, by whom it is enforced, say is his will.” If progressives revisit the meaning of American ideals, principles, or rights in response to structural changes, they are only continuing in a long-running project of American self-critique and matching legal and political revision. Like Abraham Lincoln, they realize that the letter of the Constitution is only as sacred as human interpretations of its spirit. This is hardly anti-American or anti-Constitution; rather, it is a core element of our political tradition. While there may be prudential reasons to protect changes to existing structures at particular moments (public stability, order, budgetary limits), there is no reason why the Constitution should be permanently insulated from reinterpretation.
In response to this argument, conservatives frequently claim that acceptance (and qualified endorsement) of changes in political meanings reflects the utopian optimism at the heart of the progressive intellectual tradition. If past meanings of individual liberty are constantly superseded by new and improved versions, doesn’t this imply eventual arrival at political perfection? It is true that progressives are, perhaps by definition, particularly inspired by the future’s potential, but this need not lead to perfectionism. Progressive leader and co-founder of the New Republic Herbert Croly accurately argued that the best American patriotism “combines loyalty to historical tradition and precedent with the imaginative projection of an ideal national Promise.” Progressives understand that while national political ideals are intimated in past achievements, they are never fully reached. They are those elements of political existence which guide and inspire us through the messy practice of daily politics.
Hope for the future only suggests that the future may have something better in store. To be a progressive is to believe that we can address present difficulties, and that creatively facing them is preferable to resignation. To be a progressive is to admit that dogmatic certainty has no place in a complex world with many moving parts, and that the best we can offer each other is a commitment to engage, experiment, and reevaluate our choices. American progressives are committed to working within the American tradition to solve problems prompted by changes to the American community. They argue for political change on the grounds that it is suggested by core commitments from the American past. Progressives argue that what was once considered fair or just may no longer be honestly seen as such.
For example, during the civil rights movement, progressives claimed that equal political treatment of all Americans was a core principle in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s Preamble, and its fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, even if the United States had in practice allowed racial segregation. This was a rejoinder to those who believed that such political problems could be solved by applying inflexible rules or by blind adherence to antiquated interpretations of natural rights. It should come as no surprise, then, that Obama’s attempts to reform significant elements of the political status quo are prompting such feverish attacks from opponents. In essence, they want desperately to believe that new problems can be solved in old ways: without change, and certainly without innovation. The interconnectedness of America’s many political problems—extensive military commitments, a struggling economy, and a growing deficit, foremost among them—makes it clear that still more substantial political reform, and imaginative projection of national ideals, is needed.
Progressive politics are founded upon a commitment to the dialogue and debate necessary for constantly refining the national project. Progressives envision democratic politics as an ongoing and committed conversation, where policy choices must be defended with considered reasons and compelling proof. It is in this vein that President Obama provides an inspiring example; in the face of unabated criticism, extremist hatred, and obstructionism, he has remained committed to discussion of the facts most relevant to the issues of each day.
But being reasonable is not enough. As E.J. Dionne Jr. recently argued, following a comment by Obama disdainful of “politicking,” “In a democracy, separating governing from ‘politicking’ is impossible. ‘Politicking’ is nothing less than the ongoing effort to persuade free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context.” The commitment to open debate can come across as political weakness, and too often the Right has used this openness to attack progressivism writ large, but these strident and unfair conservative attacks demand a forceful rhetorical response, not conciliation. Progressives must show equal determination to “take back their country” from those who would define it too narrowly. This means mounting a spirited defense of progressivism on the three fronts outlined above: to defend an expansive, populist, American understanding of political rights; to believe that government action can support both liberty and equality in all spheres; and to remain committed to improvement without pursuing unreachable goals. Unless they begin this work soon, the “new progressive era” will be over almost before it began.
Conor Williams is a PhD Candidate in the Georgetown University Department of Government. He is currently working on his dissertation on John Dewey, Michael Oakeshott, and modern non-foundationalist politics. Williams co-authored “The Progressive Intellectual Tradition” with John Halpin at the Center for American Progress. Before coming to Washington, he attended Bowdoin College and served as a Teach For America corps member in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.