I was reading the other day in Dinesh D’Souza’s book What’s So Great about America?. There is a chapter in which D’Souza discusses how the West became the dominant civilization in the modern era owing to its “invention” of science, democracy, & capitalism. A concept central to the flourishing of these enterprises is “the idea of development itself — the idea of progress.” The notion is understood in everything from the exasperated “How can you still believe that? Join the 21st century, already!” to the general expectation that, despite current downturns & problems, our economy and knowledge will continue to grow and our children will live in a better (safer? more affluent?) world.

Here is what D’Souza has to say about this very interesting and important notion:

The idea of progress, like the idea of reason, is a doctrine that cannot be proved but must be taken on faith. The Greeks didn’t have this faith: they believed that history moves in cycles. One may say that the Greeks believed in change, but not in progress. To the degree that the Greeks found a pattern in this change, it was largely one of degeneration. For many Greek thinkers, the golden age was in the past and things had been going steadily downhill since then. Of course the Greeks admitted that things could get better, but they believed that they could just as easily get worse. What governed human destiny was chance or fate. These notions of cyclical change and degeneration and fate were not unique to the Greeks. They were shared by the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Confucian Chinese, and by virtually everyone else in the world.

Painting of Plato

Painting of Plato

The modern West is the only civilization to entertain the idea that there is a meaningful pattern in history, that this pattern is onward and upward, that knowledge is cumulative and that its applications to human betterment are continuous and never-ending, that the future is certain to be better than the past. “Utopia” is in this sense a Western concept, because it locates perfection in the future. For most people in the world these notions — that history is somehow encoded with meaning, that we know in advance that things will improve instead of degenerate — are even today considered nothing short of ridiculous. In the West, too, the idea of progress continues to be debated. For instance, there is ongoing argument about whether progress is comprehensive, i.e., whether progress involves only material gains or also moral gains. But in some form the faith in progress is very widespread in the West, and the belief in it holds because it is supported by the contemporary experience of the people of the West.

Where, then, did the Western belief in progress come from? From Christianity. It is Christianity that introduced the idea of a divine plan for man and the world. In this view, history was not one meaningless event after another: it represented the fulfillment of a story line — a story line that began with the Fall but would end in triumph with the Second Coming of Christ. The Christian narrative is one of Creation, [Fall, ]Incarnation, and Last Judgment. As J.B. Bury points out in The Idea of Progress, the Christian doctrine by itself does not generate the notion of progress; for this to happen it must be secularized. This is done by keeping the concept of development but introducing man as its author and instrument. Human beings, building upon the discoveries of the past and of each other, will assure the continual advance of knowledge and its application to the betterment of the human condition. This is the idea that we recognize as ‘progress.’ The idea of progress is a secular expression of the idea of providence.”

Now, that in itself is interesting. But, then I got to thinking about how a certain contingent within American politics — not just the politicians, mind you, but like-minded individuals in academia, media, etc. — likes to describe themselves as “progressive”. “Progress” by what means? Towards what?

Since the “progressive” label is predominantly associated with the political Left, it is often used interchangeably with “liberal” or “Democrat”. (I know I’m guilty of this.) But, of course, these words are distinctively different. For awhile there, this group was content to call themselves “liberal”. But, recently, the “progressive” label has come back in vogue, particularly as a means of distinguishing social liberals from those of a more “classic liberal” bent (i.e., natural rights, civil liberties, free markets, limited government). Indeed, within today’s Democratic Party, the more conservative liberals (e.g., “Blue Dogs”) are often at odds with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) over “social issues” and the proper reach of government. The CPC includes people like Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Barney Frank (D-MA), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), John Conyers (D-MI), and Henry Waxman (D-CA). Former members include Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sec. of Labor Hilda Solis (D-CA). Not surprisingly, the CPC’s far-Left agenda enjoys the support of the ACLU, The Nation magazine, La Raza, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, MoveOn.org, NAACP, etc.

So, what exactly is the “progressive” agenda? Modern progressivism in general holds to a broad, “non-ideological” ideology of reform. Its supposed freedom from ideological ties makes it more flexible & pragmatic than the usual political ideology, they say. This from Wikipedia:

According to John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the Center for American Progress, ‘Progressivism is an orientation towards politics. It’s not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept… that accepts the world as dynamic.’ Progressives see progressivism as an attitude towards the world of politics that is broader than conservatism vs. liberalism, and as an attempt to break free from what they consider to be a false and divisive dichotomy.”

Um, yeah, okay. But, what do they want? What are they trying to do? How about…

The CPC’s founding statement of purpose states that it was ‘organized around the principles of social and economic justice, a non-discriminatory society, and national priorities which represent the interests of all people, not just the wealthy and powerful’.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s value-driven, with an emphasis on justice & equality. Sounds good, but…. Here are just a few ways in which this modern “progressive” idea plays out in the real world:

  • progressive taxation (i.e., the more you earn, the larger percentage the government takes); this means tax cuts for the poor and tax increases for the “wealthy” and businesses
  • wealth redistribution (i.e., taxing the rich & corporations to substantially increase federal funding for welfare and other “social programs”)
  • recklessly racking up humongous debts with deficit spending, bailouts, and creation of more government bureaucracies and huge entitlement programs
  • unflagging support for organized labor and trade unions, no matter how unneeded they may be, how unfair or financially draining their pensions & other special contracts are, or how much bullying & corruption they are guilty of
  • general distrust of corporations, banks, and anyone that makes a profit (i.e., they don’t like capitalism)
  • promotion of Affirmative Action and other legislation in the name of “equality of opportunity” for minorities and ending racism, when they are no longer needed and/or actually do a disservice to the ones they are supposed to help, not to mention resulting in reverse-discrimination of qualified non-minorities; also, accusing anyone who disagrees with them on this of being racist
  • a universal health care system that would ultimately increase costs (and tax burden), decrease quality of care (w/ longer waits and govt-rationing), dis-incentivise people from getting into or staying in medicine (especially general practice) because of lower pay, relinquish more control over personal decisions to the government, etc.
  • often extremist views on environmentalism (i.e., more so than mainstream liberals), resulting in legislation that prevents access to accessible energy and increases taxes and costs of energy usage; often gives preference to plants & animals over humans
  • government regulation of increasingly more areas of our personal lives and businesses (e.g., “Cap-n-Trade”, “Fairness Doctrine”, and “hate crimes” legislation)
  • advocacy of “gay rights” agenda and legalization of same-sex marriage
  • championing of even the most barbaric “abortion rights” (e.g., partial-birth abortion)
  • cutting of military spending, turning our backs on international allies, and trying to “make nice” with dictators & terrorists (who laugh at our weak threats and calls for sanctions)
  • paying mere lip-service, if that, to the problems of illegal immigration, while promoting amnesty
  • doing whatever they can get away with to deny the religious heritage of our nation and the Judeo-Christian principles upon which it was built, using an inaccurate concept of “separation of church and state” as a legal contrivance, and to undermine age-old, traditional values & moral standards
Obaman on phone with Netanyahu

The Progressive-in-Chief

It is this interpretation of “progressivism” that drives the radical Left, who are most actively moving our government and our nation away from the founding principles of our Constitution and towards being a largely secular, socialist state. That’s a system that erodes people’s freedoms, replaces traditional values & moral standards with “tolerance” and relativism, encourages dependency on the state, compromises national safety & security, and eventually leads to national bankruptcy. How exactly does this lead to the betterment of mankind? How is this “progress”?

What about those who don’t hold to the progressivist agenda? Can they be progressive? Of course. In fact, for several decades the largest conservative party in Canada was the Progressive Conservative Party. There are groups in Europe that use the term “progressive” and run from centrist (or “classic liberal”) to quite diverse in membership. And, as a political conservative myself, I can say without hesitation that I and my fellow-conservatives are fully in favor of true progress in many areas of life — from advances in science & technology to improving international relations to increasing people’s standard of living across the board. In some cases, we may even share some basic goals with “progressives” — e.g., eliminating war, poverty, disease, racism; better stewardship of the planet; recognition of human rights for all. The main differences are how we view & approach the issues. For example, who or what is responsible and to what degree? What and how much can or should be done, and by whom? What should be our priorities? How we answer these questions is based not only on facts — else, we would all agree — but on our understanding of the world and the values and principles directing us. It comes down to one’s worldview.

The first group to be identified with a term or idea in the minds of their countrymen usually gets to reap the benefits. It’s as true in politics as it is in advertising. “Progressive” is one of those words that sounds superior and can be used in an exclusivist way: “We’re progressive, so we are the ones pushing for progress and the betterment of mankind. The other guys, therefore,… aren’t.” In fact, in this case, the “other guys” (usually conservatives) are sometimes called “regressive”, as if they are advocating things that would cause civilization to move backwards. This is ridiculous. But, that’s OK. I don’t really think the American “progressives” are convincing anyone but themselves (and their European counterparts) of their own superiority or that they are the only ones working to improve our world.

What do you think?

  1. Ben Hoffman says:

    [recklessly racking up humongous debts with deficit spending, ]

    It was deficit spending because Reagan and Bush cut taxes without cutting spending. The humongous debt is the result of irresponsible tax cuts.

  2. pastorjeffcma says:

    Any true conservative is going to bemoan the amount of spending that took place under President Bush–especially during his second term. But even if we accede to the contention that the astronomical debt we have now accrued is due to the lack of unanswered tax cuts (which I don’t), then it seems that those numbers (spending vs. deficit spending) would be somewhat comparable in the long run–which they are not.

  3. pastorjeffcma says:

    “I don’t really think the American “progressives” are convincing anyone but themselves (and their European counterparts) of their own superiority or that they are the only ones working to improve our world.
    What do you think?”

    While I would like to think you are right (along with really wanting you to be right), my fear is that you are not–Insofar as we are dealing with a social and political philosophy that has been making inroads since the very early 1900’s with the ascendancy of Teddy Roosevelt. If very large parts of the electorate did not think in progressivist terms, Barack Obama never would have been elected President.

  4. pastorjeffcma says:

    As soon as I finished the above post I came across this that I thought you might find interesting–http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100607/ap_on_el_ge/us_progressives_democrats

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