The Progressive Paradox

While perusing my news feed recently, a headline from The Atlantic jumped out, “The Progressives Have Already Won.” This caught my eye because I wasn’t aware progressives in America had won anything in national politics since Woodrow Wilson captured the White House.

Reading through, I saw the headline rather referred to the battle inside the Democratic Party between the new progressive left-wing and the old-line guard of centrist liberals. Further reading revealed that the progressives hadn’t won anything more than the promise of support from President Biden. (One might pause to question how big of a win this is given his plummeting approval numbers.) The writer then admitted the harsher truth, that…

…the progressives’ intraparty victory could wind up being an empty one in the end. With the Democrats’ slim majorities in Congress, the moderates have the votes to sink all but the relatively modest infrastructure portion of Biden’s agenda, which passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote this past summer. Embittered progressives could then reject the infrastructure bill, leaving the party with a catastrophic whiff heading into its already-uphill effort to hold Congress in next year’s midterm elections.

Hmm, from “Already Won” to “a catastrophic whiff” in the blink of an eye. Such is political journalism these days. However, I’ll try to explain this puzzle with what I term the Progressive Paradox.

What is Progressivism?

What is progressivism? Is it the pure embrace of “progress”? Or does it seek to shape progress according to some ideological or sociological vision? It might help to define it relative to what it’s not. First, we should establish that Progressivism is not traditional liberalism (hence the Democratic party division between traditional liberals, or moderates, and progressives).

We can frame this discussion with the aid of a simple spatial diagram of political ideologies, sometimes referred to as the Horseshoe theory (labeled below to reflect US party ideologies). The horseshoe shows how the left-right spectrum actually bends back on itself as both extremes approach the same authoritarianism, whether of Marxist or fascist origin.

Liberalism is the ideological opposite of the statist extremes, at the center of the spectrum, defined as “a political and economic doctrine that emphasizes individual autonomy, equality of opportunity, and the protection of individual rights (primarily to life, liberty, and property) originally against the state.” When we say we live in a liberal social order, this is what we mean, regardless of party identity.

Historically, liberalism confronted European monarchism, where power was concentrated under the royal monarchy and landed nobility. In this sense liberalism, in support of democracy and economic freedom, was also contra the conservative status quo. This original meaning of liberalism is retained in European democracies where Liberal parties are on the right in support of free markets and individual rights, whereas the European left is represented predominantly by labor and communist parties, and more recently have included environmental Green parties. Conservative, or nativist, parties have tended to gravitate farther toward the right, often forming coalitions with Liberal parties. Social democratic parties are most closely aligned with political centrists as a compromise between individual autonomy and state oversight.

American progressivism arose in the early 20th century in opposition to Democratic populists and Republican conservatives, with Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Dewey being its most notable political proponents. US progressives sought to co-opt the working class (i.e., organized labor) with statism designed to regulate and manage business enterprise. It was Franklin Roosevelt in the aftermath of the depression that united the Wilsonian progressives and modern liberals, or laborites, under the Democratic party. Classical liberals became a forgotten rump branch of the right, now referred to as Libertarians, but only very loosely aligned with mainstream conservatives. Conservative Republicans became the party of corporate business. (These party alignments have shifted again over the past fifty years.)

Using this framework, we can locate modern progressives, liberals, and conservatives as they relate across this ideological spectrum. Moral value priorities that differ between left and right are most often characterized as equality on the left vs. individual liberty on the right. Around the horseshoe we can observe that traditional liberals are political right-of-center with modern liberals a bit left-of-center. Conservatives, under both economic free market and social religious persuasions, have become more hardened on the right. In recent decades progressives have moved away from modern liberalism towards more Democratic Socialist positions (see blue arrow). Many now openly embrace a Marxist agenda. (The irony is that some present-day big government statists still attempt to hide behind the fig-leaf of liberalism.)

These political trends have created serious problems for party cohesion, with both major parties splintering into opposing factions. We have the Trumpers and NeverTrumpers battling for the soul of the Republican party, and the Sanderistas battling modern liberals for Democratic party identity on the left.

The Horseshoe illustration is a static representation of US party politics, so we can introduce the concept of time to analyze the dynamics of our political affairs, in other words, how changes cause our politics to evolve over time. I have introduced the time and change dimension with an arc over the top of the horseshoe. Conservatism (by definition) favors stasis and the past, while progressivism advocates proactive change (progress?).

Psychological studies show that people naturally resist change, largely because change is disruptive and introduces uncertainty and the risk of loss. Resisting change is a manifestation of our survival instincts. This individual psychology is reflected at the societal level: all societies naturally favor time-tested traditions that have helped them survive through evolutionary development. This means the natural bias of any society favors the stasis of the status quo.

I’ve drawn a red arrow that points roughly to the center of gravity for the preferences of the American national polity. Yes, the US voting population has voted and still does vote right-of-center based on this somewhat gross generalization of political ideology. And yes, US national voting preferences have grown much more volatile in recent years. Leftists often claim a gradual societal movement to the ideological left and they are not entirely wrong, just often mistaken about the causes and implications.

The institutional design of the American political system reinforces this bias towards stasis and the status quo. Traditional societies find revolutionaries disconcerting and erect institutions that thwart radical change. The design of the US Constitution is evidence of this deliberate bias, with representative government, tripartite branches of governance, a bicameral legislature, decentralized levels of governance with cross-cutting constituencies, and electoral rules that force consensus through a two-party system. The purpose of this design is to reinforce compromise and consensus at the center, preserve the integrity of the union of states, promote political stability, and create continuity across time. The trade-offs are greater inertia and resistance to change and slower policy responses to populist demands. (We can see these trade-offs directly antagonize progressive interests.)

We also find the center of gravity for the US under the ideological position of “democratic capitalism,” which is the political and economic systemic manifestation of philosophical liberalism. Opinion polls show a large majority of Americans value both democracy and capitalism over all other forms of political and economic systems, save perhaps a fictional Utopia.

At the Marxist extreme, the goal has always been to overthrow democratic capitalism in favor of some form of socialized system. Over the past half century, progressives have gradually migrated towards the socialist position, adopting much of the Marxist rhetoric and agenda. But this means pulling or pushing American society away from its natural center of gravity on the center-right.

Thus, we have the Progressive Paradox: the constant need to push against the natural conservative tendency of a free democratic society. Like Sisyphus, progressives must constantly push against the boulder of institutional inertia in an uphill battle. Then, whenever they take a brief respite, the boulder rolls back down to erase most of their gains. It becomes a frantic race against time and the expenditure of energy.

The Evidence

Most left liberals and progressives are wont to deny the Progressive Paradox, but the evidence is manifest. The contradictions have been embedded in their political tactics, their messaging, their policy designs, even their emotional states of mind. For example:

1. Radical change and disruption of the status quo help the progressive cause, so they embrace such disruptions as opportunities to advance their goals. As Rahm Emmanuel stated explicitly, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” If a crisis does not exist, use political messaging to create one.

2. A focus on political messaging over substance. This is a tacit recognition that the substance of progressive policy itself lacks appeal, so one must repackage with effective messaging techniques. Objective policy analysis should be discounted, if not ignored.

3. An overriding sense the Progressive moment is fleeting, so legislative speed and overreach is crucial. This is the Sisyphean boulder of the status quo ante that will roll right back down as soon as progressive energy flags.

4. Progressive policies designed to reinforce patronage dependencies over time as they seek to harness loss aversion in their favor. This is the logic of creating entitlements that almost never can be taken away by democratic politics. This is the logic of the New Deal entitlements and the ACA and why progressives are so eager to get one foot in the door. In the recent battle over the Build Back Better legislation, progressives have sought a compromise that creates more policy programs with shorter time frames and lower budgetary scoring. As one reporter makes clear, “Progressives, who don’t want their policy ambitions artificially constrained… would prefer seeding a slew of new programs and embedding them in the nation’s social fabric, so they become politically difficult to terminate.”

5. Attacks on the constitutional design of political and legal institutions. The electoral system resists radical or populist change, so that system must be transformed to be “democratically” legitimate. This has been reflected on attacks against the Electoral College and the Senate. Progressives define democracy to favor majoritarian numbers over constitutional and legal principles, inviting the tyranny of a populist majority.

6. Co-opting non-democratic institutions to the progressive cause. Since progressives cannot control democratic legislatures, they must seek end roads around the process. This has been primarily targeted to bureaucratic regulatory restrictions and the judiciary with activist judges making laws from the bench. Abortion and government-controlled healthcare have been two of the most contentious issues that have roiled our national politics.

7. Focusing policy initiatives on indefinite commitments, such as climate change, universal health care, or free college. The question is not whether these are worthy ambitions, but if policy programs have any possibility of achieving the intended goals and at what cost.

8. Co-opting cultural institutions to reprogram cultural assimilation. This has been one of the most successful strategies of the progressive left as its ideology dominates the industries of news media, arts and entertainment, education, law, big tech, and now professional sports and corporate personnel policies. Biased corporate news media and technology platforms have been effectively enlisted to spread a left liberal, anti-conservative narrative that helps obscure or sanitize the progressive agenda.

9. The sole focus on identity as the basis of power and conflict. This is a modification of Marxist class conflict that has been adapted to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference. The idea is properly termed “Identity Marxism” with its strategy to unite different communities through victimization against the dominant class of oppressors. The entire political left has come to be defined by identity groups.

10. Psychological and emotional intolerance of dissent against the progressive narrative. Progressives assume disparate outcomes of the status quo are prima facie evidence of disparate treatment and opportunities. In other words, the disparate outcomes are evidence of unjust oppression. It is a moral stance that refuses to bend to counter-evidence. Based on these accepted assumptions rather than truth, progressives cannot tolerate dissent because to do so would weaken or refute those assumptions on which their ideology is constructed. Such is the psychological genesis of “woke” and “cancel” culture. The obvious contradiction between ideological diversity and group conformity only leads to extreme fragility for progressives’ intellectual foundations and, ultimately, failure in its goals and objectives to achieve positive change. It has been well-documented how the urban poor have suffered these policy failures for the past two generations.

11. The flight from objective truth leads to anti-intellectualism and political scientism, impeding our ability to relate to each other as rational citizens with a common understanding of meaning and truth.

12. Any failure of a progressive policy can be remedied with more funding. How much? A $trillion? Not enough. $2 trillion? Nope. $3.5 trillion? That’s a baseline. There is no limit to progressive aspirations.

One might view this list as a wholesale indictment of progressive ideology and strategic politics. However, there are two points to make to soften that take-away. First, this analysis of the Progressive Paradox in no way condones similar tactics by the opposition. One might write a different essay titled The Conservative Conundrum to address the contradictions on the right. Second, this is not a condemnation of progressive ideals, but only an analysis of progressive failure. The next section offers some ideas to resolve the paradox.

A Simple Reconciliation

The Progressive Paradox can be reframed away from ideological tensions over freedom and equality or policy positions and directed toward the problem of societal and cultural change. Change happens. It is said to be the only certainty in the universe. Over time everything in the universe adapts to change or ceases to exist. Societies founded on traditions resist change, but they are soon forced to adapt. Think of your grandmother with her smart phone.

As change forces society to adapt, the crucial factor for adaptation is the pace of change. A slow pace allows societies to adapt at a similar pace to maintain stability. A too rapid pace of change tends to disrupt that process as social institutions fail to adapt in time and instead collapse. The resulting chaos can often fuel revolution and reactionary backlash. Cohesive societies tend to favor evolutionary adaptation over revolutionary chaos. So, time is on the side of progressives who desire change, if only they can wait for it. With human societies we’re not talking in geological time frames, but generational. Witness the gradual acceptance of same-sex marriage over the past thirty years.

However, true progressives on a moral crusade find it difficult, if not impossible, to wait. For them the unacceptable status quo is a moral affront and they must push the envelope. As the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently proclaimed, “Child care can’t wait. Paid leave can’t wait. Health care can’t wait. Climate action can’t wait. Affordable housing can’t wait. A roadmap to citizenship can’t wait…” One might add the age-old promise, “Utopia can’t wait.”

The problem of course is that so few citizens and voters are willing to jump on this change train. As Michael Lind bluntly puts it:

Progressives are a small minority of American voters, and many progressive positions are controversial and unpopular both among Democratic voters and the electorate at large: Within the Democratic Party there are almost as many “conservatives” (14%) as there are those who describe their views as “very liberal” (15%).

Unable to convince a majority of society to accept their politics for proactive change, progressives often feel compelled to resort to undemocratic tactics (see list above), while using Orwellian doublespeak to redefine the meaning of “fairness” and “democracy.” In other words, they choose to deny the Paradox and bang their heads against the stone wall of resistance while seeking to dislodge the institutional anchors of a free society they disagree with. The danger is that untruths used to push change faster than society can adapt leads to backlashes and regress. The progressive agenda can easily lead to the opposite of its intended effects. As proven by physics, every action leads to an equivalent reaction.

These tactics have only led to the continual failure of progressives to influence national political priorities, despite the fact they have taken control of almost all society’s cultural institutions. It has also led to an incalculable loss of trust in the institutions of our free society. Traditional liberalism does not necessarily suffer this defect because its moderation and bias in favor of individual freedom and rights discourages liberals from overreaching. Instead, if liberals stay true to a liberal society (which all conservatives who are not fundamentalists also champion), then change is managed at a pace that leads to gradual progress rather than backlash.

For progressives to succeed they should probably adhere to and support the democratic guidelines of the Constitution, and patiently guide society’s progress to its desired ends. This will not prevent the push and pull of competing interests and visions, but it does give greater weight to the foundations of democracy and freedom. It would be far better to take to heart the observations of the young, left-leaning French political philosopher Simone Weil, as she lived through the uprooting of European society by national socialism:

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations of the future … Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well-nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

If progressives constantly seek to uproot, they are doomed to fail again and again as a political movement. Really, the battle being waged across the spectrum from left to right — from radical to progressive to liberal to conservative to reactionary — is really a debate over adaptation to change and its rightful pace in a liberal world order. Our divide is not really a tug-of-war between equality and liberty, as we need to reconcile both. The immigration debate is a case in point: immigration should be legal and controlled by democratic consensus.

History is often driven by tribal conflicts and power dominance of one form or another, including the nation-state. But this path is fragile because true progress is driven by change, adaptation, and anti-fragility.

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Michael Harrington

I am currently a tech start-up founder in the creative media original content space. Social science academic and author.