Conservatism v. Progressivism, or The Good v. Feel Good

Erica Wanis

2/12/2014 12:01:00 AM - Erica Wanis

According to pervading political stereotypes, Progressives are the group concerned with and committed to the betterment of the "common man" while Conservatives are characterized by a parochial desire to preserve the institutions and traditions that have served the interests of the white majority for the last few centuries. This is the narrative being promulgated by the gatekeepers of American political and pop culture, and these are the assumptions informing the attitudes and beliefs of students at America's most elite institutions of higher learning.

Engage a self-proclaimed "progressive" on any of the hot-button social issues of the day, and these stereotypes immediately come into play. The greatest impediment to "progress" on issues of social justice, they insist, are bigoted, racist, and misogynistic "old white men" who cling fervently to an antiquated worldview in which women, the poor, and other minorities are consigned to second class status. Because these enemies of equality still wield enormous political and economic power, they insist, America's promise of liberty and justice for all remains unrealized.

In order to change this, Progressives are convinced that the old order and everything it represents must be overthrown. So long as even one person feels stymied, excluded, or shamed by prevailing social, cultural, and moral norms, our nation is not living up to the true meaning of its creed. The gay teen seeking acceptance, the single mom with no family or friends to support her, the tomboy who wants to try out for the football team, the transgendered man who wants to use the ladies' room at his workplace, the starving artist forced to wait tables or sell insurance in order to pay his rent, the feminist determined to eschew the constraints of marriage and family in exchange for a life of unbridled self-seeking. . . these are the faces of the Progressive crusade to demolish the moral, cultural, and political assumptions that have informed the social order for hundreds of years.

If one considers these issues carefully, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the good of the commons is the least of Progressives' true concerns. Not only are the "social justice" issues they champion boutique at best, the policy solutions and moral/cultural paradigm shifts they advocate are positively harmful to the average run of men. In the January 2014 issue of First Things, editor R.R. Reno examines this phenomenon in some detail, in the context of the recently passed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which "prohibits discrimination on the basis of an 'individual's actual and perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.'" Progressive elites, he suggests, set themselves above and apart from the culture and society they inhabit. They view themselves as superior to the average person, and thus uniquely qualified to use whatever means at their disposal to advance their agenda in the name of the common good:

Whatever one thinks of gay marriage, one has to admit that "the great civil rights issue of our time" addresses the needs of a very small number of people. The same goes for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It concerns the world of the one percent and their navel-gazing about 'sexual identity.' . . .

[T]his does not mean [that elites are] selfish or self-centered. Elites can be philanthropic and committed to social causes of all sorts, often thinking in terms of therapeutic, legal, or economic interventions designed to get the best results. What it means is this: As I stand at a distance from particular cultures and communities, I constitute myself. . . .

Thus political correctness, perhaps the most telling feature of today's elite culture. The politically correct are invariably those who think of themselves as the best of people. Unlike the ordinary run, they have risen above xenophobic patriotism, racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and every other ism. We're inclusive! Political correctness compliments the vanity of elites. It's a sign of their moral right to rule.

At the same time, political correctness serves as a powerful weapon with which to destroy competitors for power and status. A traditional Christian doesn't disagree with the ruling consensus; he's a homophobe. A parent who opposes sex education for ten-year-olds doesn't have moral standing to speak; he's benighted. Others get dismissed as economically naive, or as unable to recognize cultural differences. The cultural progressive knows how traditional authority works – will to power, patriarchy, heteronormativity, or what have you. Anybody with a real education is in the know about these things! . . . The people who don't "get it" are by definition unqualified to rule.

[Prominent historian and social critic Christopher] Lasch was an implacable enemy of this elite hauteur. He came to believe that cultural progressivism of the sort that wants to tear down existing forms of life to rebuild them in accord with new and supposedly better principles "boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people." Failed postwar urban planning provided one of his favorite examples. Were he alive today, redefining marriage might be another.

Just last week, Anthony Esolen touched on the same exact issue, albeit in a radically different context, in an article for Public Discourse in which he examines the relationship between collegiate sports and the common good. Taken to task by a colleague for diminishing the public significance of women's hockey, Esolen took the opportunity to examine the corrupting influence of Progressive ideology on college sports:

[I]f a college really believed in the camaraderie that sport helps to foster and the excitement of watching one’s friends struggle to win fair and square – if its administrators truly believed that such benefits should be extended to as many students as possible, regularly and in a wide variety of ways – then it could take a tiny portion of what is now spent on coaches, recruiters, physicians, staff, and travel, and devote it to promoting club sports and a robust program of intramurals.

By and large, this doesn't happen. Esolen has a theory why:

[C]lub sports cannot serve the political end that women's sports are meant to serve. . . . The public appearance of equality must be adored above all, even if it implies a staggering inequality in other respects; unequal access to precious space on campus; and unequal opportunity to win a scholarship.

The whole interchange has set me to thinking about how little concern anyone in our time evinces for the common good. We worship abstractions . . . [B]ut if we looked at young men and young women and the common good, and not abstractions, we might begin to think of other things besides the ratio of members of each sex participating in this or that activity. We might think about love. . . .

It is rather odd, when you think of it that way—when you move away from regarding everything, even women's hockey, in a political light. You see that the first thing that the "political" lose sight of is the polis. . . . Worship politics, and you lose the polis.

Both of these men are worth quoting at length because they both articulate so brilliantly the concern for the common good that is at the heart of the true conservatism, and conversely, the lack of concern for the common good that characterizes so much of Progressive ideology. Conservatives recognize that for most people, having a married mother and father is a good thing; that being married yourself, to a member of the opposite sex, and raising a family, is a good thing; that celebrating the natural and innate differences between male and female, and allowing society to reap the respective strengths of each, are good things. Not only are these things practical goods, they are metaphysical goods. This conviction, of course, flows from the belief that man is a created, contingent being. In other words, there is someone who knows us better than we know ourselves because he made us, and he knows better than we do what we need. Conservatives believe that metaphysical goods should be promoted, defended, and preserved.

Of course, this can, and should, at all times be done in a respectful and appropriate way. Civil dialog is always better than straw man attacks and rhetorical bomb throwing. But these discussion need to be had, and conservatives shouldn't shy away from engaging on these issues in the public sphere. The future of the American republic will be determined by how readily we embrace what's truly good for us, not merely what feels good.