10 February 2017

A progressive right

Conservative Republicans' aversion to the word "progressive" is one of their most maddening traits. How can one oppose "progress," after all? And yet "progressive" has become a pejorative among them. Some of them label Democrats as "progressive" with a vicious glee that might convince you that they don't even know the meaning of the word. You might expect this of right-wingers if you assume that conservatism is inherently opposed to any sort of progress, so long as progress means a departure from tradition, or can be equated with decadence. But the debate between progress and tradition isn't the only way to define the divide between "left" and "right." It might be useful to distinguish "conservative" from "right," and not just because doing so would keep Republicans from making fools of themselves describing fascism as a "left" phenomenon.

Historically, a clearer distinction might be drawn between "left" and "right" on the question of equality, identifying a "progressive right" as well as a "progressive left,"  each with its own vision of historical progress. The "progressive left" would be identified with an egalitarian vision of human progress, albeit one that has changed radically in recent generations, and in a way that helps clarify what a "progressive right" might stand for. The old progressive left envisioned progress in which everyone would share -- except for "class enemies," that is -- but the old vision of progress required the cultivation of a "new man" through ideological indoctrination and, in some cases, an aggressive abandonment of traditions. Reports of the crimes of the Marxist-Leninist regimes of the 20th century threw this "totalitarian" vision into disrepute. In its place is something like a vision of a spontaneous, gradual synthesis of human cultures into a cosmopolitan global culture, ideally one in which all cultures participate so that nobody feels excluded. This progressive left is egalitarian at the level of nationalities, cultures and religions. A progressive right would not be. While critics see "populist" movements around the world as essentially reactionary, in flight from progress understood as globalization, it should be possible to credit such groups with their own progressive visions. But according to these, true progress seems to depend on the ascendancy of one culture, or possibly a coalition of cultures, and the subjugation or suppression of cultures deemed inimical to progress. Move the discussion to the national level and the question becomes whether progress is necessarily democratic, with everyone sharing relatively equally in the rewards, or whether it depends on genius requiring special prerogatives and disproportionate rewards. In a sense, the entrepreneurial mentality of many American conservatives made their movement a "progressive right" all along, compared to earlier conservative parties, but that identification got lost in the midst of other battles against what looked like a united "progressive" front. At the same time, it isn't out of bounds to ask whether the left has become more reactionary than progressive in its apparently increasing reluctance to pay some meaningful price for progress. Ultimately, of course, any debate on these questions hinges on what "progress" means to you: who it benefits, and when; what it requires of us, and for how long; and so on. Once more people on the right realize that they don't have to treat "progress" as a fighting word, but can align it to their cause, the more likely a truly meaningful debate on progress can take place.


Anonymous said...

I see more and more of certain people being referred to as the "regressive left" and with good reason.

Samuel Wilson said...

Lots of regression going on these days if you add everyone's perceptions and accusations together.