After my essay (if you can call it that) expressing my distrust of those who invoke the U.S. Constitution too freely my dad asked a great question: how do I feel about progressives? The reason I think this is so great is because it’s going to require a lot more writing. The constitution thing is simple; it can be boiled down to people use too simplistically, incorrectly, and as a thing-that-shall-not-be-questioned rather than think critically about an issue. But the label of “progressive”? That’s a fractured topic of inaccurate labels, subtext, assumptions, hijacking ideals…. So buckle in, because this feels like a long one.
Before going any further, I think it’s important to de-conflate some of these terms. They sometimes get used in place of one another, but they have separate and distinct definitions and shouldn’t be owned by the political right or left. Because I want to communicate as clearly as possible, and have been part of far too many philosophical debates, it’s time to define terms. Again, these terms can be used independently of political right/left connotations.
- progressive – the characteristic of making forward progress
- regressive – the opposite of progressive, moving backward in development
- conservative – holding to tradition; cautious of change
- liberal – open to new ideas and broader knowledge; Latin root “liber”, as in liberty
- liberalism – John Locke’s philosophy founded on ideas of liberty and equality
- classical liberalism emphasizes the role of liberty
- social liberalism stresses the importance of equality
- reactionary – favoring a return to the previous state of society
The first thing to reiterate is that these terms are not actually interchangeable, nor exclusive to the political right or left. A leftist that is doxastically closed to the idea of private gun ownership being positive cannot fairly be called a liberal by the actual definition of the word. If a right-wing Republican is also a fan of science, technology, and futurism it would be unfair to characterize them as conservative.
The labels of conservative and liberal can unfairly blanket people. When Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California he did so as a “social liberal, but fiscal conservative” or vice versa precisely because 40% of the population didn’t neatly align with every issue and called themselves moderate. My dad once told me he thought a moderate was somebody that didn’t stand for anything, but as I’ve gotten older I realize it’s somebody who stands for mixture of positions. A person can both oppose abortion and be in favor of legalizing marijuana, for example, but I digress.
My point is that we use these terms as placeholders or catch-alls to encompass an awful lot, and I think we risk damaging the words from misuse. I am proud to say I’m a liberal because I’m a huge fan of freedom, but I am absolutely not a leftist. I contend that the rise of the religious right, conservative talk radio, and Fox News have unfairly demonized the word liberal and conflated it with leftist. Because liberal became a dirty word, many on the left began rebranding themselves as progressive, which is also a conflation of terms. And this is where things start to become sticky.
“Everyone knows history is written by the winners, but that cliche misses a crucial detail: Over time, the winners are always the progressives. Conservatism can only win in the short term, because society cannot stop evolving (and social evolution inevitably dovetails with the agenda of those who see change as an abstract positive). It might take seventy years, but it always happens eventually.”
― Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat
Klosterman is probably my favorite living author and when I first read this passage in 2013 it hit my consciousness like a slap in the face. I had been raised as a conservative, but this quote was unassailably true. Abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, prohibition of child labor, civil rights, desegregation… All of these are morally agreeable to conservatives today, but were undeniably progressive for the era in which they happened.
This is not meant to offend those on the political right but to highlight the definition of the terms: the most conservative societies on the planet right now are in the Muslim world. Several haven’t changed in hundreds of years and by western standards they remain horrifically backward concerning human rights.
See? I told you I’m a liberal but not a leftist. (If you don’t get the difference yet, you will.)
Allow me to quote Peter Boghossian at unfortunate length because he did a great job of explaining the how and why liberalism and the left are not synonymous.
“Liberalism is a creation of the seventeenth century, fathered by British philosopher John Locke. For Locke, liberalism means limited government, the rule of law, due process, freedom of assembly, separation of church and state, and separation of government powers into branches that oversee each other’s authority.
Locke’s classical liberalism evolved over time and became social liberalism – a creation of the nineteenth century – whose father is another British thinker, Thomas Hill Green. Green wrote about positive freedom, described human beings as fundamentally good, and argued for a social and economic order devoted to promoting the common good.
In the twentieth century, social liberalism evolved further still, with its dominant strain becoming contemporary academic leftism. This current manifestation of liberalism is a skeleton of former incarnations and is best described not by what it is, but by the parasitic ideologies that have given that skeleton its corrupted form: relativism, subjectivity, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, respect for difference, and inclusion. These invasive values betray classical and social liberalism’s history of standing for basic freedoms and fighting all forms of tyranny.
Historically, there’s nothing intrinsic to liberalism that necessarily weds it to the ideologies currently piggybacking on it.” -Peter Boghossian
That’s a long enough quote already (red text my emphasis) but he continues to say he hopes liberalism can be decoupled from contemporary academic leftism. He also notes that social liberalism was a good thing because it recognized people’s freedoms were curtailed by circumstance (e.g. being born black during segregation), but leftism gets into thought policing. Prejudice directed at people is bad, but cultural criticism is directed at ideas and therefore good. (I really do keep coming back to critical thinking.) Classical liberalism says it’s survival of the fittest in the free marketplace of ideas, but leftists declare certain ideas to be beyond criticism and this causes a real schism.
Prohibiting criticism of an idea is effectively a form of tyranny, not liberalism. The squelching of free speech is the hallmark of dictators, not free men. A society based on freedom can handle dissenting ideas and debate them like rational adults. Silencing opposition with character-damaging accusations like calling them racist, sexist or bigoted is not an act motivated by a love of freedom. Smearing or lying about about a political opponent does not move society forward. And here’s where I finally get to how I feel about “progressives”. Most of them aren’t.
“I’m a firm believer that good ideas always beat out bad ideas if you let the light shine on both of them. It’s not liberal, or even decent to shout down ideas just because you don’t like them.” -Dave Rubin
There’s a reason Dave Rubin calls them the regressive left; they stifle dissent with cries of racism and bigotry when they hear an idea they don’t like. This is a backward step for society, no different than Galileo being convicted of heresy for (correctly) holding the belief that the earth revolves around the sun. The extreme left may call themselves progressive but they’re the furthest thing from it.
Several months ago I wrote an essay that brought up the need to discuss horseshoe theory, and this serves to remind me that I really should get to that. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been (to my recollection) fairly anti-authoritarian, but I really can see the similarities when either political left or right lack opposition. Totalitarianism is a different issue than left or right and it can occur on either side; it’s communist on the left and fascist on the right. I’m distrustful of any form of unchecked authority, unsubstantiated claim, or “because I said so”. So now I’ll go a step further: “social justice warriors” (SJW) are a cancer to freedom.
When you get to the furthest extremes of the political left you encounter the regressives and then SJWs. These are the poisonous sods that scream things like, “Check your privilege!” or will insinuate an opinion isn’t valid if it comes from a white, cisgender individual. They’re the reason feminism today is associated with man-hating rather than anything positive.
While I am all for equality of the sexes, SJWs are the reason I hate feminists (which was going to be a separate essay). They’re not progressive in the least. They’re regressive ideologues that shout about imagined injustice of the patriarchy rather than fairly assess the fact that we’re a sexually dimorphic species. Anyone truly in favor of equality of the sexes (and race, religion, political affiliation, sexual preference, etc. ad nauseam) is a humanist, and wouldn’t label themselves in favor of just one demographic slice. But I digress again.
Allow me to backtrack to my anti-authoritarian tendencies. I firmly believe the Republican party has been hijacked by right-wing extremists. Reagan couldn’t be elected today by those who claim to idolize him because he used to negotiate, compromise, and reach across the aisle to get things done. Contrast that with Ted Cruz and the far right of today who believe in no compromise obstructionism and government shut-downs when they don’t get their way. John Boehner was given the boot for lacking ideological purity despite extremely high conservative scores by the conservative Club for Growth and American Conservative Union. Sarah Palin recently threatened to campaign against Paul Ryan, a devoted Ayn Rand fan, for the same reason. They’ve gone completely insane.
Self-titled progressives are the exact same thing on the opposite side of the coin. If you dissent, even as a liberal, they label you the enemy and target you for character assassination. Just look at Ben Affleck (leftist) attacking Sam Harris (liberal). Harris had the audacity to frankly discuss Islam as the motherlode of bad ideas for its barbarism, abuses toward women, and human rights issues, all of which are true and was immediately condemned as a racist by Affleck. It didn’t matter that ideology is independent of race, the regressive reflex is to silence the opposition even if they’re both ideologically left of center through ad hominem attack. Regressives will attack their own for lacking ideological purity. Just look at anything put out by Cenk Uyger and the Young Turks or the constant controversy around Reza Aslan. The regressive left is a damaging force to democracy and the free exchange of ideas because they are ideologues of the highest order rather than critical thinkers. (I really do keep coming back to that, don’t I?) They are a cancer to a free republic.
Any objective reading of our nation’s founding documents makes it clear that this country was founded principles of classical liberalism and enlightenment values. Neither of which endorse the kind of authoritarianism that we can see rising on both extremes of the political spectrum. For freedom to survive, authoritarians must be resisted no matter what guise they wear. Klosterman is right about progressive ideals consistently winning over the course of time. It’s undeniable. But that doesn’t mean those who call themselves progressive actually are progressive, nor does it give them any moral authority if they act like regressives in practice and fear critical examination of beliefs. Then they’re just bullies.