Progress and Reaction
The Progressive Contempt for Politics
By Josh Lerner
No one has ever run for office on the promise of promoting the practice of politics in its most contentious form. The general wisdom emanating from mainstream political discourse is that the biggest problem in Washington today is not spending money on unaffordable entitlements or the threat of Islamic terror but rather rank partisanship and discord in the political process. Following the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords last January, the political commentariat agreed that nothing short of a return to bipartisanship would prevent similar attacks from happening, that political discourse was the problem that needed a swift and stern remedy. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi even went as far to declare, "elections shouldn't matter as much as they do." It takes a very peculiar mindset to declare, as an elected official, that elections are an unimportant thing—it is, after all, a congressman's raison d'être—but it is also a telling look into the mindset implicit in modern liberalism, one that decries the practice of politics while concomitantly placing primacy on the political. More concretely, the business and practice of politics specifically, and pluralism generally, are to be derided but, at the same time, decisions that are necessarily political must be placed above reproach.
This mindset concerning politics is one that is built on a few very powerful assumptions: that objectively knowable policy frameworks exist, that History is the best way to illuminate them, and that there are only two real positions in politics, forwards and backwards. The dichotomy between progress and reaction, as it is sometimes framed, is the conceit that often underlies assaults on conservative political positions; the language concerning conservative political initiatives usually is built on the idea that conservatives wish to take us back to a different and worse time in our history, that they wish to undo the great political achievements of the past century. The consequence of such propositions and assumptions about politics is the paradox of the ubiquity of politics in non-political life, and the denigration of politics as practiced
Modern Politics for Progressives
The ubiquity of politics in modern liberalism is rather hard to avoid. Consider the ongoing series Jay Nordlinger, one of the most affable and witty associate editors National Review has ever had, has written about the phenomenon of politics emerging in places that it doesn't belong. His series, entitled "Safe Zones Violations" details the myriad of ways in which liberals in essentially non-political lines of work—musicians, sportswriters, and artists are the worst—insist on not only bringing in contentious political issues at the most inappropriate times, but doing so in such a way that blithely assumes that no reasonable person could disagree. He has stories of 2nd rate sportswriters (a redundant description) needlessly using political figures as either the butts of jokes or the end of a poorly constructed metaphor, like the barely literate writer who declared that "The Jaguars' front seven surrendered rushing yards as willingly as Dick Cheney admits to strategic errors in Iraq."
Or consider the number of figures in the music industry will to prostrate themselves at the shrine of bland liberalism. Leonard Bernstein, my favorite 20th century composer, completely befouled himself by hosting "radical-chic" (as the inimitable Tom Wolfe described it) parties for the Black Panthers and other radical causes back in the 1960s. This is a phenomenon that is as old as radical politics itself; art and other essentially non-political enterprises become needlessly caught up in the finer points of left-wing politics. But this conflation of the political and the non-political comes from one important development in political philosophy, the rise of the primacy of the political, the idea that politics is the defining characteristic from which to see the world.
When we speak of the "primacy of the political" we speak of the general perspective that the most important thing in society is politics. Stating that politics comes first does not mean that people care a lot about the Republicans or the Democrats, partisan politics within a liberal democracy, but rather that they see political considerations as the existential motivation for the organization of a nation's economy, social structure, and culture. Everything is reducible to the political, and considerations of politics take ultimate precedence. Essentially, the primacy of politics implies that man's relation with the state is the most important relationship he can have, whether it is through comradeship or a sense of national community, and that the maintenance of such a relationship is the ultimate goal of the state. Theories of political primacy must start with a certain sentiment about the formation of the state. Politics cannot be the primary organizational structure if it is, in fact, simply a social construction. The formation of the state, therefore, must be built off of notions that political life is life, that there is no "state of nature" or "social contract" but rather that the state is what creates culture.
The primacy of the political must build off of a judgment about society that incontrovertibly places politics at the forefront of social importance. The creation of a state must be something that is beyond the simple scope of interests and contractarianism, but must, instead be built upon things far more permanent and transcendent. The primacy of politics, ultimately, comes down to recognizing no force within the state—whether that is economics, religion, or culture—that is more important than the furtherance of the state. As such, pure politics becomes the only decision-making mechanism of any real tractable value to a state: whether or not any action is taken by the state must be evaluated on a political contingent alone. All individual decisions must be justified as political and seen in that light. Individualism is subordinate to state considerations. Politics is the alpha and the omega of the state.
A History of the Idea of History
Before we get into diagnosing progressive political primacy, we need to sketch out a brief history of where the ideas behind the primacy of the political come from. This history is important because, it is rather impossible to understand and piece together the ideas of the progressives without first exploring the philosophic origins of their thought.
The concept of the primacy of the political needed several very important ideas to exist for it to properly take hold. First, politics had to be separated from ethics. Traditionally, in classical and medieval Christian thought, politics was completely subordinate to questions of justice and morality. This is why Aristotle frames his Politics as a sketch of the form of social order which will best cultivate the moral virtues he describes in the Nicomachean Ethics; he sees considerations of the political life as subordinate to those of justice. It is also why Plato's Republic searches for the most just regime over all, and why he thinks that the proper philosopher king would be someone who did not want to rule. Medieval philosophers maintained the same balance achieved by Plato and Aristotle, whether they be Christian Aristotelians (Aquinas) or Platonic Muslims (Al-Farabi); politics was always understood in terms of ethics, not the other way around. Political considerations simply do not take ethical precedence.
The first thinker to seriously challenge this view of the place of politics in society was Machiavelli, who considered ethical constraints on political actions—the actions of republics or principalities—to be completely unwise and untenable. His discussion of the founders of republics in the Discourses on Livy encapsulates this; Romulus, the founder of Rome "deserves excuse in the deaths of his brother and of his partner, and that what he did was for the common good and not for his own ambition." Justice, it seems, was no longer as important to statecraft as the consequences of one's actions. But Machiavelli didn't wholly embrace something like the primacy of the political. His vision was a different creature altogether. But his ideas did lay the seeds for what would blossom later.
The next intellectual step was the codification of the state as something meaningful, something that is not a creation of bargains or chance, but rather a deliberate rational being. The state moves from social construction—or more precisely the form of the state moves beyond that—and into the natural realm. It is impossible to understand such statecraft without understanding the historicism of Hegel and other 19th century German thinkers. Hegel, in his lectures on History, first recognized in a serious way the idea that the state was neither a static creation of contracts—as Enlightenment thinkers argued—nor a product of eternal cycles with ideals set in stone, as the classics argued. Hegel understood the state to be a product of historical development; he held that it existed as the creation of a dialectic historical process—in which forces of "contradiction and negation" play off each other to help progress society in a rational way—and, as such, had progressed from epoch to epoch embodying the greatest expression of reason for the era. "Truth is the unity of the universal and subjective will; and the Universal is to be found in the State, in its laws, its universal and rational arrangements," he said, in Lectures on the Philosophy of History. "The State" he concludes "is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth."
For Hegel, understanding the state in its own time and place meant understanding what was rational socially and politically. Deducing the course that history is supposed to take gives you special providence over what the future will hold. For Hegel, history and rationality were inseparable, and the only way to understand one was in the context of the other. He argued "that world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process… this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason." Hegel, by placing reason in a historical context, as opposed to the universal one which had been the dominant definition up through then, made the wisdom and judgments of any particular era subordinate to future ones, not in that their reason was inferior per se, but that it was only fruitful to think of their work in light of what the dominant intellectual mode of their epoch was. Far from elucidating universal truths, ancient works only provided the context of their debates and thoughts.
Hegel's thoughts, or to be more fair to the philosopher, what his students thought he thought, led to ideas about the origins and progressions of statecraft. If Hegel's historical method, as Karl Popper famously claimed, could be used to justify any current power structure as "rational", then his students took it one step further and decided that they could in fact move history in the direction they wished. If it were possible to know what history up until that point meant intellectually, what the flow of history had been in an objective way, then predicting what the future holds would surely be no different.
But this, although it is far more politicized than previous eras, still does not reflect how Hegelian historicism became the primacy of the political. For that, we need to step back for a second and ponder what it means to understand where history trends. If one can have perfect intellectual accord with history, and have a perfect knowledge of what the future needs to hold, then politics takes on a very different meaning than in more traditional conceptual structures. How so? Through compartmentalizing roles within the political process as being part of something trans-historic, and pigeonholing people into these roles. Again, we must return to Hegel's dialectical historical method, in which he recognizes historical roles playing off of each other as best expressing the zeitgeist intellectually. Development and progress is impossible without this tension. But if you already know where history is headed, is such tension completely necessary?
This is where post-Hegelian theorists expand on his ideas. Hegel, if read in a very literal sense, would tend to dissuade any reform or revolution within a given regime, with the logic being that if the regime exists it must be a rational creation, and it must be deserving of its existence. This extremely conservative reading of Hegel does not engender a political platform except the furtherance of the existing state structure. However, if you read Hegel as demanding something beyond that, transcending this historical structure, and if, of course, you know how that needs to be done, then politics becomes your raison d'être. How does this work? If trans-historical ends become obtainable through acting in political ways, that you have the capability of diving the purpose of politics, then politics takes on a level of importance that is beyond the scope of just affecting policy. Achieving this proper political goal then becomes your calling, so it starts to partially define your existence. Taken to its logical extreme, the primacy of politics demands that nothing stand in the way of ultimate political ends, that, to promote the proper growth and maintenance of the state, nothing is beyond the pale. If politics becomes the only way to judge meaning and value, then existing limitations become irrelevant.
A Progressive Embrace of History Necessitates an Elevated Role for the Political
How does the primacy of the political relate to progressivism then? I will grant that although progressives are beholden to ideas about politics that do tend towards this complete politicization of everything, they were not (and are not) proto-Carl Schmitts, the thinker most closely associated with defending the primacy of the political in Nazi Germany, nor are they hidden fascists. The extent to which politics is primary to progressives does not extend to the gas chambers, nor does it extend to a totalitarian state. But politics plays an unusual role within progressivism, given the American context, and brings American politics far closer to something like Schmittian primacy.
These ideas are important because a large part of the modern progressive project has been the subjugation of standard moral judgments about actions, based on things like reason or revelation, to essentially political judgments about ethics. Consider the ethical standard that is "social justice," a rather nebulous term that places what had been traditionally political issues—like inequality or the treatment of nonunionized workers—as essentially questions of ethics. Nonpolitical action must be guided, therefore, by a broader sense that justice is achievable through politics, that the just society is a political problem above all else. Realizing social justice, which has tended to take on a decidedly socialist flavor in the past, is to be the goal of politics, and society must subsume every other consideration to accord to a politicized sense of justice. Can the just be seen as something political? Can true justice be found only in the proper manifestation of politics? Social justice teachings would say as much, placing politics ahead of ethics by itself, because ethics depoliticized becomes less and less important. In that sense, politics becomes ubiquitous.
Bringing it back to the Progressives, the primacy of the political becomes only apparent when viewed through their larger policies and (this is crucial) in their justifications for their policies. The classic example is Woodrow Wilson, the eminent Progressive theorist and our 28th chief executive, who defended his more moderate reform agenda (when compared to Socialist Eugene Debs and Progressive Theodore Roosevelt) on the premise that "real social development" required an "active" state presence. As we shall see later, Wilson and other progressives saw the "end" of the state as being complete social development and the thriving of a united organic state under which ultimate fidelity and homogeneity would create a broader national community around the state. They wished to have the state become the centerpiece of their entire broad social community, and such a vision necessitates a holistic political approach.
If historical progress is the means by which Progressivism want to transform the American political system, then History was its justification. America, it had been observed, was the nation in which politics played the least central role in making personal day-to-day determinations. One of the central lamentations of many progressives was the absence of a strongly political culture amongst American citizens; American culture existed, and there were major political problems, but, save for the slave owners in the South, no one defined themselves primarily by a political conviction. American politics was narrowly constructed around the logic of Lockean contract theory and Natural Rights, both of which posit politics as being subservient to a superstructure of either consent or nature. Commercial considerations were far more likely to define one politically then an overarching ideological framework. The justification for the American system was not an elevation of man's personal beliefs to the point of making new politics, but rather to the balancing of man's vices—their passions and interests—to create a sustainable system that does not require a reordering of human nature. The government, in the Founders' constitution, was to be a reluctant leader, something that exists only because of the frailty of humanity, not because it is the epicenter of virtue. The overarching doctrine of American Constitutionalism can be summed up in the famous quotes from Federalist 51, in which James Madison declares: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
Progressivism, then, rejects that statement as being completely beholden to the values of the 18th century, and not at all relevant to modern problems. Part of the Progressive agenda is accepting that government is necessary, but acknowledging that the progress we've made subsequent to the American Founding has rendered the restraints on government completely unnecessary. This is the origin of much of the Progressive contempt for restraint on their reason in the form of governance; in light of their belief in their knowledge of history, such impediments as built into the US Constitution seemed not only counterproductive but desultory.
Progressives brought with them from their studies at Germanic research universities the idea of the state as an organism, and the view that the progress doctrine they promulgated was the mechanism by which such an organism can evolve concomitantly with the changing world. Wilson, in his essay "What is Progress", defined constraints on actors in a political body as drawn from "Newtonian" rather than "Darwinian" principles. Madisonian checks and balances, as Wilson puts it, fail because "government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live… There can be no successful government without the intimate, instinctive coordination of the organs of life and action." So, according to Wilson, government is an actual living breathing organism, and needs to be treated as such. As Joshua Hawley, an admirer or Theodore Roosevelt's brand of progressivism noted, said about the ends of government: "The state would be the chief agent of the people's sovereignty; the state would be the chief reformer of society; the state would ultimately be the bond that linked one citizen to another in an ever more diverse and pluralistic republic."
Since such value was placed one the ends of government, such ideals were contingent on politics changing man. As was discussed earlier with the example of social justice, progressive politics implies a connection between the ethics of personal redemption with the political, meaning that ultimate redemption becomes possible only through the political. What this also means is that, since redemption is tied to government, one can count on government shaping the behavior and characteristics of the people. Human nature becomes something that is entirely malleable and mutable. A conception of human nature that has anything resembling constancy loses its relevancy for Progressives because of their belief in the temporality of politics. If political values can be defined by their epoch, then things that claim to be universal and unchanging are only true given that specific time and space: it's the progressive criticism of the natural rights doctrine of the American founding, that it cannot be relevant today given its remoteness and the new challenges faced today, that informs their disbelief in the permanence of human nature. It is this belief in the malleability of human nature that provides Progressives with the justifications for their vision of politics as holistic, organic, and total, the primacy of the political.
In many ways, seeking redemption via politics is the quintessence of the primacy of the political. But once we have established that politics is of at least some primacy and provides a meaningful source of ethical values—again, think of any number of liberals or leftists who feel the need to politicize even the most mundane of consumer activities—we must move on to another very powerful conclusion: political primacy means the irrelevancy of the practice of politics.
It is rather well known that Progressives were rather contemptuous of common politics; they hoped to replace it with scientific administration of essential tasks. Frank Goodnow, a prominent Progressive political scientist, put it best when he said much of government:
"[S]hould be free from the influence of politics because of the fact that their mission is the exercise of foresight and discretion, the pursuit of truth, the gathering of information, the maintenance of a strictly impartial attitude toward the individuals with whom they have dealings, and the provision of the most efficient possible administrative organization. The position assigned to such officers should be the same as that which has been by universal consent assigned to judges. Their work is no more political in character than is that of judges."
The idea that experts can be non-political here, that judges can be completely beholden to his proudest vision of non-partisanship, is the naked Progressive mindset. Politics is, at best, a distraction from the true business of government; the contentious debates and deal making only divert resources away from the true administrative ends of government. Experts, like Goodnow, already know (or can easily determine) what policies are to be pursued, so impediments to their direct implementation, like representative democracy, are things to be overcome.
One of the governing doctrines of Progressivism was that what they were engaged in was most explicitly not the practice of politics but something greater, something historic, something that would get us closer to a true understanding of man's place in the polis. Nowhere in the progressive narrative, however, is there room for real disagreement. If your operating principles include the deduction of the course of history and the scientific impartiality of political judgments, then the value of pluralism becomes nil. If politics and ethics become inseparably intertwined, then those seeking to undo great political actions not only disagree with you, but are, if you take it to its logical extreme, doing evil. If tenable political achievements are the domain of morality, then by definition those seeking contrary political goals must therefore be agents of immorality. Seeing these things in such stark black-and-white terms may be unfair to Progressives at a practical level; no one thinks that progressives are going to start rounding up conservatives and send them off to Dachau, but the tendency to see politics in moralized terms and to structure your life around the political, is a phenomenon in this country that largely came out of the progressive movement.
So at some basic level, it seems that the primacy of the political and the practice of politics must always be diametrically opposed. If politics is concerned with ultimate cultural, social, and ethical considerations, then practicing pluralistic politics would tend, therefore, away from attaining meaning. The primacy of the political really turns politics into a religion, and Progressivism embraces this wholeheartedly. From the literal singing of Hosannah's at the Progressive Party Convention in 1912—in which Teddy Roosevelt concluded his speech with a proclamation that "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord"—to the modern pseudo-deification of our current president, the religious aspects of Progressive political culture ends up treating alien ideologies like the Church treated heretics. Politicking and disagreements presuppose an ignorance of the ultimate course of history, because of a belief in the fallible vision of man. Madisonian republicanism keeps politics at under the purview of natural rights and real morality, something modern Progressives would be wise to heed. The conflation of politics with meaning necessitates destructive results politically.
The conflation of progressive politics with non-political life is one of the defining characteristics of progressivism. Ideological pronouncements about politics become synonymous with—or at least inseparable from—a worldview and lifestyle that defines an entire cultural subset. This reality is something that was found at the onset of progressive politics in the United States, and represents a stark break from the cultural treatment of politics present in the previous century. What made America unique was that we really existed ideologically in a rather constrained set; as numerous scholars of American political history from both the right and the left have pointed out, American ideology in the 19th century centered around the very narrow debate about the meaning of the Constitution and the extent of federal power. Progressives saw that debate as being completely immaterial to serious political debates, and as such they rejected completely the entirety of the 19th century political setup. It is why progressive political life has become devoted to altering the American political system; the justification for the conflation of non-political and political amongst American Progressives is built from a near universal agreement about the faults of the traditional American political mindset.
This devotion to altering American political destiny is why modern progressives are so beholden to claiming the language of history for their arguments. Nothing further delegitimizes an opposing argument then claiming that it is running contrary to history; if your policy is obviously the course that history will be taking, reactionary positions (itself a loaded term) and other orthogonal political views are completely worthless. The value of pluralism, which can conveniently defined by the "marketplace of ideas" framework promulgated by John Stuart Mill, diminishes to nothingness when "knowledge" of history becomes paramount. It is an implicit hostility to pluralism—further embodied by doctrines like political correctness and "hate speech" laws—that characterizes a particular dimension of the Progressive mindset, one that can, a priori, declare a position outside the "acceptable" norms. The intersection between political primacy and repressive toleration, a phrase that appears in a particularly noxious essay written by Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse, better captures the seeming paradox of Progressive politics, in that the ideology of Progressivism is inexorably intertwined with Progressive ethics and meaning, while concomitantly denying the validity of pluralistic politics. Progressivism, by starting with the answers about the shape of government and the path it needs to take, has very little use for competing ideologies and, as such, wishes to greater marginalize the vestiges of parliamentarian style liberal democracy. Republicanism, built on the logic of competing interests and mediating institutions, serves no purpose to progressives at all, instead only acting as an impediment to History.