PROGRESSIVE POLITICS AND ITS NEMESIS
by Gennady Shkliarevsky
For over three decades since the late 1980s, the United States has been an island of relative stability in the ocean of turmoil. But this is no more. Today the United States is in the grip of several major crises. Demonstrations, protests, looting, violent attacks are the daily routine in this country.
Americans are desperately trying to understand the source of this turmoil. There is no shortage of explanations but most of them run along partisan lines and fall woefully short of providing an objective assessment. Since they do not provide an adequate understanding of the turmoil, they cannot help to find a solution. They have little value beyond mobilization of rank and file and serve only the purpose of consolidating lines of division, not bringing the country together.
The conflict that currently consumes America involves two principal contenders. On one side, there are liberals who passionately support their progressive agenda. The strongly believe that America should continue to advance along the path that they have charted. They advocate promoting minority rights, racial justice, greater economic equality, universal healthcare, free education, and much else. They are also uncompromising in promoting their policies for combating climate change and preserving the environment.
Those who oppose the progressives feel very strongly that liberal policies exclude and disempower them; that, as a result of the progressive policies, they have lost control over their lives and have no future in their own country. They blame the progressives for the growing disparity in America and the decline of the middle class. These are the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The statistical data are very clear on this account. Fully two-thirds of white voters without a college degree and over 80 percent white evangelicals voted for Trump in the last presidential elections.
The four years since Trump’s election have been tumultuous, to say the least. The progressives have been and continue to be very passionate about regaining momentum. They see themselves as the only source of change and progress in this country. Their belief in their progressive mission is the source of their inspiration and motivation.
One finds it hard to dispute the claim that progressive liberals have been a major source of change in this country. They have been the most ardent advocates of the course they have charted and the principal vehicle for introducing new ideas and new initiatives designed to transform American society. Most of what they have offered represents something that is new and unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans.
Their approach is simple. By exposing Americans to new ideas that they propose, the progressive liberals expect that Americans will eventually understand the necessity of these innovations and will eventually appropriate them. However, the apparent simplicity of this approach belies its actual complexity. The approach does not take into account what we know about the way that humans appropriate novelties.
The first stage in the appropriation of novelties is assimilation. Assimilation involves the inclusion of new ideas into our own mental operations and constructs. In other words, we start familiarizing ourselves with what is new by applying to it what we already know. Our own mind, its mental constructs, and operations are the principal tools we have for knowing anything. There is simply no way we can bypass using these tools. Consequently, one can expect that the result of assimilation will be the interpretation of new ideas in light of what people already know.
Since new ideas are unfamiliar, they obviously represent a level of mental organization that includes more possibilities than the level of a mental organization possessed by those who appropriate them. In other words, this new level of organization is more powerful than the level deployed for their appropriation. Due to the power differential, those who appropriate new ideas will not be able to understand them. New ideas will disturb and disorient them. The most natural reaction to such perturbation will be uncertainty, which can only lead to a negative response—in other words, a rejection. Consequently, those who promote new ideas are likely to encounter resistance on the part of those who want to appropriate them.
Only adaptation can result in a positive response to something that is radically new. Adaptation requires that new ideas should become familiar. Consequently, they should be expressed in familiar terms—that is, that the more powerful level of the organization should be expressed in terms of the less powerful. This task is not easy. It requires the creation of a frame that will have sufficient power to include both the more powerful and the less powerful level as its particular cases, which means that the new frame should be more powerful than both of them; its language should be able to accommodate both levels. To put it simply, accommodation involves creative work, i.e., the creation of a new frame that is more powerful than both levels of the organization involved in adaptation.
The construction of such a frame is a complicated and creative process. First, one needs to increase the power of the weaker (local) level of organization, which can be achieved by equilibrating it with the more powerful (global) level that regulates interactions at the local level. Such equilibration increases the power of the local level of organization that, as a result, gains access to new possibilities to which previously it had no access. In his well-known work on consistency and completeness in axiomatic systems Kurt Gödel, the famous Austrian mathematician, and logician has given a practical example of how to perform this operation.
As a result of such equilibration, local operations will be able to grasp ideas and notions that transcend their own level of organization. This transcendence opens the path to adaptation. The adaptation to a new and more powerful level of organization, the increase in power of local agents, and the subsequent re-equilibration of their interactions will lead to the emergence of a new frame that will have sufficient power to include both the level of organization that gives rise to new ideas and the weaker level of organization at which local agents operate as its particular cases. Thus, those who are exposed to new ideas will be able to appropriate them. This process is definitely not simple, but then there is nothing simple about the human mind.
As one can see, this process of appropriation is very complex and requires knowledge and skills. There are only two candidates that can perform this process: either those who promote new ideas or those who appropriate them. Although both are capable of performing this task, those who promote new ideas are better equipped for accomplishing it since they already operate on a more powerful level of organization. Due to their power, they have access to the weaker (local) level, while those who are involved in local operations do not have access to the global level that is more powerful than their own. Those who operate at the local level will definitely have to spend more time and energy to accomplish this task. If left unaided, they will take a long time to adapt to new ideas, which means that their resistance will last longer.
Obviously, those who operate at the more powerful global level are better equipped to facilitate adaptation. For one thing, they have access to the local level, while those at the weaker local level have no access to the global level. There are essentially two options for those who advance new ideas. One option is to use force in making people accept new ideas. However, the use of force is a violent approach. It is likely to produce even more antagonism and resistance—either symbolic or physical—on the part of those who are subjected to this violence. They will resist those who want them to change their mind and attitudes. One can make people obey but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to force people to change their minds. The human mind is the most powerful form of organization that exists in nature. It has many possibilities and ways at its disposal; and it uses them to preserve and protect itself. The experience of authoritarian regimes shows that people resist, even if outwardly they may display obedience. As the example of the Soviet Union–among many others—shows, this resistance lasts a long time, takes many forms, and may eventually defeat the force that tries to effect change.
There is, however, another and more efficient way to promote adaptation—one that has been described earlier. Those who advance new ideas and operate on a more powerful level of organization can create a frame that will include both the global and the local level of organization as its particular cases.
Certainly, this task is still very difficult and requires a great deal of creativity, but it is not impossible; and the proponents of new ideas are certainly well equipped for accomplishing this task. They should find a way to express the more powerful global level of organization in terms of the less powerful local one. They can perform this task by using creative mapping—a process that makes it possible to express more powerful global operations in terms of the less powerful local ones. The result of such mapping will be a new frame that accommodates both the local and the global level as its particular cases. This new frame and the language associated with it will make it possible to provide explain new ideas in terms of the less powerful local level, thus facilitating access to new ideas and the process of adaptation. This course of action will not require the destruction of the local level and the adoption of a new one. On the contrary, it will conserve the local level and, therefore, will prevent resistance. Such adaptation will enrich those who operate at the local level and the subsequent equilibration of their operations will advance the evolution of the system as a whole. In other words, the entire system will progress with little or no resistance.
The course of action that the progressive liberals involved force and violence. They decided to use courts, law enforcement agencies, legislative institutions, and government officials to promote their agenda. The main thrust of this approach was to use institutions and force innovations on the American people. After the Republican counterrevolutions under Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich and discouraged by the centrism of Bill Clinton, the progressives turned to courts and regulatory agencies as a way of bringing about social change. Progressive lawyers and government bureaucrats became the new warriors in the struggle for social progress. In the meantime, the progressive radical left concentrated on educational institutions where radical faculty engaged in radicalizing students to prepare them for the assaults against the loci of power in America.
Indeed, the violence that the progressive liberals used to impose their ideas on the American people was more symbolic than physical, but it was and is violence nevertheless. The path the progressive liberals chose could only result in conflict. This conflict was brewing for a long time until it finally erupted in 2016 when a large segment of the American people rebelled against the domination of the progressive elites and the Democratic Party and elected Donald Trump to be President of the United States. That was the moment when the liberals decided to embark openly on the path of radical and often violent action against the clearly expressed will of the American people and against their choice for President. They opted to use mass demonstrations and protests for creating chaos and instability and then using this chaos and instability to oust President Trump. The memory is still very fresh on everybody’s mind. We all remember campaigns of resistance and demonstrations of protest under the slogan “not my president.” We all recall the barrage of disinformation, deceptions, and lies against President Trump designed to implicate him in collusion with a foreign power against America. We all remember endless investigations and impeachment hearings aimed at President Trump and members of his campaign. We all remember the persecution of his trusted advisors and supporters. All this has become part of the progressive plan to establish their domination. They continue to pursue this plan to this day.
Contrary to what progressive liberals believe and argue, the problem is not with Donald Trump and not with his supporters. The problem has been and is with the progressive liberals themselves. They advanced new ideas and simply expected people to accept them. They wanted American people to change their minds. There is nothing simple about the human mind. The human mind represents the most powerful level of organization that exists in nature. It offers many possible ways of resistance. Many Americans refused to yield to the use of force and violence. They have and continue to resist the progressive plan.
With little knowledge of how systems operate and evolve, having no idea of what such evolution requires, the progressives stepped into the trap that they themselves created.
Their approach that uses force to impose their innovations on the American people has backfired. Now the progressive liberals face a moment of reckoning—a real possibility that their movement and the Democratic party will disintegrate and cease to exist.
There are many examples one can use to illustrate the effects of the fundamental flaws of the elitist approach of progressive politics. Perhaps the most prominent example is the way that the progressives have handled the problem of race. Over the last several decades they have pursued the goal of achieving equality between white and black Americans. The practice they have used in promoting this agenda relies on a relatively small group of members of the liberal elite establishment who have gained control of American political institutions, courts, and regulatory agencies.
The basis for this approach is secular universalism—an ideology that is by no means shared by the majority of the American people. This ideology excludes the values, norms, traditions, and cultural heritage that most Americans—black and white–share. These values and norms include religion and God, recognition of the nuclear family as the fundamental unit of society, the notion of the sanctity of life as God’s creation, and others. Although Americans overwhelmingly, regardless of race or color, accept and hold these values and norms in high regard, secular universalism rejects and excludes them. Thus, this approach is exclusive and relies on domination. It is decidedly not democratic.
Lilla someone has to be excluded.
This approach is patently inconsistent with the professed goals of progressive liberals. It is paradoxical. Mark Lilla, a progressive liberal, points out this paradox when he writes:
If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
If the progressives pursue, as they profess, inclusion, they obviously cannot achieve inclusion by practicing exclusion. Their approach requires that both the black and the white community should abandon the values, norms, traditions, and culture that cement their communities. Members of both communities should renounce the values that sustain their communities and accept the values and norms of secular universalism. There is no doubt that violence, if only symbolic, is an essential component of this practice. Since it uses violence, this approach and practice can only cause resistance, tensions, and conflicts. Both the black and the white community summarily refuse to abandon the values and norms that sustain these communities.
In order to promote their agenda among American blacks, the progressives have enlisted the black elites that they have created. The progressive elites, both black and white, profess that racial equality and justice constitute the core of their agenda. However, justice is, first and foremost, about the recognition and acceptance of the value of the other. Yet the progressive practice refuses to recognize and accept the very values and norms of those they seek to win to their side. Since the progressive agenda excludes these values and norms, it cannot be about justice, but only about domination and injustice.
The dubious and inconsistent perspective of progressive elites has had little effect on the black community. The black community has refused to abandon its values. The only result of this policy of racial justice has been the growing separation between the black elites and the black community.
Having adopted secular universalism as their guiding ideology, the black elites have little in common with the black community, except the color of their skin. Skin color does not create communities. The glue that holds communities together is the values and norms that members of this community share.
Documents that the progressive black elites and their organizations adopted proudly proclaim the principles of secular universalism. In the statement of its vision, the NAACP, one of the most prominent and influential black organizations in this country, declares, for example: “The vision of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.” Its constitution also proclaims that the removal of “all barriers of racial discrimination” is one of the main objectives of the NAACP.
Since deracinated black progressives do not share values and norms embraced in the black community, they constantly face the problem of validation of their professed “truth” that has no roots in and no support from the black community. Secular universalism is the only basis that validates progressive truth. In other words, the source of validation of the agenda advocated by the progressive black elites is external to the black community and has no basis in it. Thus the agenda for dealing with the race problem used by the progressive black has no roots in the black community. In order to validate this agenda, progressive black elites have to change the values and norms embraced by the black community—a very difficult, if not indeed impossible task. The alienation of the black elites from the black community makes them dependent on the progressive establishment; it also makes them very insecure and vulnerable.
The alienation from their community and their dependence on the progressive establishment has made the black elites vulnerable to criticism that comes from the radical black activists, such as Black Lives Matter. These activists argue poignantly that the black elites do not serve their community but only the interests of the white progressive establishment and their own interests.
However, the agenda of black radicals is not without paradoxes either. Despite their claims of total commitment to the black community, for example, members of BLM share with this community little more than their skin color. The defining features of the black community are its values. Shared values, much more than skin color, bind black Americans into a community. Faith, God, church, family, the sanctity of life are all part of the cultural heritage created by the black community over the centuries of its history in America. None of these are actually reflected in the agenda of BLM. One example of the glaring discrepancies between the agenda of BLM and the values of the black community is the former endorsement of “queer and trans folks.” The black community is largely indifferent, if not hostile, to issues related to LGBTQ. In other words, just as the black elites, the radical black activists have more in common with the American left than with their own community.
The agenda of American radical left-wing organizations that has no connection to the black community makes BLM and similar radical black organizations and their claims appear baseless. In other words, like the black progressives, they face the same problem of justification and validation. The lack of justification poses a constant threat of being exposed; it can reveal a simple truth that the claims that radicals make are baseless and, therefore, fake.
The most common response to fear is violence and aggression. The justification of this violence requires the existence of an enemy that poses a mortal threat to black people. In other words, in order to justify their violent actions, black radicals need an enemy. They have to construct this enemy.
In order to construct this enemy, black radicals and their supporters have to engage in demonization and scapegoating. This enemy is color-coded—it is white. This enemy is not just white folks but whiteness itself. The abstract and metaphysical quality of this enemy makes it ubiquitous and extremely dangerous. Like the metaphysical devil, whiteness is everywhere and exists in multiple and often unrecognized forms. It inspires metaphysical fear. The struggle against this fear assumes cosmic dimensions. It offers unlimited possibilities. The metaphysical fear that drives this struggle can end only when it consumes its creators.
Sigmund Freud—no stranger to psychology—recognized the psychological roots of demonization. In response to the Bolshevik propaganda against capitalism, Freud made a prophetic remark: “When Bolsheviks kill of capitalists, what are they going to do?” The question was no doubt a rhetorical one. The demon of destruction eventually consumed the creators of the Bolshevik revolution in the violence of the Great Purges that killed millions of Russians.
There are many other examples of the harmful effects of the profoundly flawed ideology and practice used by progressive liberals. In all their pursuits—whether it is the rights of sexual minorities, gender equality, the position of women, or abortion—the progressive liberals always face the same problem: their elitist practice inevitably involves exclusion; and exclusion cannot be the source of empowerment and freedom. It is for this reason that progressive policies cannot and will not succeed.
The progressive liberals and the Democratic Party have not learned anything since 2016. Despite the defeat that their agenda sustained, they continue to insist on implementing it. This agenda has nothing new. It offers the old, tired, and failed ideas of redistribution of wealth and identity politics as the solutions for America’s problems.
In their efforts to oust President Trump since 2016, progressive liberals have largely relied on their political machinery, control of the mainstream media, and the support of the intellectual, economic, and government elites. However, this strategy could not breathe life into their dying party. The Democrats have not been able to create much enthusiasm in their base. Their decision to move their party to the left as a way of energizing their base has had disastrous effects. The Democrats are increasingly losing control of their own party.
Today, left-wing radicals—BLM, ANTIFA, RefuseFascism, and others—largely dictate the agenda of the Democratic Party. They stage violent demonstrations and protests, engage in looting and destruction of property, and attack police. They reject all that is dear to the heart of common Americans, regardless of the color of their skin. Nothing is sacred: values, history, heroes, sacrifices—all are subjected to the most vicious and malicious condemnation and destruction. The Democratic Party is helpless to control this wave of violence. It can only stand idly by and watch how the forces of anarchy try to destroy America.
If by supporting the radicals and moving their party to the left the Democrats hoped to invigorate their party, they have grossly miscalculated. They let out a genie that is destroying them; they have created a trap for themselves. The Democratic Party suffers as a result of its miscalculation—a product of their deeply flawed ideology and practice. The party is increasingly perceived as a threat to public peace, law and order. Independents and moderates that the party needs to win in the next elections are turning away from the Democrats, thus seriously diminishing chances for a Democratic victory.
Such are the results of the deeply flawed progressive politics. Rather than lead the country toward peace and prosperity, the party presides over the efforts to destroy America. The Democrats’ elitist ideology and practice cannot deliver on the promise of freedom.
The process of creation is the only path toward freedom. We have inherited this process in the course of evolution. Our civilization has been able to evolve as a result of this process. It has given us all that we have: our knowledge, prosperity, morality, and aesthetic values. We must embrace this process and make it central to our social practice. The knowledge of how systems, including social systems, change, and evolve should be the basis of this universally inclusive and empowering truly democratic practice that is the only path that offers realistic possibilities to sustain our civilization and ensure its survival and progress into an indefinite future.
Gennady Shkliarevsky is Professor Emeritus of history at Bard College, in New York