THE CLAY FEET OF THE PROGRESSIVE AGENDA
The agenda of the current progressive politics rests on two pillars: race and climate. Progressives claim that race and climate are the two biggest problems that America and the rest of the world are facing. The solution of these problems, progressives contend, requires a fundamental and complete restructuring of American society. America needs to implement changes that would eradicate racial inequity and white supremacy. Americans will have to change the way they live. American culture will have to undergo profound cleansing to rid it of its racist past.
Most Americans agree that the problems are real and they need to be addressed. Many Americans, however, disagree with progressive politics and agenda, particularly with their demand for fundamental changes. They feel that the fundamental transformation that the progressives propose is too excessive and will do more harm than good.
There are two ways in which humans solve problems. They either try to address the problem at its source. Alternatively, if they cannot identify the source of the problem, they resort to palliatives; in other words, they try to address the symptoms and mitigate their effects.
Race and environment are two issues that have been on the progressive agenda for quite some time. However, in the past progressive liberals have rarely if at all talked about complete restructuring. They have generally tried to use palliatives designed to mitigate the most egregious effects of both racism and environmental problems. Their way of dealing with these problems suggests that they implicitly acknowledged in the past the fact that they do not know what the source of these problems was.
Today things are different. Today progressives lead us to believe that they know what the source is. They boldly declare the causes of these problems are structural and have much to do with the very structure of our society; hence the advocacy for a complete restructuring.
An overwhelming majority of Americans, including progressive liberals, have always cherished individualism and individual rights as the main principle and foundation of American society. The progressive demand for a complete restructuring of America today can only mean that progressives no longer see individualism as the central tenet of American society and culture, and that is exactly the argument they advance today, albeit not always clearly.
The lack of clarity on this issue creates confusion in the progressive agenda and, consequently, politics. For example, on the issue of abortion, the progressives advocate a pro-choice approach that emphasizes women’s right to have control over their bodies. However, their position on race and climate has a decidedly collectivist and communal overtones. This position emphasizes the rights of the community over those of individuals. In other words, in their politics they advocate two organizing principles: one is about the individual and individual rights, while the other has clear communal and even socialist implications.
The problem is that they do not explain how these two equally important organizing principles can work together. Traditionally, Americans have viewed these principles as diametrically opposed to each other. Americans, including progressives, have always deemed them incompatible. The Cold War drew a very sharp line between American liberal and capitalist society and Soviet socialism. Both Republicans and Democrats have had ardently criticized the Soviet regime precisely because it put no value on the individual or individual rights.
Progressive Democrats are playing a very different tune these days. They often refer to socialism much more favorably than they did in the past. They have not renounced individualism, albeit they rarely use it in their rhetoric. They much more often use the language of communitarianism and even socialism. What they fail to do is to explain to Americans how they intend to bring these two principles together. The failure to do so and the confusion it creates puts their agenda on a very shaky foundation. Social experiments based on such foundation can only lead to senseless destruction and suffering. If the progressive liberals really mean business and not just engage in sloganeering for political gain, they must explain to Americans what it is that they try to achieve. Otherwise, their agenda will stand on legs of clay that will give in as soon as the progressive liberals will try to implement this agenda in practice.
Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College in New York.