The fundamental differences between the left and the right -- between conservatives and progressives -- comes down to how we answer three simple questions: "Can we?," "Should we?" and "What do we mean, ‘We’?"
Apply them to any challenge we face as a country -- Can we make health care available to all? Can we reign in Wall Street? Can we build an economy that works for the other 99% of us? Can we keep teachers, police officers, and fire fighters working in our communities? Can we reduce our contribution to climate change? -- and our answers reveal who we are and where we’re headed.
Each side’s answer to the first question have most recently been emblazoned on Barack Obama’s campaign posters and shouted on the floor of Congress by House Minority Leader John Boehner: "Yes, we can," and "Hell no, you can’t."
It may be trite to begin an argument citing definitions, but in this case it’s appropriate. The dictionary on my Macbook. which seems as good as any, defines "conservative" as:
a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.
And it defines "progressive" as:
a person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.
The difference between the two was illustrated for me by two blog posts I read weeks apart. The first came to my attention through Athenae, via Digby. Aptly titled "No, We Can’t," it was written by the John Derbyshire of the National Review Online. I was struck by his oddly celebratory, and almost gleeful tone concerning the oil leak in the Gulf, and the possibility it was unstoppable.
As the writer says: "The very least damaging outcome as bad as it is, is that we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more."
In slightly different words: The best we can hope for is that the thing just goes on gushing through the bore hole indefinitely. (Or until we can drill enough relief wells to reduce the pressure. Don’t hold your breath.)
I’m as horrified as anyone by this -- if the guy has got it right, and I’ve understood him correctly. At the same time, as a constitutional pessimist, I’ll own to a certain grim satisfaction. The infantile optimism of post-JFK America may have met its match down there in the Gulf. Nature is not mocked.
My reaction was the same as Athenae’s. (Though not nearly as colorful.) I wondered, as she did, what Derbyshire meant by "infantile optimism." So I searched NRO, and found Derbyshire’s definition.
Optimism helped build this nation. Yes, we can clear the forest, tame the prairies, fight off the Indians. Yes, we can build heavier-than-air flying machines, land on the Moon, defeat fascism and communism. Yes, we can prosper without the horror and indignity of slavery. I am sure there were pessimists who said those things could not be done. They were wrong; and thoughtful persons, including thoughtful pessimists, knew at the time that they were wrong.
Today, however, American optimism has got completely out of hand. A corrective is needed. The corrective must come from conservatives, the people who understand that "human nature has no history." We must revive the fine tradition of conservative pessimism. In this age, optimism is for children and fools. And liberals.
Some children will be left behind. You cannot "remake the Middle East" or "defeat evil." The poor will always be with us. Black and white will never mingle together in unselfconscious harmony. Corporations will not research and explore without hope of profit. Russia will not become Sweden. Forty million immigrants speaking a single language will not assimilate.
Conservatives used to know all this. Some – the infallibly sapient Roger Kimball, for example – still do. The smiley-faces are leading us to perdition. They must be shouted down.
Derbyshire’s position isn’t new, of course. We’ve heard it before, concerning previous disasters and their victims. We heard it in the odd ways conservatives responded to Katrina, for example.
Good Enough vs. Better
I filed Derbyshire’s post away, to maybe write about later. Later came when I read Paul Rosenberg’s post about why it’s so complicated to be a progressive. Rosenberg offered definitions of progressive and conservative that shed more light Derbyshire’s post.
I think that the primary difference between conservatives and progressives is that:
Conservatives believe in tribally-shared narrative myths that comfort them in perpetuating a world of inequality, while
Progressives believe in a universalist, critical-empirical approach to creating a world that works for everyone.
This is not an all-encompassing explanation. There are other important factors as well as a host of secondary ones. But I believe that this captures a "good enough" central core of the difference between the two worldviews. (emphasis added) By its very nature, conservatism’s tribalism, focus on narratives, attraction to comfort and acceptance of hierarchy provide a strong impetus towards a relative simplicity of political self-concept.
The exact opposite is true of progressivism. The universalist tendency means everyone is invited in, and tribalism is always distrusted to some degree or other -- even the idea of establishing a progressive identity. Having a critical-empirical approach means that what a given progressive individual or group believes is highly mutable, depending on the latest research -- or at least, the latest information available to them, as it fits into their pre-existing understanding of the world.
Rosenberg underscores a nuance that Derbyshire either misses or ignores. Derbyshire paints progressives as naive idealists pursuing a perfect world, so starry-eyed that they can’t see the the "real world," that clear-eyed conservatives -- in Derbyshire’s view -- obviously do. But, as Rosenberg spells out, it’s not a question of a perfect world vs.the "real world," but whether "better" is possible or the status quo is "good enough."
For progressives, the possibility of a better world makes inevitable a moral responsibility to work towards achieving it. It means looking at situations as neither black nor white, but to discern what can be changed and ought to be changed through advocacy, social organizing, and (yes) political action.
It’s that process of questioning the status quo that has catalyzed progressive movements -- from the labor movement, to the women’s movement, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBT movement, etc. -- that strove for inclusion of those who were excluded from the status quo, and led to the growth of the (now endangered) American middle class, the presidency of Barack Obama, and the gavel in Nancy Pelosi’s hand.
Justice vs. "Just Us"
Think about where we are now and how far we come since the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for ever progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.
I’ll even go so far as to say that only progressive movements could have led to such changes, because of how we answer that first question. A conservatism primarily concerned with preserving the status quo could never and would never have produced them. In fact, the progressive movements responsible for these changes were opposed by conservative movements that were yelling "Stop!" as every one of those movements marched passed them towards greater freedom, enfranchisement, and equality.
They were yelling "Stop!" as the country moved closer to determining whether millions of American’s having no access to quality, affordable health care was an injustice or merely unfortunate. For progressives health care reform is comparable to other movements for social change, like the civil rights movement, the women's movement, or the LGBT movement. Each sought, and still seeks, to extend the basic rights of citizens and human beings to an ever wider spectrum of people than were afforded such by the status quo.
As Al Vivian, CEO of Basic Diversity wrote a year ago, "Privilege can be a dangerous thing. It releases you from the task of thinking about things that others must." Though many progressives -- past and present -- are privileged by the status quo, progressive movements seek change that meant a lost of privilege or a change in status for the individuals engaged in these movements. The choice comes down one of justice over the preservation of personal privilege; or rather, justice over "Just us."
To do less is to let injustice stand. Letting injustice stand unchallenged is not an option. That’s a major difference between the progressivism Rosenberg describes, and what I call "complacent conservatism." Last year, a Pew Research survey found that conservatives were "happier" than liberals, but that "happiness" bore a close resemblance to complacency.
The authors argue that a conservative belief acts as a psychological buffer in a world of increasing inequality. The idea is that conservatives tend to rationalize inequality as the result of a fair process in a meritocracy, whereas liberals tend to see inequality as inherently unjust.
Being happy is a cinch, if you can rationalize inequities as right and just. Then, no matter how bad things are for someone else, you can be assured that things are as they ought to be.
On the other hand, someone more progressive, and lacking rationalizations for injustice and inequality might question why they exist and why they persist -- and keep questioning, even as the answers become more challenging -- rather than simply accepting that they exist and that they persist because they ought to.
Derbyshire’s brand of conservatism, for example, says "the poor shall always be with us," in order to justify not only not bothering to anything about poverty (or unemployment, or hunger, etc.), but to questioning the roots of inequality. (Though he easily concedes that at least one progressive movement -- the abolitionist movement -- got something right.)
It’s a conservatism that is willing to let some injustices stand. Some people will always be poor, so why try save them all? Some people will always be racist and there will always be some degree of discrimination, so why keep strengthening or expanding civil rights legislation? Derbyshire’s conservatism says "Stop!" or "No further!" to movements addressing injustices that it sees as inevitable and un-fixable. Better to let them stand than endanger the status quo with futile efforts to correct them. Utopia is a pipe-dream that cannot attained, and perhaps should not be attempted.
Bending the Arc of Justice
At least Derbyshire’s "Stop!" is less bewildering than moderate refrain of "Wait!"
Bewildering, because shallow understanding of the "why" of health care reform (unjust vs. unfortunate), inevitably has its basis in what [Martin Luther] King calls a "misconception of time," and its role in social change. In fact, he might be speaking directly to present-day moderates whose exhortation to "Wait" is based in a belief in the inevitability of justice.
…Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
In other words, the man who said "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," would probably add that it bends not of its own accord, or because it can do no other -- but because of countless hands reaching up to bend it towards justice sooner rather than later.
And, ultimately, that's the moral question at the whole of the health care reform debate. Do we wait for the long moral arc of the universe to bend inevitably towards justice, or do we work to bend it ourselves?
Either a better world is possible or it isn’t. For progressives, if it’s possible, then working to achieve it is a matter of conscience. To do otherwise is to let injustice stand, and require people to continue to suffer injustice indefinitely and without remedy, to preserve privileges that rely on the perpetuation of injustice and the suffering accompanies it.
Yes, We Can.
Where we encounter injustice or inequity in the status quo, progressives ask "Can we bend ‘the moral arc of the universe’ further towards justice?" Conservatives, faced with the unjust or merely unfortunate realities of the status quo may ask themselves a similar question.
For progressives, the answer is always the same: Yes, we can.
That leads to the second question, which sheds more light on Derbyshire’s "No, you can’t," changing it from an assertion to an admonition. For even Derbyshire is aware that, yes, much can be done about the problems even he is aware of and catalogs in his post.
Having answered the question, "Can we?", the next question is "Should we?" The obvious answer for progressives is "Yes, we should." For conservatives, even if we can, the clear answer is "No, we shouldn’t."