Sunday, July 23, 2006

Progressive Conservatism

It happened during a break at a recent Omnilore class following a particularly heated argument about the use of torture to extract life-or-death information from terrorists (See “Friends” 7/11/06). Someone commented that opinion polls show that Republicans and conservatives are substantially happier than liberals and Democrats (libdems). “So, what about it?” he asked, pointedly! Apparently I did not look very happy.

“It’s true,” I shot back, “and it’s because we have all the good ideas.” - silence - I then explained that liberals used to have good ideas, they were the reformers, but now the conservatives are the true progressives. The neocons have become the procons (progressive conservatives).

Another classmate who just heard the last part beginning with liberals said “I hate it when people use words like liberal to accuse us of things -- why can’t you use progressive?” Well,… it’s like I just said, the libdems are no longer the progressive party.

And lest I be accused of making sweeping generalizations (although that is the essence of intellectual discourse) I’ll be quick to point out that not all who call themselves conservatives are progressive. Take Pat Buchanan, for example, that poster child for old fashioned, shortsighted conservatism, who never had a progressive thought in his life. Buchanan is surely not a procon, nor is he associated with the mainstream of Republican or conservative thought. George Bush and his main people (Cheney, Rummy, Condi, Hastert, …) are the standard bearers for the procon movement.

Perhaps a bit of history is in order, to explain how the liberals lost their way and how the procons came to be the mainstream of the Republican Party.

During the 1950s and 60s the libdems turned mushy on the existential threat of the time. The New Left concluded that Communism was here to stay, that the Soviet Union was the permanent counterweight to American power, and maybe that wasn’t so bad after all. They blamed the continuation of the cold war and the arms race on the liberal establishment of JFK, Johnson and Humphrey.

They mobilized behind clean-Gene McCarthy and, in 1972, managed to take over the Democratic Party and nominate George McGovern for president. Their policies on the cold war and the economy were now 180 degrees from where the Party was only a decade earlier. To borrow a phrase from George Orwell (concerning the American opponents to engagement in WWII): “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Indeed, the rationale for the New Left movement was developed by academics and pacifists.

In reaction to that defeatist (Better Red than Dead ), Stalin-loving, anti-American philosophy of the New Left, a large number of liberals and soft commies (Trotskyites) abandoned the libdems and started the new-to-conservatism (ie neoconservative) movement. Norman Podhoretz describes the wrenching transition in his fascinating memoir “Ex-Friends.”

“I, having been a liberal of the old style myself, participated in the conversion to radicalism, and it was when I lost faith in the teachings and practices of the radical “church” that I also lost all the friends I had made as a radical communicant.”

Irving Kristol was the godfather of the neoconservatives, the group of former leftists who came to realize that good and evil really did exist, and that the Soviet Union was evil. Norman Podhoretz became the influential editor of Commentary magazine and Kristol’s wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, was the historian in residence. They and liberals such as Ben Wattenberg and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson joined forces with William F. Buckley, Henry Kissinger and others to form the intellectual foundation of the neoconservative movement.

Anyway, the neocons became great supporters of Ronald Reagan, something of a neocon himself, still sporting the scars from his battles with the Communists – “liberals in a hurry” - in the Screen Actors Guild. The neoconservatives backed Reagan to the hilt in his cold war with the Soviets. After a few years in the background, they have become prominent backers of the latest existential fight with Islamo-fascism.

But the Progressive Conservatives are not just grown up neoconservatives. While the neocons are largely one-dimensional in their passion for defending America, the procons are for spreading liberty and they add a plethora of progressive policies.

In foreign policy, Reagan and Bush43 take the position described by author Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism: "Freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for freedom for others." Reagan’s strength led to the downfall of the “Evil Empire” while Bush is confronting the “Axis of Evil.” Millions are free as a result.

Procons led by Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America” convinced Bill Clinton (after two vetoes) to support welfare reform, arguably the best thing that has ever been done for the welfare-class.

The procon Milton Friedman and, recently, John Stossel, lead the charge for school choice, the only kind of choice that libdems oppose.

It is the President who is passionate about home ownership and fixing the Social Security and Medicare systems. The libdems care more about handouts than ownership, and are happy to raise taxes ad infinatum in order to pay for unfunded entitlements. They can’t wait until we are just like secular-socialist Europe.

So what are the libdem’s big, progressive ideas? They seem to favor the right of gays to marry, the right of a woman to abort a child even at birth, the right of atheists to prohibit any mention of God in public places, the rights of criminals and, especially, the right of government to take our money and our property to fund their pet projects.

JFK wouldn’t recognize these guys, most especially his brother Teddy.

Ps. Podhoretz points out that the neocons had their counterparts in Europe, notably the prolific polymaths Paul Johnson in England and Jean-Francois Revel in France. I am reading Revel’s intellectual tour de force Anti-Americanism; it is excellent.


Blogger fetching jen said...

Righ again Bill. Very good description of today's real conservative. And yes, WE are the progressive, creative ones with all of the ideas. Not the party throwing darts at every idea.

And isn't it true about JFK; he wouldn't recognize today's Democrat - especially that bloated windbag of a brother of his.

5:59 PM  
Blogger gary daily said...

I suppose the mossback millionaire conservatives of the late 19th century also thought they were the ones with the forward looking ideas. On close inspection, however, these ideas were about holding on to what they had and forget about those who were being thrown to the side of the track as their private Pullman car raced on into the night. And this is just as true today, just trade in those luxuriously appointed Pullmans for upholstered private jets.

Progressive Democrats today are in the position they’ve found themselves in off and on for over a century. They face the challenge of fixing the mess into which conservatives of various stripes have twisted our economy and society. This was true in the days of the first Progressives who, around 1900 found the powers of the untethered capitalism of the Gilded Age crushing the life out of the American Republic. It’s true today.

T. Roosevelt, H. Taft (yes, even Big Howie from Ohio was a progressive) and W. Wilson all carried the banner of progressivism into the political fray. They won votes, elections and enacted reforms ranging from conservation to an income tax, from pure food and drug laws to worker safety legislation. Many states led this charge. Wisconsin had its La Follette and California had Hiram Johnson–both opposed the octopus monopolistic power of corporations. All progressives held that the “problems of democracy could be solved by more democracy.” By more democracy they meant more government, government being the tool of the people to control the money power interests controlling their lives.

And progressive political leaders (usually, but not always Democrats) have repeated this pattern for a century now. The business administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were straightened out by the New Deal and Fair Deal of F.D. R. and H. S. T.. Ike’s gray, do nothing, ride the wave years, and JFK’s “where’s the middle of the road” administration were overturned by L. B. J. ‘s Great Society initiatives.

Domestic progressivism, however, foundered again and again on the rocks of foreign policy adventurism. We have been dragging through Cold Wars and hot wars, preemptive wars and shadow wars, for a generation now and the strain on the home front is staggering. Truly progressive Democrats will sweep aside the centrists in the party, the Clinton stronghold, the Democratic Leadership Council which harbors the Bayhs and Bidens and the embarrassing Lieberman. This truly is the “no ideas” segment of the party–domestic and foreign.

Progressive Democrats, the true soul of the party, should read the historical tea leaves, note that once again the people’s government is in the grip of reactionary, narrow and unbelievably greedy corporate business interests. Progressive Democrats should ignore gay bashing Republicans, the anti-choice warriors for (MY) God, the flag burning fear mongers, the Ten Commandments on every state house lawn crowd and push for what is fair and needed. For starters: fairness in taxation, intelligent spending of the people’s money, medical care for all, protection of pensions and social security, financing of public radio and TV, and generally follow the leads of Thomas Frank’s _What’s the Matter with Kansas_ and Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook’s _The Winner Take-All Society_.

Foreign policy? Easy. Borrow from the fountainhead of true Republican conservatism, Edmund Burke. He knew that the world and nations are complex entities. Created out of long and incredibly twisting and maze-like historical developments, foreign cultures/governments shouldn’t be trifled with, let alone “preempted” or feebly “democratized.” The world and life in it just doesn’t work according to plans cooked up by deep thinkers, let alone an undistinguished frat boy and a couple of his daddy’s last hurrah friends. In the world today, we have to play to our strengths not to cockeyed optimist dreams. Our strengths have been misused and weakened. We need to pull back around the world and become that City on the Hill Bill speaks of. It’s a beacon and example, a light, to be nurtured and touted. It’s not an armored shaft of mayhem and destruction to be thrown will-nilly out into the world in the wild hope that it will hit some target.

7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written. I agree with everything you wrote, and completely identify with the term Procon. And proudly so!!!!


9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Way to go Bill! Great post!

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Millions are free as a result." Hopefully, you mean the Soviet Union....and in that case, I wouldn't give all the credit to Reagan. The Vatican and your hated George Soros also helped immensely. And containment was a policy that worked, as opposed to the mess we now have in Iraq. If you actually meant that we freed the Vietnamese or the Iraqis, that is laughably absurd statement and simply shows how ideology can overcome brains, like in Bill's case. Yes, Saddam is gone, but when 14000 people have died violent deaths in 2006 alone, you have to wonder what reality the "procons" are living in if that is the standard of "freedom".

10:49 AM  

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