The Left’s Outrage Could Destroy Progressivism

By Steve Berman Published on February 9, 2017

The left is creating an unsustainable level of outrage based on hatred of Donald Trump. If this leads to the end of the era of radical progressivism, that would be a good thing.

Progressivism is a philosophy that trusts in human reason and holds that societies can move toward a better, more moral, stable and technologically improved future through the coordinated actions of their members. In some ways, it draws on the positive Enlightenment themes present in the American Founding. But it tends to lack another key insight of the founders: the abiding conviction that every person is fallen and should not be entrusted with too much coercive power. It was this belief that led the founders to create an elaborate system of checks and balances.

A Bit of History

The Progressive Era began in the late nineteenth century as America moved toward industrialization. Many, if not most, early progressives were Christians, who believed that a stable family, quality education and Godly government could combat society’s ills such as poverty, racism, greed and class warfare. They founded voluntary aid societies across the country, which did a great deal of good (see Karl Zinsmeister’s new book for details). The temperance movement was largely the fruit of this Christian progressivism.

Unfortunately, the  temperance movement eventually resulted in the 18th Amendment, which mandated through Prohibition what has previously been voluntary. By 1933, the country’s taste for this form of progressivism had faded. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th in its entirety, though a more secularized conviction that progress would come through government action lived on in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s worker-friendly nationalism (really a form of national socialism, with a hint of Fascism).

By the 1960s, progressivism had morphed into something much more radical. No longer animated by Christian morality or a constrained optimism, it had become a movement that sought liberation from traditional morality, paradoxically enforced by the power of the state. The sexual revolution, feminism and abortion all became progressive causes. The “population bomb” and Malthusian predictions of resource exhaustion brought radical environmentalism into the fold. This was the birth of radical progressivism, and the death of rational progressivism. (I’m borrowing this distinction from Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.)


Progressivism: Social Engineering Through Outrage

At our nation’s founding, “liberal” meant something totally different than it does today: classical liberalism exists within the framework of liberty and freedom under God’s natural law. Today, in the US, a “liberal” is often someone who is really a “radical progressive.”

The tactics associated with radical progressivism were largely lifted from Saul Alinsky and his “Rules for Radicals”:

Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement.

Alinsky believed that “man’s hopes lie in the acceptance of the great law of change.” Where G.K. Chesterton said, “Whenever you remove a fence, always pause long enough to ask yourself, ‘Why was it put there in the first place?’,” Alinsky only asked why you haven’t removed it yet.

Change and outrage are the essence of modern progressivism. Everything that could become “dogma” must be opposed and eliminated (paradoxically, by new dogmas), then replaced by new institutions, which eventually themselves must be opposed and replaced.

To the radical progressive, freedom is only useful if it supports this transformative change.

Outrage Isn’t Enough

Outrage over Trump’s policies and cabinet picks is straining radical progressives to the breaking point. Without government power to enforce their policies, they’re forced to organize in other ways. The women’s march, the planned general strike and various demonstrations at the national level are not altering the course of either Congress or the new Administration.

The left claims it’s a “resistance” but it lacks cohesion and broad popular support. There’s no single issue to rally around, like the Vietnam War. There’s no optimistic vision. There is only hatred of Donald Trump. Only a small fraction of Americans viscerally hate Trump, however, and celebrities can’t trade on that for long.

One need only look at the blowback on some of the Super Bowl ads, and the praise for Lady Gaga’s non-political halftime show, to see how this works. The patience of the mostly silent majority is wearing thin. Violent riots may give participants a temporary rush, but they anger and alienate most of the electorate.

Mere appeal to a negative emotion can’t last — it will burn out as a national rallying cry. The question is whether conservatives will be able to offer a viable and appealing alternative.

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