I'm a cancer, he's a cancer, she's a cancer, we're a cancer…

Last night, J.E. Dyer replied to “The Point of Being Annoyed with Glenn Beck” (at HotAir here), and to related comments at her blog The Optimistic Conservative. (For anyone new to the discussion, “The Point…” was itself framed as a response to J.E.’s “Beck and the Legacy,” which had referenced my short “Bennett vs. Beck” entry of last Monday).  At Zombie Contentions, we’ve had a wide-ranging discussion in the comment thread, but I’d like to consolidate the dialogue with J.E. rather than try to advance it in two or more separate venues amidst multi-sided group discussions.  This approach is further justified because J.E. is such an able and articulate spokesperson:  If I were Glenn Beck, I would be delighted and grateful to have J.E. speaking up for me and forcefully extending my arguments.  She also concisely expresses the responses of many who disagree either with the big name/high level critics or, rather a different thing, with me.

I also think that the discussion, whose implications go well beyond what anyone thinks of Glenn Beck, or thinks of someone else for what he or she said about Glenn Beck, can be usefully divided into style and  substance – even if, in the end, the two have to be considered together.

In this post, I will focus on style – that is, political rhetoric and presentation.

In the ZC comment, J.E. concedes some of her own hesitations regarding aspects of Beck’s approach (as she did, implicitly, in her “Legacy” post), then expresses incomprehension about one of my central complaints:

How is it dehumanizing invective to refer to progressivist political ideology as a cancer on the American polity? It would be one thing to say the metaphor is inapt. I don’t think it is, but one could argue the case dispassionately. Another criticism that wouldn’t necessarily be a reach would be that it’s hyperbolic. Again, I don’t think it is. I am convinced that progressivism is antithetical to limited, constitutional government. I think Beck is correct that progressivism and limited, constitutional government can’t coexist. One of them has to recede, be defeated, dissolve over time. They can’t occupy the same space. […]

But dehumanizing? Demagogic? Just don’t see it. Beck’s proposition is that the American idea is limited, constitutional government, which is the essential condition for enduring political liberty. Progressivism won’t accept being bounded by limitations on government’s scope or charter. The more of it we admit in our midst, the more compromised is the constitutional bulwark guarding our liberties.

I really don’t see what’s out-of-bounds about putting this in metaphorical terms as the operation of a “cancer.” Is it the metaphor, or the basic proposition, that you find so offensive, shipmate?

Short answer:  Not to be cute, but I don’t expect anyone to care very much whether someone called “CK MacLeod” is put out by something GB said.   CKM doesn’t have any battalions – it’s not even clear that he has any support, even at his home blog!

CKM’s – my – argument is that Beck’s deployment of such metaphors, in a larger sense the use of such rhetoric, is politically counterproductive and potentially dangerous, because it will be taken as offensive and extreme, or just plain nuts, by others.  On the basic proposition, I disagree with aspects of it, both as a matter of political theory and as a matter of practical politics.

As for a longer answer, only because J.E., a conservative whom I greatly respect, has asked, I’ll try, beginning with a question of my own:  Can you name a major Democratic or liberal politician or pundit who has referred to conservatism in such terms?

I’m not sure that even the likes of Ed Schultz or Keith Olbermann, on a bad day, go quite as far about us as Beck has been going about them, and, if and when they did, I think we’d rightly dub them crackpots and fools.  Imagine a popular liberal – roughly seven times bigger than Olbermann or Schultz, maybe some ideological Hollywood type like George Clooney or James Cameron, speaking at a major political conference of the left, during a period similar to, say, 2006-7, when leftist politics were on the rise and the right was generally in retreat, and reaching the following climax (with or without exclamations):

Conservatism is the cancer that’s eating at America.


It is against progress and justice. And we need to address it as if it is a cancer. It must be cut out of the system because democracy and conservatism cannot co-exist. And you don’t cure cancer by – well, I’m just going to give you a little bit of cancer. You must eradicate it. It cannot co-exist. And we need big thinkers, and brave people with spines who can make the case – that can actually say to Americans: look it’s going to be hard – it’s going to be hard but it’s going to be okay. We’re going to make it.

(more, louder applause)

You’d have been OK with that, Commander?  How about a few years from now, in the wake of as yet unmapped conservative political missteps, against a background of worsening economic, military, and social crisis?  It wouldn’t make you wonder just what these people, whom according to all the polls would soon be in power, were really up to and really capable of?  Would your thoughts turn, at least fleetingly, to your guns and ammo?  If not, wouldn’t you at least wonder how Clooney and his gang had ever gotten such a twisted idea about you, your beliefs and visions, your friends, and the people you admire the most?

Maybe you can find some equivalent or worse statement from a figure of the mainstream or near-mainstream left.  Kos doesn’t count, though, and, anyway, I’d like to think we’re better than Kos. If Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid said something like that or anywhere near it, we’d condemn them, and not just because they had signaled their underlying political and theoretical disagreements with us.

Back to Beck:  I think his words would come across less threateningly if he didn’t relentlessly personalize his critique – “VAN JONES IS A COMMUNIST!” or “JOHN McCAIN IS A PROGRESSIVE!”  Most of all, and I’m surprised I need to point this out, the rhetoric would be easier for me to ignore if the last 100 years and more weren’t marked by a series of political movements designating various out-groups (nations, races, classes, parties, movements, communities) as diseases that merely resembled human beings; then acting consequentially on those designations, while reminding their followers that, though the “work” was “hard,” it was necessary for survival.

Beck downplays the rage tonally, but generally amps up the melodrama and scaremongering.  If you believe that there’s any chance that things will get as bad as Beck continually predicts, then might it not be dangerous to have someone, day after, drumming it into the ears of a huge listener- and viewership that THESE PEOPLE, these evil progressives, chiefly or perhaps solely, are responsible for the ongoing and accelerating destruction of the nation?

I can listen to Beck, and I can read J.E.’s and other people’s similar statements about the impossibility of co-existence with progressivism, and interpose a layer of interpretation, but I couldn’t blame a self-identified progressive (any among millions of our fellow citizens)  for reading them as a declaration of war, take-no-prisoners; for reacting in the same way as an Israeli who hears Ahmadinejad talk about wiping Israel off the map, and who may not be interested in some merely politically or cultural-theoretically nuanced mitigation.  And I couldn’t blame an apolitical person or a moderate for thinking that the speaker and everyone applauding him were out of their freaking minds and shouldn’t be allowed within 10 miles of the nation’s capital, or at a minimum should be thoroughly searched first.

I also believe that, even if J.E. and Beck are committed to persuasion and a completely non-coercive politics, there are lots of people who aren’t, and always more, potentially, on the way.

A last point on the interpretation of such rhetoric:  Our society is pervaded by progressivism and its legacy from top to bottom and side to side.  I’m therefore struck by what a peculiarly selective, and to progressives quite unfamiliar, definition of their ideology Beck and like-minded people are using.  History associates a number of things with the Progressive Era, its direct precursors, and its descendants, that may or may not fit into the post-progressive America envisioned by Glenn Beck, but play little or no role in the eradicate-the-cancer discussion, and are instead shunted aside as though they don’t or never mattered, or can somehow be presumed.

Hearing Beck going on about an intolerable cancer might be a little frightening to anyone.  After that, it may be confusing, even and especially for those who are familiar with the other progressive history.  What, they might ask, does this fool have against women’s suffrage, anti-trust and child labor laws, clean water, safe food, national parks, public libraries, ballot initiatives, and so on?  OK, if you want to get rid of Yellowstone, bring it to a vote, but if I vote for the park, does that make me a cancer, with whom or which you cannot co-exist?

Beck and J.E. are of course referring to something much different when they use the word “progressive.”  They are referring to something that they describe as a kind of multi-generational, semi-secret conspiracy, a vast historical swindle that used national parks and the rest, and also wartime emergencies, essentially as a cover for an inherently totalitarian and genocidal project that, in the nearer term, and along the critical battle lines is, not incidentally, an anti-American, anti-Constitutional, anti-freedom project.

I believe I understand what they’re getting at, but I disagree with their approach conceptually and pragmatically.  I’ll leave that to future discussion.

30 comments on “I'm a cancer, he's a cancer, she's a cancer, we're a cancer…

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  1. I’ll start the fun with my little ditty from yesterday.
    “Rex Caruthers wrote:
    It’s too bad that Lincoln was so adamant. He should have let the South secede,(Slavery was on its way out anyway),so today we’d have a choice where to hang our hats,The United States of Progressivism,or The United States of Fox News,instead of the Ugly disunified United States.
    BTW,How do you do what will make Beck happy with a nation of 300M? Seriously,Secession is the only way.

  2. Well, CKM has a little bit of support on his home blog.

    JED probably can find all the support she needs in Oregon to help with explaining how progressives can’t be satisfied with a government limited by the Constitution.

  3. Now CK, Olbermann rarely had those numbers, yet he was taken seriously, when he did those rants on the MCA, on the ‘civil war’
    in Iraq, on the general’s mutiny (Baptiste, Eaton, et al) as did his
    colleagues transitioning from Air America/Radio to TV (MSNBC)

  4. As the conversation went on yesterday, I began to notice that nobody was bringing up the thing Beck is most often associated with: “populism.” Populism can mean a lot of things, but it becomes demagogic when it is used to project all that is evil, all that is oppressing the “people,” onto the “elites”–as if they aren’t our elites, through our active or passive consent. And that is where, I suppose, the “cancer” trope comes in–cancer is completely alien, an attack on an innocent victim, driven by no discernable motive other than to grow and devour. Everything that we aren’t.

    A discussion about how “we, the people” also let this happen (about how the things many hate are bound up with things they wouldn’t want to give up) would look very different. To go back to Beck, he also often seems to be ready for such a conversation.

  5. If you think about, Progresssivism was been offered as the salvation for all the sins (slavery, poverty, a sense of mindless conformism)
    that they see the Constitution facilitating. Now take TR please ( rimshot) he broke up Standard OIl, yet they were able to regroup under
    the Achincarry Agreement and ultimately ARAMCO. In that sense the solution was ultimately worse than the malady

  6. @ narciso:
    Don’t know if it amounts to the same thing, and I’m not aware of anyone, even Olbie’s fans, who take him “seriously.” I think he has a constituency of one.

    As for Progressivism being offered as a salvation for all sins, doesn’t every major political philosophy purport to provide comprehensive answers (not the same thing as perfect solutions)?

    @ adam:
    I’m not sure where you get your confidence in Beck. I’m not convinced that he’s capable of consistency or of resisting overstatement. In other words, he might have a real living and breathing Cancerist during segment B, and treat her respectfully, then be back by segment C or the finale with the most provocatively emotive and apocalyptic summary he could manage.

    I agree that a “we got ourselves into this mess” theme would be interesting, but it can easily be turned into “we got ourselves into this mess by letting the cancer grow and failing to excise it with sufficient remorselessness.” Or “We must take full responsibility on ourselves – for having listened to them.”

  7. @ CK MacLeod:
    I was listening to Beck today and he was answering the criticism he’s been getting since his CPAC speech–petulantly and defensively, but he didn’t want to be misunderstood and he implicitly accepted he had gone too far in identifying the two parties. He went to great pains to point out that of course he knows the difference between Jim Demint and Michelle Bachmann on one side, and Pelosi and Reid on the other. So I do know that he listens and modifes his position, even if not with complete candor.

    What’s the best way to speak about politics today, a way that stays in touch with the play by play of everyday political exchanges while representing the sense that I think a lot of us have that we are teetering on the brink of something and, to quote Lenin, we are going to have to try to be as radical as reality itself, but without routine predictions of imminent apocalypses (which will never look the way we imagine them anyway)? I don’t know yet.

  8. Beck has a couple years to refine and improve his chops. He’s already tops, so imagine how devastating he will be to the 0bami as time goes by.

    I hope he’s got good security. ‘es a national treasure, ‘e is!

  9. CK – the issue becomes one of style, Olbermann no one outside the extreme left wing even listens to him anymore, his ratings stink. Beck can be over the top in presentation but always has more substance to back himself up than almost anyone on MSNBC, where they essentially make fun of everyone and shout listen to what I am saying because I am smart. Air America did that and they are gone and bankrupt. MSNBC will be facing the same decision soon – how much money is NBC willing to lose to keep them on the air?

    As to the Cancer Analogy, where your critique on substance fails is that the progressive movement, those who were honest back in the day, and even sometimes today (Obama’s radio interview on the Constitution back when he was a nobody like the rest of us), acknowledge that their preferred prescriptions are not compatible with the Constitution government put in place by the Founders. They would have to kill that version of government. In essence acknowledging their incompatibility.

    Now much of what I think bothers you about Beck is that his style doesn’t sit well with you, which is fine. No one can be liked by everybody. My biggest concern with him remains that he may fall pray to grab that populism mantle and destroy attempts to “reform” the GOP to a party rooted in respect and defense of traditional constitutional government. A third party is to become politically impotent except for the strength it would give your political opponents – the progressives. If he cannot shake that and in fact helps embolden people to try it, then I respect the man’s passion for his message, but must denounce him as a fool in the bigger picture.

  10. Theodore Dalrymple puts a human face on the cancer of progressivism.

    Slavers sought to justify their ownership of human beings. Progressives seek merely to justify their ownership of the labor of human beings and their control of the products of that labor.

    Update: In fairness I have to point out that it’s wrong to morally equate slavers and progressives. Slavers were in general more honest. They did not at all times seek to justify pursuit of their self interest by explaining that it was for the good of their slaves.

  11. @ Sully:
    Yeah, that Jane Addams, what a self-seeking social climber.

    Who are we talking about when we talk about “Progressives”? William James? Hiram Johnson? Addams? Robert LaFollette? What exactly is it about machine politics and crony capitalism that you like so much better than citizen checks on the concentration of power through ballot initiatives and referenda? What is it about city managers that makes them so un-constitutional? I could go on and intend to, but it seems to me that most of you all are dealing with an enemy image of the Evil Progressive that shifts according to whatever present purpose.

    Glenn Beck is much in the mode of a classic Muckraker. They were progressives, too.

  12. JEM wrote:

    As to the Cancer Analogy, where your critique on substance fails is that the progressive movement, those who were honest back in the day, and even sometimes today […], acknowledge that their preferred prescriptions are not compatible with the Constitution government put in place by the Founders. They would have to kill that version of government. In essence acknowledging their incompatibility.

    Please be specific when you are referring to those Constitution-killing (P)rogressives. Seriously. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, is not the be-all and and-all of Progressivism. In fact, he was a latecomer, and a political opponent of other people who had just as much a right to the name and to determine the legacy.

    It seems to me that the vast bulk of what everyone outside the Beck-inflamed right associates with historical progressivism was accomplished by lawful means, including the constitutional process of amendment – some good, some bad, some mixed, but 100% constitutional. Much of the progressive legacy has to do with local control and participatory democracy. All of the Californians struggling to defend Proposition 8 from runaway courts or who de-funded the state via Proposition 13, starting off the great tax revolt that Reagan rode to the presidency and that has crucially defined conservative fiscal policy ever since, are defending one of the centerpiece reforms of the real Progressive Movement.

  13. @ CK MacLeod:

    Who are we talking about when we talk about “Progressives”?

    Actually, Dalrymple was talking about John Kenneth Galbraith, who will do as an archetype. Dalrymple reminded me of just how sure Galbraith was that he knew better than the peasants how to order their lives. And just how contemptuous he was about constitutional limits.

    Crony capitalism, of course, can only exist in the presence and with the connivance of cancers like Galbraith who provide the state power to fuel and enforce the cronyism.

    I have no problem with city managers and other politicians who more or less strictly adhere to providing essential services to the whole population on a fair and equal basis. Once they stray into redistribution even a little bit they become cancerous, to continue the use of the term you abhor.

  14. @ CK MacLeod:

    lawful means, including the constitutional process of amendment – some good, some bad, some mixed, but 100% constitutional.

    Lawful means of acting beyond the plain text of the constitution include only the constitutional process of amendment. When John McCain authored, with Russ Finegold, a law that was clearly at odds with the first amendment and when George Bush signed that law, all three of them clearly knowing they were acting unconstitutionally, they were in real terms committing treason, which description may or may not be more inflammatory than calling them cancers.

  15. @ Sully:
    I may have the nomenclature wrong, but I believe Galbraith is what you would call a 3rd generation or 3rd wave progressive. You’ll notice (I searched) that the word “progressive” doesn’t even appear in the Dalrymple article. Galbraith followed Keynes and also (late) Progressive-associated economists/economic writers like Mills and Veblen. I see him more as emblematic of American liberalism than of progressivism.

    McCain-Feingold was in many respects a classic progressive reform initiative aimed at breaking up corruption and cronyism, but I don’t think either sponsor, or W, would accept that it was certainly unconstitutional. Nor was the effort some fiendish plot to destroy the Constitution. Opinions on the underlying constitutional questions vary, and, on the basis of zero expertise, I happen to agree with you that they were wrong and support the Supreme Court’s lawful review and judicial revision of the bill.

    Americans, including legislators, have a right to be wrong, too. It’s not treason to have bad ideas.

  16. Well Galbraith is Canadian, as blinkered as the Douglas clan, whose last relative in Kiefer Sutherland. The more famous of the former, was
    a roommate of Benazir Bhutto, supporter of the Kurds, who parlayed
    that into a very profitable sideline, while damning the rest of the Iraq

  17. Or, to continue the Muckraker theme, it seems to me that a huge amount of the typical complaint against the “lamestream” Media is that it’s not muckraking like it’s “supposed” to. Though the Founders envisioned (and experienced) a free press acting in approximately the same fashion, it was a central feature of the Progressive Era to revive and realize that vision. The expectation that the press should be actively ferreting out and exposing corruption and misgovernment, that it’s one of the prime purposes of the free press, is an expectation handed down to us by the Cancers.

  18. Being offended by Beck’s style is something I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on. It isn’t my style and I wouldn’t try to adopt it for myself. I can see how it could offend others. But none of that makes me feel like I need to repudiate Beck. I think we’ve encountered a difference in personality here.

    Regarding the Progressive movement and its leading lights, we have to distinguish between some of the things the individuals are famous for and the aspirations of the movement itself.

    One does this all the time, or at least I do. I disagree emphatically with the left-wing priests and nuns who have gotten behind Marxist insurgencies in Latin America, but that doesn’t mean I think any work they do that actually relieves the suffering of the poor is bad. However, the presence of many other missionary and relief workers who materially help the poor but do not engage in left-wing political activism is enduring proof that the left-wing political activism isn’t necessary or integral to the helping of the poor.

    LaFollette didn’t do a whole lot to directly address problems among the people. He did institute career civil service in Wisconsin. It was left to others to suppose that he did that for the purpose of removing civil service from the sphere of political patronage; he didn’t make that argument himself, and in fact was a frequent user of patronage when he held office. His legacy was a civil service intended to be managerial and activist, and one that quickly became impossible to get rid of.

    The growth of civil service is a key Progressive legacy in general.

    Meanwhile, Jane Addams’ Hull House housed a maximum of 25 women at a time, and more power to her. It was more about offering services and community facilities than it was about offering shelter, and more power to her. To the extent that her example inspired others to start settlement houses, everyone doing it with his (or more often her) own money, that’s great.

    The Salvation Army already existed at the time, was at work in the USA (from 1879 onward), and has always actually housed, encouraged, retrained, and gotten employment for far more people than Hull House or its copiers reached. The idea that Jane Addams got people thinking about something no one cared about before is simply wrong. Her ties with the Progressive movement, and its emphasis on government as the agent for social intervention, are what have assured her her place in the pantheon invoked in our public school textbooks.

    You don’t have to “hate” Jane Addams to recognize that she didn’t start anything no one had thought of before. There were various movements in the 19th century with major efforts oriented on social betterment and helping the poor. The Alcotts and Orchard House, the founding of the Oneida community — there’s a pretty healthy list. De Tocqueville was much struck during his travels here with the incredible vigor of voluntary charity and community improvement groups in America, whether founded around religion, “new philosophies,” or ethnic solidarity.

    The Progressives are so popular with today’s left because their collective project had two main aims: to get government in charge of these lines of social activism, and to “afflict the comfortable.” The great majority of the emotional drive has always been spent on the latter, of course. We’re talking about humans here, after all. But the transformation of government from an entity that intervenes occasionally into a comprehensive life-coach for the people is the trademark Progressive legacy.

    Child labor laws are a good case in point. We can all agree that there should be laws against using children to work in industry, agriculture, etc. The widespread agreement on this matter — which only became a real social issue with the onset of the Industrial Revolution — is why US states had child labor laws as far back as the 1830s. States had over 1600 child labor laws on the books before the first Progressive lifted a finger.

    What the Progressives can boast of is the shift away from federalism that eventually produced a national labor law proclaiming the 40-hour work week, and restricting labor for those under 18. (People think of it as 16 because that’s when you can assume employment without parental permission, but age restrictions on occupations go up to 18.) That and the creation of the Department of Labor — with its a priori charter to constrain the conditions for labor and commerce — are the signature boasts the Progressives can make.

    The Supreme Court had struck down federal laws restricting child labor in the late 1800s, deeming them unconstitutional because they exceeded the regulatory charter of the federal government. That looks pretty quaint to us today, and that — that right there, that appearance of quaintness in one of our essential founding principles — is the legacy of Progressivism.

    Think about it. The Progressives looked for violations of the state child labor laws in the first years of the 1900s, and many people were naturally indignant about what they found. But the use of child labor was already illegal in the places the Muckrakers most famously found it (e.g., the cloth mills of Virginia and North Carolina). Enforcement of the state and local laws would have accomplished the goal of getting those children out of the factories.

    But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to eliminate the inconvenience of federalism. With SCOTUS upholding federalism, social activists couldn’t get federal laws passed or federal agencies created to take the prophylactic approach they were determined to have the government spearhead. With SCOTUS upholding federalism, they had the daunting prospect of trying to proselytize in 40-some separate states — NOT to get child-labor laws passed; those laws already existed — but to turn one state after another into Wisconsin, with a technocratic and undislodgeable civil service chartered to regulate more and more of life.

    For a really good history of the Progressive movement’s antipathy to limited government and federalism, I recommend Ronald Pestritto’s Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. (Yes, this is the book Glenn Beck recommended not long ago, but it’s a careful, heavily documented and closely argued academic treatment. It’s been reviewed positively by less theatrical, more sober legacy conservatives. Unfortunately, I see that it is now hideously expensive at Amazon — probably due to the exposure Beck has given it.)

    For a view from the 1940s of Progressivism’s focus on central government intervention and activism, I can recommend a superb book I read in college, James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution. I see it appears to still be in print from a 1972 reissue. Reading it is similar, in many ways, to reading Hayek’s Road to Serfdom for the first time.

    A wonderful counterpoint to these logical and academic treatments is Charles McCarthy’s “The Wisconsin Idea” from 1912. Just Chapter I (“The Reason For It”) is enough to give a flavor of the invidious appeal to emotion inherent in virtually all of Progressivism’s political exhortations.

    There’s considerably more to know about Progressivism than is taught in our schools today, but the most important thing to know about it is that while it had little to do with sensitizing Americans to social problems — Americans were already sensitized to them — it was the main force behind breaking almost entirely the constraints of constitutionalism and federalism on the size of government. That’s why Beck hates it so much.

    Certainly there’s an element of purist fanaticism in his excoriation of John McCain as a “PROGRESSIVE”! There’s an element of truth as well, in that McCain accepts a greater and more interventionist role for the federal government than more-Reaganite movement conservatives do. If you think the Progressive movement has settled the question, and there is now no utility, either political or even philosophical, in revisiting the constraints on government envisioned by the Founders — well, you may not realize it, but you are, in fact, embracing a Progressivist perspective.

    Progressivists don’t own charity or the concept of child labor laws. But they do own the growth of the federal government, to a similar extent the growth of state government, and the undermining of federalism and constitutionalism as constraints on government’s reach into our lives.

  19. JED, as ever you show yourself very well-informed and well-read, but I find your reply somewhat beside the point. There’s nothing new under the sun, and nothing comes from nothing – so of course there were precursors to Progressive Era reforms and impulses, and shared authorship across the generations. One major argument in defense of progressivism is that it’s, in fact, fully in keeping with American traditions and typical American impulses in favor of social justice and political reform.

    A related point is that many of the concerns and interests associated, exclusively or not, with progressivism are aspects of life and government that most of us take for granted and would defend, at least until and unless practical substitutes were found and readied for implementation – efforts that would inherently resemble, arguably equate with progressive-style reform initiatives.

    Maybe, for example, you see the initiative process as a bad thing. I don’t really know. I think it has been over-exploited in California, and has had the unintended consequence of freeing the legislature to be even more irresponsible and encouraging the judiciary to be even more political, but I don’t support repealing it at this point, not when it’s functioning as one of our last lines of defense, and I gave two examples above of its being used to serve conservative purposes of some significance. In the meantime, no governmental operation is going to be perfect, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

    Historical progressivism, which I think we would be well served to distinguish from the progressivism of today’s Progressive Caucus, for example, stood for reform, and articulated its concerns in relation to the rise of industrial capitalism. It was an era during which the economy of scale and the power of concentration magnified the power of corporations and government. As the movement matured, attempts were made on the national and even international level to institute progressive reforms of commensurate scope, typically in the name of efficiency.

    We’ve learned a lot in the intervening years about the inefficiencies of scale, and we’ve also developed tools that allow a kind of decentralized efficiency that was unavailable or non-apparent ca 1900. Yet, historically, the progressives were at least as concerned with local control and conditions as with national transformation – or any showdown with the Constitution. Some important progressives sought to amend the Constitution to fit their goals, but so have many conservatives. It’s as much a part of the basic Constitutional rule set as any other aspect of our system.

    Progressivism was and remains a manifold phenomenon, sometimes with mutually contradictory parts, as we should expect of any “spirit of the times.” It’s not the same as any particular thinker’s or politician’s or party’s program – or worst mistakes – or the use some later figure or figures made of its impulses and expectations. Many of those same impulses and expectations animate Glenn Beck and the Tea Party today, for good and ill.

  20. @ CK MacLeod:

    Well, Teddy, Wilson (and he was very progressive!), Hoover, FDR, Dewey to start. I guess I would have start digging out my books to find more of the philosophers of the movement.

    CK – I guess I am a little confused. There is very little doubt that the progressives have a different image of what life should be like and how the government shoul dinterface with its citizens. You don’t like Beck, fine. But you are drifting into arguments that are pretty easily refuted, by the people themselves. Obama himself said the Constitution doesn’t allow the government to do things for you and thats a problem. FDR tried to stack the freaking Supreme Court for goodness sake by adding justices! He was behind the blue laws of the depression. Wilson essentially jailed people who disagreed with him politically.

    I appreciate we are going to argue about where exactly to draw the line. But, yes, compeklling people to be required by the government to put money into a retirement account smacks me of going beyond. Medicare is an absolute diaaster, as it has distorted the health care market, and is going bankrupt. I realize why people accept them because they feel they pay for them via taxes. If they really knew what they were really paying for the return they get, they might feel differently. Not only that, with at least Medicare it is poorly run, with the highest rejection rates for claims and fraud eating up significant dollars as well.

    As for McCain-Feingold – that violated the 1st ammendent – not even close, the restriction of political speech, prior to an election was the single act taken by Bush which I feel was the most disgusting. The Supremes have started the process of rolling that back, as they should.

  21. JEM, you proceed by a logical chain, but essentially you’re working backwards and from the top down, and by way of egregious acts. That’s one narrative of progressivism, but against it is a completely different one that is equally self-consistent and testable, and a lot easier to understand and reason with than it is to understand and reason with a cancer.

    It’s like writing a history of conservatism that – off the top of my head – proceeds through Mike Huckabee and George W Bush through Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, Douglas MacArthur, Warren G Harding, and so on, ignoring the distinctions that a serious conservative would make (e.g., that Richard Nixon was no conservative), and instead emphasizing dereliction of duty, wedge issues, hypocrisy especially about constitutional limitations and protections, whatever. You can bring Ronald Reagan into the conversation, too, as long as all you remember is that he posed as a deficit hawk but left huge structural deficits behind, that his foreign policy comes down to Iran-Contra and Lebanon, and that he just stood around and followed pie in the sky missile defense dreams while the Soviet Union imploded all on its own, and so on, and so on.

    At a certain point, you come back to the present and to what is, and make judgments about what’s achievable. We’ve reached the point where a guy like Ryan can propose major reforms of Medicare and Social Security, and not be laughed out of politics as a dreamer. That’s progress, for lack of a better word. I would characterize his plan as a species of conservative progressivism. Sarah Palin is also a conservative progressive – in fact, she’s made a contribution to the history of progressivism by turning “progress” into a transitive verb. She hasn’t yet taken a clear position on entitlements, and it will be interesting to see where she lands, but I’ll betcha it’s a heckuva lot closer to Ryan than to Ron Paul. As governor, she embraced, and took credit for, numerous typically progressive reforms in Alaska. Her battle with entrenched partisan cliques was like something out of the early 20th Century progressive history of California. In what she does say about Health Care, she hits “common sense patient-centered reforms” over and over – pure conservative reformism, conservative progressivism – no bomb Medicare and build a new system from the ruins from her.

    Both Palin and Ryan envision and advertise reform of government, justified in terms of greater efficiency and sustainability, defeat of corruption and special interest influence, power to the people, and so on. Those are all authentically and classically progressive goals. They embrace different means of achieving those goals than were available to or of interest to the early progressives. In 1900, the unions were a progressive force. Today, they’re reactionary – they’ve become the political machines that the progressives once upon a time opposed, just as professionalized civil service has become a massified version of 19th Century patronage.

    Making things into all-evil anti-democratic progressives versus the eternally virtuous libertarian conservatives may simplify things, but I think it’s a dead end, and will lead to self-destructive and divisive politics as well.

  22. @ CK MacLeod:

    Actually, CKM, if you think my last reply was beside the point, I may not have expressed myself clearly enough. Progressives, the political movement, have nothing to their credit. Period.

    Their purpose, their raison d’etre, has been to expand government’s charter, and in particular the charter of the federal government. Period.

    Progressives did not think up child labor laws. They didn’t think up charity or public relief. The history of all of those impulses and lines of effort runs through private religious activists in England and the northern United States between the late 1700s and the 1830s and ’40s.

    What Progressives thought up was central government direction of human life as a prophylactic venture. This is an idea of government that inevitably eats away at our liberties. This is the point.

    The Progressive movement is responsible for the mushrooming of government executive agencies at the federal and state levels (and by extension, in many areas, at the county level). It has also had the biggest hand in breaking down federalism, and constitutional restraints on government activism. That is its great legacy.

    Procedural refinements like popular election of senators (I’m not sure where your attribution of the ballot initiative to the Progressives comes from, but that’s procedural too) can be argued all day — but they are procedural. They haven’t had any noticeably positive effect on the overall trend of government. I wouldn’t want to see Prop 13 undone today, but it certainly hasn’t reined in the drunken sailors’ brigade in Sacramento. It has, however, been part of the conditions that have distorted the housing market in California. Don’t overreact — I didn’t say I want to get rid of it. I’m a po’ Golden State homeowner too. But as to whether it’s better to have Prop 13 in place, or better for California government to have never gotten as surreally big, interventionist, and out of control as it is today, I certainly pick the latter. The point is and remains that the enduring ideas of the Progressives are the political force behind the unsustainable growth of government, in California and everywhere else in the US.

    I think you and I have a different idea of what liberty is — and it’s good, in my view, to have the discussion about it. More later! As always, I enjoy the discussion. It’s so gratifying to have discussions in a forum where most of the correspondents stick to issues and refrain from snark.

  23. Well the first part is the left’s narrative of conservatism, and this is kind of the way, of the portrayal in history books. Now Iran Contra and
    Lebanon are linked but not in the usual way. Since we were mostly
    focused on the Soviet threat, we gave scant attention to the proxy
    fight waged by Iran with Hezbollah, Since we did not go after Mugniyeh
    in that way, we were limited in how we could maneuver in that landscape

  24. @ J.E. Dyer:

    Where one finds a snark,
    In a thread’s lofty arc,
    One finds the main shame,
    Of that Noah of fame,
    Who let a pair on the Ark,
    So their kind would remain,
    To bedevil the game,
    Popping up without shame,
    At mere breath of their name.

  25. narciso wrote:

    (I’m not sure where your attribution of the ballot initiative to the Progressives comes from, but that’s procedural too)

    Direct democracy is a classic demand of first wave progressivism. Again, no one would suggest that the Progressives invented the referendum – that would be absurd. However, it featured among the tools the Progressives demanded in order to deal with concentrations of power and corruption. California’s initiative process was finally instituted, after an extended political struggle, as one consequence of the election of the very progressive Hiram Johnson as governor.


    The above-linked summary jogged my memory: Johnson’s package also included the “recall” mechanism that was used to remove Rose Bird (liberal anti-death penalty chief justice), that has come into discussion again in re the Prop 8 case, and that also led, eventually, to the replacement of Gray Davis by the Governator.

    Needless to say, that last one didn’t work out as conservatives might have hoped. Interestingly within this discussion, Arnold sought a set of ballot initiatives – all designed in the classic progressive mode to break up concentrations of power and misgovernment, but with their main targets the reactionary liberal power structure. They were defeated in part by a well-financed campaign on behalf of those vested interests, in part by other factors especially popular complacency. I think if they or something like them were tried again today, backed by Tea Partiers, they’d do a lot better, but their failure crucially helps explain the emergence of the center-left hybrid green girly-man Arnold from what he originally put before the voters.

  26. I think George Orwell would have a good time with this discussion, because the word, progressive, starts out sounding so harmless, nice and agreeable, and ends up describing, in reality, an especially nasty and totalitarian and arrogant portion of the political spectrum. It is a word which allows leftists to describe their opponents as selfish and greedy reactionaries.

    Why are we getting so hung up on this much abused and loaded with deceit and propaganda word?

  27. Why are we getting so hung up on this much abused and loaded with deceit and propaganda word?

    Because Glenn Beck has been shouting at us that it’s the name of a cancer with which we cannot co-exist.

  28. My impatience is showing. The A (for Alpha) on my tights is about to rip wide open. We are not looking at how best to understand Sparta’s defeat of Athens here.

    We are the protagonists here. This is our life now, our freedom, so it really does not matter whether or not George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt were the progressives of their respective times. Semantics can be very interesting and our words can have some fascinating roots, but the snarling rage on 0bama’s face as he listened to Paul Ryan’s words explains more about today’s progressives than all the history books can teach us.

    When a 150 pound alpha male Chimpanzee escapes from his enclosure and is coming for you, that is not the time to reflect, that is not even the best time to take comfort from studies that most Chimpanzees feed primarily on fruit, insects and nuts, because if you do not do something very fast, that Chimp will tear your tongue from your mouth, rip your privates off and enjoy tasting your morsels as you expire in agony.

    Whether or not progressives open the door to the violence or do the violence themselves, their insistence on controlling our lives can only lead to the destruction and defeat of every dear thing we know.

    I think Beck is a good man. He has some incredible gifts which are helping many Americans understand the grave dangers we face as free people. He is as important a champion of liberty as Paul Ryan and Charles Krauthammer are now, and we need all the champions we can get, my frems.

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