Saturday, February 27, 2010

Utopian Templates, or, Why Progressivism Always Wins In The End

What lies at the root of the differences between different political philosophies?

Exclude the obviously self-serving, such as the ideologies worn by many elected officials like makeup, or those employed by the voiceboxes of corporate power to justify rapaciousness and greed. Let’s confine ourselves to ideologies that people actually believe in sincerely.

Set aside also practical questions of methodology and political reality. These are important when facing real-world problems of implementation, but they are not what the disagreements are about. I am sure of this, because there is simply too little emotional energy invested in the hows, as distinct from the whats, to be worth fighting over. I mean, if you’re driving with a friend and you both want to go to the same restaurant, and you come to an intersection and you think you should turn left while he thinks you should turn right, that’s easily settled. You don’t fight about it. You just pull over and consult a map. Since you’re both trying to get to the same place, the one who’s wrong will shrug it off and say, “Glad you caught me on that one.”

No, the real disputes don’t come over disagreements on how to get there. The arguments happen when you want to go to the Chinese place and he wants barbecue. So it is, I would say, in politics. We don’t disagree about the way to get there. We disagree about where we want to go. If it were otherwise, we’d just pull over and consult the map, and come to an agreement.

If you care about politics at all, if it’s an emotional matter for you, if you pay attention to it and you think about it – if it’s not just another spectator sport for you (which it is to some) – then you are a visionary idealist. That is to say, you have a template in your mind, held there in various states of precision or vagueness, of the perfect society, and you chart your political roadmap based on what you think will take us there.

Now this template is usually not realistic. It can’t be achieved in any great hurry, if at all. If you’re wise, you realize this. But it colors all your political thinking just the same. It’s what guides you to sit up and say, “That’s wrong,” or “That’s right,” when faced with a policy choice. You have a sense that this policy choice will take society closer or further away from the template in your head of the ideal society, and you judge it (consciously or not) on that basis.

In America there are a number of competing utopian templates, which is why we get so much political drama from time to time. Once we even had a civil war and killed almost a million of each other because we couldn’t agree on the templates. Luckily the one that provoked the secession is (mostly) gone, but there are plenty of replacements. There’s the religious right template, which sees utopia in a Biblical theocracy where everybody lives according to the Word of God. The more thoughtful believers in that one will acknowledge that it’s unachievable until the Second Coming, but they still hold it as an ideal to be approximated. Then there’s the libertarian template, in which the perfect society is one with the least intrusive (or just plain least) government. The American patriot template sees paradise arriving in the slipstream of a U.S. Air Force jet fighter and American military dominance of the world. The mega-corporation template sees the ideal society as one that allows the rich to become richest. All of these templates compete for dominance in this country, but all of them are outliers and also-rans compared to another utopian template which has existed from the beginning of our nation and for several centuries before that. This template does not always govern the country, and has never done so without competition, but it is always a strong force and, over the years, has moved us increasingly towards its fulfillment while all of the other templates enjoy at most only temporary success. I refer to the progressive template.

The progressive template isn’t specifically American. It goes back at least to the Enlightenment in Europe, but its roots are older than that. It arose in embryonic form in response to a sequence of technological innovations. It started with the printing press, which boosted literacy rates by providing affordable reading material so that most people had a reason to learn to read. This in turn amplified independent thought and gave rise to a whole string of revolutionary developments, from the Protestant Reformation to the scientific revolution to the Enlightenment itself and the movement for democracy. Further technological developments followed at an accelerating pace, and along with them arose more and more questioning of the way society had been organized for thousands of years. Why should certain people have privileges granted them at birth? Shouldn’t government be by the consent of the governed? Why should anyone be enslaved? Don’t workers have rights that should be enforceable against their employers? Shouldn’t women have equal rights with men? Shouldn’t all races be treated equally?

Prior to about the 15th or maybe 16th century, the pace of political and social progress was glacial. The same basic paradigm of society held sway for thousands of years, composed of hereditary privilege, monarchy, male superiority, state religion, and a bottom caste of slaves or serfs bonded to toil for the benefit of the elite. The same held true with technology. It progressed over those millennia, but so slowly that one can see this progress only by looking back through history; it was invisible to the people living in it. Then, almost as if a switch had been thrown, the pace of both technological and social progress accelerated dramatically. Now, we see both happening in real time while we watch. This is not a coincidence. The one rises from the other, because as we see technology progressing during our lifetimes, we are conditioned to think of all problems as having solutions and of change as normal.

A fundamental congruence may be observed between two sorts of observations. On one end of the equation, we say things like this: “A thousand years ago, nobody could cross from Europe to America at all. Five hundred years ago, the journey took weeks. My grandparents could make the trip in a few days. Today, I can fly from here to Paris or London in a few hours.” On another, we can also say things like this: “When the Constitution was first implemented, most African-Americans were slaves, women couldn’t vote, and neither could most men who weren’t rich. Since then, we have freed the slaves, and we have made suffrage universal.” Moreover, it is only a short step from this sort of thinking to imagining both technical and social/political solutions to problems that haven’t been solved yet. This willingness to contemplate how things can get better, and better and better, without limit, is the essence of the progressive template. Unlike the others mentioned above, the progressive template isn’t any fixed model of utopia, but rather a vision of a society that continually improves, with better lives for more people as time goes by. Whether the problem is a need for cleaner energy or for cleaner politics, for safer transportation or for fairer distribution of wealth, the progressive position is that it can be solved. No matter what happens, no matter how much things change, that one fact remains constant: they can get better if we put our minds and hearts to it.

And that explains why progressivism (also known as “liberalism”) has always been a major contender for the dominant utopian template in American politics, and, I believe, always will be. Other templates come and go. The white supremacy template, for example, was strong through the 19th and about half of the 20th centuries but has now dwindled to being the preferred choice only of an impotent fringe. The religious-right template has just about peaked and we will see it similarly dwindle over future generations. The libertarian template waxes and wanes but never commands more than a small fraction of the popular allegiance. The mega-corporate template is under siege right now, but is never very popular except with the very rich anyway. So with any other conceivable template based on a fixed ideal society. But the progressive template, because it evolves over time, and is committed only to continuous progress, is always in contention, and so over time inevitably wins. It can lose temporarily, for an election cycle, for a decade or two. But in the end it always wins.

That’s why we no longer have slaves. That’s why we have guarantees of racial and gender equality. That’s why we have workers’ rights built into law. That’s why we have regulations on business to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. That’s why we have aid for the poor. That’s why we have a government retirement program. That’s why we have guaranteed civil rights for sexual minorities.

That’s why we WILL have universal health care. That’s why we WILL have same-sex marriage. That’s why we WILL have an end to poverty. That’s why we WILL have narrowed income gaps. That’s why we WILL have an ecologically sustainable society. And that’s why we will, in the future, have more and better developments that can’t even be foreseen from the present vantage point, but which future progressives will see and will enact.

It’s only a question of when.


  1. Interesting essay as usual, Brian! Say, do you have an opinion on all of James Howard Kunstler's writings (The Long Emergency, Clusterfuck Nation blog, etc.) which say we aren't going to solve all these problems without severe downsizing and localizing?

  2. To be honest, I haven't read Kunstler's writing. I'll have to do that. Thanks for the suggestion! Off the top of my head, the only thing that I see that will certainly need to be downsized is the U.S. military and international adventurism. But I should read what he wrote before saying more.

  3. "Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?"

    -Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 6