Making Progress?

Thus, I found it surprising over the weekend to read the concluding call in Steven Hayward’s fine essay in the Washington Post for conservatives to engage in a deeper and more sustained critique of progressivism Hayward is the author of an impressive new hagiographic book entitled The Age of Reagan (recently discussed, among other places, in Ross Douthat’s column), and worked under Reagan during the years of his Presidency.  He knows as well as anyone that one of the distinctive features of modern conservatism, born in the image of Reagan, is its grand transformation into the party of Progress – and no longer (to use Emerson’s categories) the party of Memory.   (Personal aside:  Steve and I have a Simon-Ehrlichesque friendly wager that oil will cost over $75 a barrel on June 2, 2011.  I like my chances, and fully expect to enjoy a nice and really expensive locally-produced dinner on Steve’s tab.  I should have added a small side bet on the price of gold).

Hayward concludes his reflection on the current lamentable intellectual state of conservatism thusly:  ”The single largest defect of modern conservatism, in my mind, is its insufficient ability to challenge liberalism at the intellectual level, in particular over the meaning and nature of progress. In response to the left’s belief in political solutions for everything, the right must do better than merely invoking ‘markets’ and ‘liberty.’”

Sign me up.  But here is the rub:  how can any of the leaders of contemporary conservatism legitimately launch a critique of progressivism when so much of modern American conservatism is defined by the sunny brand of optimism launched by Reagan, and continued today by the likes of Newt, Mitt, and Sarah?  Where is the harrowing self-examination in conservatism’s complicity in what can only be regarded as the massive defeat of most recognizable core beliefs and commitments of a conservative disposition over the past thirty years, often of Republican party ascendancy?   Have we strengthened our communities?  Have localities gained more opportunity and capacity for self-rule, with power devolving from the center to the peripheries?  Have we enacted robust forms of subsidiarity?  Are families at the heart of our personal and national commitments?  Have ideals of morality and virtuous character been maintained, much less been strengthened?  Have religious commitments deepened, and in particular, provided strong resources against a dominant culture of hedonism and materialism?  Have our schools and universities aided in supporting these and similar commitments?

Or, can it be any surprise that a modern “conservative” movement that took Paine’s belief that “we have it in our power to make the world over” culminated some thirty years later in an economic collapse that was precipitated in the belief that we were no longer to be governed by limits over our wants and wills?  That we became engaged in a set of nation-building wars that were premised upon the stated belief that “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” (GWB Second Inaugural).   Can various recent catastrophes, foreign and domestic, not be attributable to the very belief among conservatives (not to mention liberals) that we “have it in our power to make the world over,” including the elimination of limits and the belief that we could eradicate original sin?

If “conservatism” over the past thirty years has achieved anything, it has been the evisceration of older virtues such as thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice and a certain stoicism that might have prevented broad swaths of the population from gorging themselves in a credit fiasco generated in the belief that we could forever have something for n0 money down.  It has been in the forefront of efforts in the international realm to remake the world in our own image, a neo-liberal paradise of hedonic-based markets, the wanton exploitation of nature, and the destruction of those communities and cultures of stability and continuity that provide not only “family values,” but the proper understanding of what constitutes living well.  The progressive John Dewey argued that the aim of all life was “growth”; have conservatives, so-called, argued otherwise?  Or are we all now partisans of a process that can only be said to culminate in cancer?

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