Progressive Liberalism Or: How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Big Government


American Liberalism:  An Interpretation for Our Time by John McGowan.  (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

Moorpark, CA. If the current administration is liberal, it matters what kind of liberalism it represents.  I suggest that it is neo-progressive, which means that its philosophical origins reach back to John Dewey and other Pragmatists rather than John Locke and James Madison.  Unlike traditional liberals, Obama is not interested primarily in the natural rights discourse, he isn’t concerned with the individual as free and independent, or with the meaning and extent of liberty.  Rather he stresses the need for community and the proper place of individuals in their communities, local and national—face-to-face and abstract.  His administration pursues greater equality in search of the elusive goal of social justice.  Obama’s brand of liberalism stresses deliberation, which is the means that a community or public comes to self-consciousness and comes to understand its purposes.  Public deliberation is the alternative that progressives propose to individuals pursuing self-interest in a vast marketplace.

Progressive liberalism emerged in the early twentieth century as many intellectuals and political leaders had come to believe that inherited forms of democratic governance were outdated.  The forces of the modern world, including the Darwinian assault on the idea of a fixed reality and authority, the rapid transformation from a merchant to an industrial economy, and equally rapid urbanization, had so altered the American regime that a new science of politics seemed necessary to address problems altogether new.  This science of politics must rest, however, not on traditional forms of knowledge.  Indeed, the intellectuals of the Progressive movement begin by rejecting all forms of essentialism, all claims to knowledge of the universal, in favor adaptive knowledge—the science of living that helps one adapt or adjust to changing circumstances.  In the absence of traditional forms of authority, science will serve as the best guide to making public choices.

These early Progressives believed that the individual was no longer capable of fending for himself and needed the protective canopy of an empathetic government.  Given the greater complexity of the modern world and the greater scope given to the government, progressives called for rule by experts—people trained to apply evolving social science to policy making.  The need for specialized expertise, however, was accompanied by an appeal to a revitalized democracy.  By educating the public to approach life experimentally, like scientists, then they could be citizens capable of deliberating together based on facts, on evidence, rather than on prejudice, inherited ideas, or fuzzy values.  These basic characteristics of progressivism are part of the new generation of neo-progressives.

It is worth reflecting on this new version of a century-long American political tradition, now temporarily ascendant. We live in a time when our political ideas are more complex, more differentiated, then we can recognize with our public vocabulary.  For at least fifty years, the center of our political debate has been between centrist liberals and paleo-liberals, progressives and conservatives have participated meaningfully only by making common cause with a more centrist ally.  It is possible, however, that for conservatives especially, the rise of progressivism presents opportunities to engage meaningfully about the nature, purpose, and size of communities; to re-think the individual in the context of a larger spheres of obligation and responsibility; and even to imagine an Aristotelean renewal of the virtues of deliberation.  But even as new areas for renewed conversation appear, so also do the dramatic differences concerning both ontology and epistemology make it doubtful if any serious conversation is possible even in areas of potential consensus.

John McGowan has provided, I believe, a forceful and coherent defense of his species of liberalism, which I’ve called neo-progressivism.  An English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, McGowan’s  American Liberalism:  An Interpretation for Our Time, is a powerful defense of what he calls “egalitarian liberalism.”  Without losing sight of the ideal of self-creation, historically linked with Liberalism from Locke through Mill, McGowan stresses the modern liberal commitment to equality and distributive justice.  This puts him, speaking conventionally, to the left of most liberals, with a more full-throated defense of a liberalism cum progressivism that is currently ascendant.

McGowan’s neo-progressivism is really a child of American Pragmatism more than the outgrowth of Hobbes and Locke.  Anti-metaphysical (even anti-ontological), the liberalism McGowan defends rests on no authority and has no use for nature and therefore cannot meaningfully engage in the standard “rights talk” of the liberal mainstream.  Liberalism is a product of human choice, a vision of a desirable human order made possible by modern pluralism and by the collapse of a transcendent moral authority.  A new space opened up in the modern world for individual self-determination. This appealing and altogether modern prospect brought along a moral quest for equal justice, for fairness, or, to put it more precisely, for a social, economic, and political arrangement that gives maximum power to the individual to design her own life.

McGowan has a nuanced grasp of human flourishing as understood within this affirmation of individual self-determination.  He not only offers a compelling argument for the necessary connection between liberalism and democracy, but he describes in context the virtues of the rule of law, the important argument that pluralism and tolerance are necessary ingredients for a society that is capable of living forward, of adjusting to new circumstances, and that can learn from its ever greater cosmopolitanism.  Moreover the individual in McGowan’s account is not simply an atomistic, pleasure-maximizing being—she needs the help of a robust society in which she has a reasonable prospect of being recognized and noticed, of being loved and finding others to love.  Sounding in places more like a traditional conservative than he recognizes, the author stresses that humans are, above all else, social creatures and not primarily political beings.

But if modern progressives want to secure the goods of a healthy social order, one might wish to ask them difficult questions.  Many conservatives, for instance, will argue that social health is not easy to construct—indeed, to a great degree it must grow organically out of long experiences together, however carefully humans might cultivate and prune.  How many societies flourish outside of some generally received metaphysical vision?  This subject is an excellent intellectual crossroads for progressives and traditionalists to meet in healthy conversation.  Both groups emphasize robust local politics, careful deliberation among citizens about ends and means, a lively and thick social life that gives context and meaning to the lives of the community’s members.  The differences are also profound and while this conversation would not end in agreement, it would promote understanding and a degree of intellectual cross-pollination that liberals claim they so desire.  It might also create interesting political alliances of traditionalists and progressives against the more reckless right-wing (or paleo) liberals.  But conversation is impossible so long as the participants don’t listen.  McGowan believes that liberals are well-suited to tolerant listening.  I find little evidence of this toleration.

To be fair, McGowan attempts a much more complex engagement with a differentiated “conservatism” than one normally finds from progressives.  The various participants in the three conservative camps he identifies (Traditionalist, Laissez-Faire capitalists, and Neo-conservatives) would be well advised to engage seriously with McGowan’s critiques.  He notes, for instance, that people who concern themselves with the loss of authority pay scant attention to power.  Just so.  A more complex understanding of ways that economic power, particularly in a globalized economy, can threaten a variety of human goods would help various conservatives work through their own ideals.  But for conservatives of various stripes to engage seriously with McGowan’s critique, he must develop a more comprehensive understanding of the target of his attacks.  To call, for instance, Robert Bork and Allan Bloom “paleoconservatives” is to invite ridiculing laughter, as though one had called Stalin a Trotskyite.  More importantly, McGowan tends to make sweeping statements in which he cavalierly suggests that conservatives are uncomfortable with dissent (this claim borders on the absurd), that they have tend toward authoritarianism, that they call for a lost golden age, and that they are hostile to equality.  Complex differences in these subjects separate all manner of conservatives from progressives like McGowan, but the author employs labels rather than explaining differences.

If there is a sharp edge to McGowan’s argument it is that the noble pursuit of equality is the defining characteristic of twentieth century and contemporary liberalism.  Inequalities of various kinds pose the greatest threat to individual human flourishing and government has served, and will continue to serve, as the great equalizer.  The long history of modern equality in America runs through the Progressives and their spiritual heir, Franklin Roosevelt, to the civil rights struggle for racial and gender equality, (oddly he makes no mention of the Great Society), only to end with the rise of a new and anti-liberal Republican Party in the 1970s.  McGowan never considered whether Ronald Reagan and those who followed him, including Bill Clinton, were not drawing from another side of the rich liberal tradition.  Because modern liberalism means government imposed equality, McGowan had to see the last thirty years as a pernicious reversal in the egalitarian moral objectives of liberalism.  The government, it seems, is the best guarantor for a healthy liberal society.  If so, then McGowan cannot but be pleased with recent political events.

McGowan writes relatively little about the dangers of populism, though he clearly has fears about the populist right.  The fact that he proceeds as though this danger is present and real, and therefore not in need of extended diagnosis, is interesting.  Populism as a reaction to economic concentration of power is healthy, but populism directed at government threatens liberal ideals.  “Democracy ain’t worth a damn if it’s not liberal,” begins McGowan, and “liberalism isn’t worth much if it isn’t democratic.”  Indeed.  The mysterious abstraction “the people” is a necessary part of establishing the legitimacy of any regime, but McGowan is careful not to suggest that the people are sovereign.  Something about his account (and the author is brilliantly vague on this subject) of politics, policy making and populism suggest that a liberal democracy is possible because liberal sensibilities thrive in a large part of the electorate and because the complex process of making policy, which is only partially democratic, typically blunts populist instincts.

McGowan envisions an activist liberalism that possesses a moral ideal, chastened by procedures and by popular, and sometimes populist, sentiments.  Absent the certainty of a dogmatic religious code, liberals nonetheless feel an assurance that theirs is a superior way.  Having eliminated divine rules, having forgotten, insofar as possible, about the limits of human nature, having found in themselves possibilities enough to occupy a lifetime, liberals can feel comfortable in a world of their own making and indulgently dismissive of people who labor before the recognition of imminent death.  Finding themselves by historical accident in a stable liberal regime, liberals can find deep moral purpose in struggle to overcome ever-smaller forms of inequality even as they can rest comfortably in the belief that a liberal government, animated by righteous empathy, will promote greater social justice without threatening our freedoms.

But what if the ideal of self-determination is problematic?  What if some forms of equality lead to new forms of social strife? What if expanding government threatens the primacy of the society?  What if empathy is a moral virtue inappropriate to government?  What if the intolerant love of tolerance blinds us to other ways of being?  What if the people need the guidance of a governing and divine moral authority?  What if we have souls, and the tragic nature of human history is supposed to teach us something deeper about ourselves?

McGowan claims that we are at a crossroads in history.  Perhaps, then, it is time to deliberate about ends and means.  To deliberate well, progressives like McGowan must hear people whose experiences lead them to moral and ontological commitments that differ dramatically from Progressives.  To hear the “other” requires a less procrustean tolerance than progressives typically preach in their disdain for populism.  But, if talk and listen we truly can, and if free from restrictive taxonomies we are, then we may find real people, not ideologues, who want to speak and listen, to argue and persuade.

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