Why and When Conservatives Conserve the Progress Progressives Make
Crossposted on Tikkun Dailyby Dave Belden
I had a curious conversation with a conservative lately in which he claimed the US Constitution as a conservative document, while I objected that in the 1780s conservatives opposed it, since conservatives then were believers in monarchy and tradition. Yes, he conceded, but today it’s a conservative document. I suggested that this is what happens time and again, that the gains made by progressives of one era against the vehement opposition of conservatives, become the core items that conservatives defend in a later era. So perhaps it would behoove him as a conservative to get ahead of the curve by helping the progressives today!
He wasn’t buying it, of course. And it makes some sense that he wasn’t, because in many ways these labels of progressive and conservative are about contrary emotional responses to the world. We need both responses.
The conservative has a less sunny view of human nature, less confidence that the people — the “great unwashed,” the mob, the hoi polloi — will act sensibly. So he or she prefers the devil we know — the “powers that be” that St. Paul considered “ordained by God” — to the devil we don’t. (Whether conservatives are temperamentally cautious about any kind of innovation is a whole further discussion; in our time conservatives are split between those who place enormous trust in market-blessed innovations by the powers they like, the commercial powers, and those who mourn what commercial values and innovations have done to traditional values, customs and ecosystems.)
The temperamentally more utopian or hopeful people, those who have more trust in the ordinary person, the progressives, forge ahead claiming freedoms, rights and power for said ordinary folk, washed or not.
When they are successful, and the new order has been running along fairly well for long enough for people of conservative temperament to see that it works better than the old one, the conservatives start to defend it. They do so especially if in the end it turns out that the progressive advances didn’t actually prevent the dominance of an established (and therefore, to a conservative temperament, more trustworthy) elite, but merely provided safety valves for popular discontent, or cleaned up unnecessary abuses: why flog the sailors/workers/fieldhands/wives when, surprise, surprise, they can be inspired to responsibility better by more civilized methods pioneered by progressives? Conservatives have bleeding hearts too!
Meanwhile the progressives are pushing on with new schemes for even more popular power, to the conservatives’ dismay.
Their dismay would only be unreasonable if every progressive idea did in fact work for human betterment, when implemented. But in fact the 20th century was replete with progressive ideas that didn’t work very well, even by progressive criteria, most notably Communism as practiced. We can all see that was not half as successful as, say, slavery abolition, a classic 19th century progressive cause. Conservatives are still scared of Communism, but I haven’t seen one talk of bringing back slavery lately. A true temperamental conservative doesn’t want power for the powerful at all costs, and doesn’t enjoy seeing poor people starve and die (there are other words for that kind of temperament, or pathology), any more than true temperamental progressives welcomed Stalin and the Gulag (though both sides can get blinded by ideology for a while and support horrors they later regret). Decent conservatives would certainly prefer a world where everyone has enough, no one has to be tortured, and everyone acts responsibly and works to the limit of their ability. Conservatives saw that various progressive advances, like the US Constitution, slavery abolition and universal suffrage worked, so they now support those fully, but they saw that some others didn’t, and they oppose them.
What is totally mind-boggling for us progressives, and what has prompted this overly long musing, is when something they struggled for against massive conservative opposition becomes a central plank of conservatism in our own lifetime. This is what I feel reading Christina Hoff Summers, of the super-conservative (in the pro-commercial-power sense, not the pro-tradition sense) American Enterprise Institute writing sentences like this about a recent women’s conference:
An irresistible force of self-directed and valiant women from across the world is colliding with the so-far immovable object of patriarchal tyranny.
This is now conservatism?!! The article covers the second annual “ Women in the World” conference organized by Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Hoff Summers reports that prominent women of all political persuasions attended,
But the stars of the summit were activists from the poorest regions of the world…. One after another, women from Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Congo, and Egypt spoke about how they were organizing against honor killings, mass rapes, genital mutilation, child marriage, and gender apartheid – and getting results.
Apparently this is now a good conservative stance, as long as progressive whining is ruled out:
… the spirit was not self-pitying and anti-male but self-confident and serious.
… Liberals and conservatives made common cause. Bill and Hillary Clinton were honored guests, but so were Rupert Murdoch and his wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch. With few exceptions, there were none of the standard feminist denunciations of men, capitalism, Western colonialism, or even the Bush administration. In fact, two prominent members of the Bush administration were speakers: Condoleezza Rice and Dina Habib Powell. Empowering women through entrepreneurship was a central theme of the conference.
Putting a sentence I already quoted in context, here is the article’s final graf:
Brown and her colleagues now plan to make Women in the World an annual affair. Next year there will be more women, more stories, more funders, more leaders, and more solutions. An irresistible force of self-directed and valiant women from across the world is colliding with the so-far immovable object of patriarchal tyranny. The political and cultural consequences will go far beyond the next stage of women’s liberation. In the meantime, Brown has given Western feminism something it has lacked since the 1970s: a contemporary purpose worthy of its illustrious past.
You understand how mind-boggling this is. Suddenly, to a modern conservative, 1970s feminism is good. At the time, conservatives called it crazy bad, just as Hoff Summers calls today’s anti-capitalist feminists crazy bad. Doesn’t she realize that these suddenly good 1970s feminists (I know it’s 40 years since 1970 but it feels sudden to those of us who lived through it) were actually just as wildly anti-capitalist as the crazy bad ones she doesn’t like today? It was the hugeness of their goals, to shift the world from domination to partnership at every level, starting with the most basic level of male domination of women, that fueled their zeal. They opposed the Vietnam War then and they and their daughters and granddaughters oppose American oil wars in the Middle East today. If they opposed Marxism then it was for being insufficiently radical, not getting to the root of oppression in patriarchal power.
Of course I am delighted, thrilled, that capitalism has embraced major elements of women’s liberation. Basically the commercial powers have discovered in this forty years not just that they can live with various forms of equal rights, but that capitalism actually works better with those rights. Great! Lots of people’s lives will be better as a result.
Said commercial powers are happy as long as the people don’t start messing with basic elements of the power structure by demanding things like workplace democracy and legally mandated social purpose for corporations.
One far future day some progressive will be having a conversation with a conservative who will say that the ESRA, the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution of the early 21st Century, is a conservative document. After all, this conservative will say, the ESRA preserved commercial civilization, which in the 2000-2030 era was threatening its own survival by promoting rampant material growth leading to global climate change. The ESRA prompted huge debates about what the social purpose of corporations should be; it stimulated an industrial revolution that re-engineered human production on a biological model where there was no waste, and where ecosystem diversity was built not decimated; it brought support for children, families of all kinds and communities to the fore, so that partnership became the model for social organization; it stimulated the growth of the many small companies that dominate the marketplace today. The associated drive to end global poverty and feed the world entirely on organic food was critical in reducing population growth and ecocollapse. Without the ESRA, overpopulation and ecosystem damage would have led to revolutions, wars, economic collapse and likely the end of democratic commercial civilization. As it is markets, trade and profits survived. Happy conservative.
Yes, says the progressive, but don’t you remember how conservatives opposed the ESRA and called it crazy bad at the time? And don’t you think that now you could get ahead of the curve and support this progressive initiative we are developing for a gift economy, instead of a commercial economy? “What do you think I am, crazy?” says the conservative. To be continued, forever.
Dave Belden is the managing editor of Tikkun.