Progressive Versus Progressive, Part 7: Progress Itself

The Old Progressives of a hundred years ago believed in . . . progress! Well duh, I can hear everyone groan. Rather obvious isn’t it? Yes, but it bears noting because it is not at all clear that today’s “Progressives” actually believe in progress in most of the same ways their namesakes did. In some ways, today’s so-called Progressives are anti-progress, or at the very least doubtful and underconfident about the nature and promise of progress.
The original Progressives believed in “Progress” with a capital-P (often spelling it this way). They believed in Progress in several senses of the term. Theodore Roosevelt said the 20th century would be the century of “moral progress.” Wilson and others embraced Hegel’s historicist understanding of Progress, which could be thought of as a secular version of Providence, with science, rather than God, at the back of it all. The various strains of Darwinian evolution, from the reviled “social Darwinists” to their benevolent cousins on the left, thought human consciousness would trend toward perfection. In politics, Progress meant democracy, democracy, and more democracy, both here at home and eventually abroad. Everyone especially expected material progress to abound, and the biggest totems of this kind of government-sponsored progress were the huge dams on America’s great rivers. Our material progress was a manifestation of mankind’s conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate, as Bacon famously described the goal of modernity.
Today’s environmental Progressives see dams as high on the list of humanity’s crimes against nature, and want to remove as many of them as they can. (I actually have some sympathy with this idea, but they should be careful what they wish for. If we remove the huge dams on the Columbia River, all those greenies in the Pacific northwest won’t like having to pay market rates for electricity, and might rethink some of their frivolous greenness.) And environmentalists aren’t alone among Progressives in being skeptical or opposed to genetic research and many other scientific frontiers at the moment.
In other words, the Old Progressivism could be said to have represented the apotheosis of Enlightenment rationality. Many of today’s Progressives align themselves intellectually with post-modernism, which represents a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism when it is not full-blown nihilism. Above all post-modernists reject the idea of progress, sometimes explicitly. This is not true of all contemporary Progressives, of course, just as many Old Progressives were not Hegelians (I doubt Jane Addams ever consulted the The Philosophy of Right when looking for guidance about what to do about housing conditions.) But at the same time you seldom hear a modern Progressive voice raised against nihilist post-modernism.
The Old Progressives thought the expansion of populist democracy would be harmonious with the extension of expert administration over our lives; today’s Progressives are not keen on democratic populism, as seen in their reaction to the Tea Party and Tom Friedman’s frequent odes to China’s expert authoritarianism. There is no greater nuisance to Washington’s bureaucratic class than an election.
The issue of class divisions and the distribution of wealth is a little harder to make out and distinguish. There was a fair bit of indignation at the concentration of wealth and the rapid accumulation of wealth by industrialists and bankers in the Progressive Era, but for the most part the Old Progressives weren’t resentful, redistributionist egalitarians as are today’s Progressives. The Old Progressives thought wealth was being generated and concentrated unfairly; hence the concern with “monopoly” and antitrust regulation. Most of the Old Progressives believed regulation was necessary to preserve middle class opportunity, which they believed would raise up everyone. Today’s Progressives don’t distrust the manner in which wealth is created in the market (especially since so many of the new internet zillionaires turn out to be liberal campaign donors), but merely want to take more of it through higher taxes so they can redistribute it, because they have lost confidence in the idea of opportunity.