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The Contaminated Progressive "Reaction"

An addendum to Section 10 of Democracy STRUGGLES!

Gabriel Kolko not unjustifiably understood the Progressive Movement in the United States (c 1890-1917) as a “Triumph of Conservatism”. But intentions can be considered separately from results, and the motivations of Progressives (past and present) are complex and far from monolithic.

Progressivism, as distinguished from Populism, is generally a middle-class phenomenon. And the middle class, with all its anxieties, does tend to be beset by certain senses of responsibility, varying degrees of affluence, and uncertain levels of “achievement” in “higher” education. The idea of “responsibility” is crucial because members of the middle class are encultured to feel its weight no matter how helpless they may feel themselves to be in actually exercising it - and no matter how they may flagrantly flout, glibly fend off, surreptitiously evade, or complacently ignore the naggings of its pressures.

Middle class “responsibility” encompasses a wide range of considerations. Certainly, there are professional and social pressures to maintain at least some appearance of probity, sobriety, and stability which may become especially acute when considering the prospects for our offspring. But these may also become enmeshed with what might be termed a “social consciousness”.

This *can* happen due to influences from a liberal education that actually “took”. It may be supported by a certain measure of leisure for reading and contemplation. And it might be reinforced by some hard-earned understandings based on grueling experiences in how modern institutions actually work - and fail to work in terms of achieving their ostensible purposes. A “social conscience” can also be bolstered by anxious concerns regarding the futures to which children and grandchildren might be condemned. Even then, there’s always some amount of status seeking (and appearance keeping) within any self-styled group identity. (But that’s not always a “bad” thing.)

No matter the level of “social consciousness”, there’s often legitimate worry about the disruptive tendencies of both the “lower orders” and the plutocratic elite. Continuously dashed between Scylla and Charybdis, some in the middle classes feel driven to support various manifestations of authoritarianism while others are drawn to reformist “do goodism” (a term not intended to be purely derisive).

It’s not totally disingenuous for reactionaries to deride the naïveté of progressive “snowflakes”. But dulled anomie or enthusiasm for repression can also emerge from naïvetés too much brutalized by acutely perceived indifference - or sadism - in their formative environments.

Is it unfair to claim the gross measures of the naïveté displayed by ordinary citizens with progressive tendencies are flavored by imagination, idealism, and compassion which subsume many elements of fear? And is it unjustified to suggest that a naive embrace of authoritarianism represents the potency of fear to wither the compassionate or hopeful aspects of imagination? And is not any descent into anomie a self-annihilating surrender to similar types of dread?

Classical Conservatism lies somewhere between liberal progressivism and reactionary authoritarianism. But sober conservatives do share principle motivations with honest reformers. They differ mainly over methods for best preserving imperfect institutions. These institutions constantly need guarding against creeping careerism, opportunism, and the mindless inefficiencies of obsolete practices. But they also need to be preserved from the grasping perversions of relentless plutocrats.

How wise is it to demand well-meaning improvements for removing inefficiencies, correcting injustices, and adapting to rapidly changing times? Can desired reforms be actuated without generating unfortunate unintended consequences? Neither conservatives nor progressives are immune to special pleading.

Conservatives may be more interested in protecting their own situations while progressives may (overtly or covertly) be seeking better positions for themselves and their children. The key (“sincere”) difference lies with contrasting faith in the need for planned, concerted actions to ameliorate injustices and inefficiencies v. faith in organic evolution towards whatever asymptotic limits exist for human perfection. At the level of sincerity this difference might be relatively superficial, but human perversity has a dismal propensity to make sincerity difficult to distinguish from its many less well-meaning counterfeits. And the heat of argumentation can make any one of us more or less prone to undermine our own credibility through intemperate claims or invective.

Interesting speculation can be found to describe inherent and formative differences between ordinary “liberals” and “conservatives”. One line of reasoning proposes “disgust” (or fear of contamination/infection) is relatively stronger in conservatives and could be related to claims progressives are more “creative” and “open to experience”.


But however much could be learned through pursuing valid lines of research into such questions, there are also important political and economic distinctions that might be considered. These involve the apparent gulfs between the leaderships and popular bases of both factions. Elite theory proposes these differences (in times of political stability, at least) dramatically dwarf the disagreements between the respective leaderships themselves. The same can be said about the *fundamental* differences between (even the “politicized”) factions of their grassroots support - who often share many significant interests and sentiments generally obscured by unreflective antagonisms.

We are now enduring a time when political stability appears gravely threatened. Is it a cause or a symptom of this turbulence that comity in Congress is, once again*, evaporating (along with shared social and workaday collegiality)? What about funding sources? How much do the funding strategies of the Koch brothers (and their plutocratic ilk) represent a dangerous departure from the relative even handedness of corporate “investment” in the legislative sausage factory during the decades following the last world war?

There are even more fundamental questi