A few days ago, I was chatting with a member of the Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party. For those not in the know, the Caucus is an organization formed by the ex-supporters of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and officially affiliated with the Democrats. I had seen this fellow many times but had never actually spoken with him much at all. On Monday, I spent the better part of ninety minutes engaging with him and finally got to see what he is like. By the end, he left me with the impression that he was one of the most progressive people I had ever met. Of all of his comments that evening, the one that perhaps best explains why I felt that way is this: “I’m too conservative not to be a progressive.”
There is this bizarre perception that, in spite of what this man told me, progressivism is the opposite of conservatism. What makes this even more bizarre is how recent it is. Up until a few years ago, left-wing and right-wing politics were usually phrased as liberalism versus conservatism. Progressivism, for reasons that are not altogether clear or coherent, has supplanted liberalism in common, political parlance, even though history is ripe with progressive conservatives.
The chief example of this is William Jennings Bryan, the pastor of the American Midwest. He took on the big banks, much in the style of Bernie Sanders, and from 1896 to 1912 played a pivotal role in transforming the Democratic Party into one that would be receptive to the New Deal that Franklin D. Roosevelt championed. Even though he never won the Presidency (despite being nominated three times), what Bryan’s no-nonsense evangelism and pious nature as a man of faith accomplished was to make progressivism what it is even today.
An American Invention
There is a term for people in other countries who support the policies that progressives do in America. They are usually known as “social democrats” in political academia. Many of the parties in these countries adopt these names or similar ones. In America, however, we tend to use the term “progressive” (“social democrat” is essentially an unknown as a term), and the reason for that is one very specific to our history. It goes back to the character of men like Bryan. There were not only prescriptions for policy on his part; there was a unique set us character traits behind those prescriptions. Men like Bryan were men of integrity. With his Midwestern background (a region largely populated by German Protestants), a sense of duty and work ethic informed Bryan’s political alignment. The idea that he who sweats should also be he who eats was the bedrock of his views and pursuits. To see scores of hardworking, honest Americans get cheated out of opportunity by corner-cutting elites was intolerable to him. This is the defining trait that he shares with Bernie Sanders.
For this reason, progressivism is specifically an American phenomenon. It is not merely a preference for generally centrist political views; it is the hybrid of those with populism and honor. Yes, progressivism is ideologically centrist, meaning that there are not only liberals but also conservatives who contribute to its orthodoxy. The partisan divides between the Democrats and the Republicans, as extreme as they are now, should not obfuscate this truth. Many Democrats are not progressive, after all, and some Republicans are more progressive than they may realize.
When we look at the Tea Party’s rise in 2009, this was not merely a reaction against a black man being elected in 2008. The decentralized nature of this group makes any such summary of the Tea Party hard to justify, in fact. One area where there was broad consensus in this movement, however, was that the bank bailouts “were just not right.” While bailing out the banks made a lot of practical sense, the frauds who caused the collapse to happen came out unscathed, without even a minimal attempt at prosecution. Millions of working-class Americans, meanwhile, lost their jobs and their homes and saw the upper-class that sabotaged them getting a check from Uncle Sam. To be angry about such an iniquitous result doubtlessly requires a spark of progressivism. Bryan certainly would have hated it, and to the surprise of nobody, the Tea Party, among other places, found broad support in the German-Protestant Midwest.
The idea that to be more progressive, one must go more and more to the left politically, is not only an inaccurate idea but also a self-sabotaging one. It drives wedges with potential allies who might be on the other side of the aisle politically but are still very relatable in terms of basic goals. Bryan’s evangelism may have put him on the wrong side of the evolution debate (recalling the infamous Scopes Trial), but this a marginal blot on his career as a political leader, and many of the successful social programs that we have today may not be the children of his statesmanship but are nevertheless the grandchildren of his influence.
Insistence on being pure leftists also misunderstands why the policies of progressives work. They take the advantages of the public and private sectors and cancel several of the disadvantages that both have. To undermine one’s own agenda in sheepish reaction and conformity to the partisan narratives of the day begs the question of what kind of progress would even underlie progressivism at that point.
Fundamentally, what conservatives bring to the progressive table that liberals do not [as much] is their sense of self-restraint. This might seem like a contradiction, since progressivism is often seen as trying to try new things head-on, but it is not. Ethical governance by officials who are incorruptible does require that leaders possess this characteristic. Moreover, conservatives take their promises in personal life seriously and honor their words, and they merely expect that reciprocal honesty from their elected leaders.
In the post-2008 political scene, Democrats have had opportunities to build bridges with disaffected voters. Instead they have repeatedly sought to ostracize and antagonize them instead as social bigots, and so these populists found a home in the Koch-dominated Tea Party and later the Trump 2016 Presidential Campaign, conduits which ultimately have helped neither these haughty Democrats nor the populists. A reverse in course, toward a common, American progressivism is necessary at this point. We need to fix the failures that occur in a free market, while also not bringing the whole system down in a revolutionary crash. The dialogue between liberals and conservatives is what will enable us to do sculpt such a system, but to do that, we need to give those on the right their due as progressives and invite them to the table.