Progressive Conservatives

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William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic Presidential Candidate and Secretary of State

An Irony

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.

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.

The Takeaway

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.

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