circa 1916: Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) the 28th President of the United States of America. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
“This not who we are,” President Obama used to say when something unbecoming to his progressivism occurred. Few caught the statement’s colossal presumptuousness, casually arrogating progressivism’s pieties to America’s larger sense of self. “So diffuse and pervasive is the progressive outlook,” wrote the critic George Scialabba in 1991, “that merely to articulate it is an achievement.”
In 2020, progressivism appears hale. Will the hordes elect a revanchist president? Per Martin Luther King’s formulation—also invoked by Obama—the justice-bound “arc of the moral universe is long.” In the meantime, let a million lawn-signs bloom, proclaiming fidelity to progressive catechisms and injunctions to “Resist!” (as if Emma Goldman and not some account executive or corporate VP resides within).
Yet it’s also showing signs of wear. Progressivism is increasingly unhinged in its policing of discourse, confounded by the recrudescence of forces like nationalism—supposedly consigned to the garbage can marked “wrong side of history”—and estranged from working-class constituents. The ideology itself has become tangled in conflicting moral imperatives and its confused jumble of causes, both in pursuit of chimerical goals and mired in glum introspection. The highest state to which many progressives aspire seems to be self-awareness of their own privilege (though they’re conveniently obtuse to the status conferred by flaunting their exquisitely modulated penitence).
“Late capitalism” is a phrase du jour, but what about “late progressivism”? Another Brahmin gloss on our times is the Trump administration as “hyperreal” spectacle—a Kremlin/Fox News-inflected gilded simulacrum of reality. But how does some variant of this not also apply to contemporary progressivism, with its conspiratorial claims of Russian skullduggery and unfalsifiable assertions of pervasive discrimination? Or the histrionics of media impeachment coverage, played out before a bored, listless public gallery?
Then there’s a resurgent interest in the works of Christopher Lasch with their astringent critique of progressivism and disinterring of “communitarian” traditions.
All of this is converging on a sense of progressivism as one among, as the English philosopher John Gray put it recently, “plural and contending” value systems, subject to its own folkways, mythos, weltanschauung, and prejudices.
Bradley C. S. Watson’s Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea had me with the word “strange.” Progressivism today is strange. Meanwhile, Trump’s election has spawned a shelf of histories and ethnographies about the white working class: how refreshing to see progressivism come in for similar treatment. And presumably Watson, a political science professor at Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent College, didn’t have to repair to Appalachian Ohio to conduct his fieldwork.
Wrong meeting. Actually, Watson’s Progressivism is a history of the histories—refracted through the exigencies of the presents in which they were written—by which received wisdom about early 20th-century progressivism came down to us, and the revisionism underway since the 1980s. Since that time, acolytes of the German émigré scholar Leo Strauss have become associated with the “Claremont School,” a colony of constitutional conservative political scientists, and coalesced at California’s Claremont Colleges, Watson among them.
Historical depictions of progressivism served to domesticate the movement, he writes, emphasizing, variously, its congruence with prior U.S. history, diffuse non-doctrinaire populist character, small-bore nature (rooted in the “status anxiety” of its supposed middle-class tribunes) and—mediated by the New Left—essentially conservative cast as a tool of big business.
The conservative counter-narrative holds that these accounts, oblivious to their own editorializing, resoundingly undersold progressivism. It posits that progressivism—imbued with social Darwinism, pragmatism, Hegel’s exaltation of the state and “social gospel” Christianity—was deeply transgressive of the founders’ Constitution. The older tradition was recast from transcendent holy writ to historical artifact belonging to an earlier, and thus less-evolved, era—a dead letter straitjacketing the Prometheus of government amid the imperative to reform the social ills attending industrialization and urbanization. Extolling an infinitely extensible “living Constitution” and conceiving of man as “morally perfectible” within a Whiggish teleology trending toward ever more “freedom, justice, and truth,” progressivism represented a “pivot point” in U.S. history. It sanctioned the projection of state authority into what had hitherto been considered the preserve of civil society (recast as a redoubt of corruption) and private conscience, elevating a proto-administrative state of technocrats. At the same time, the progressives ushered in today’s heroic conception of the presidency as a seat of enlightened moral agency, as it judiciously marshals “popular will” and the forces of history.
Fixated on the figure of Woodrow Wilson (with his glinting pince-nez, priggish Victorian Dad mien, and anti-suffrage segregationist views, a suitably unambiguous villain), this is the wrong-turn narrative espoused in the Tea Party-era pedagogy of Glenn Beck. And Watson’s Progressivism is in part an account of the academics working upstream of Beck and his chalkboard. But it’s also a chronicle of the Straussian reckoning with progressivism: a cadre of scholars, governed by the conviction that “moral-political understandings” can transcend “time and place,” who accorded progressivism’s architects the dignity of taking them at their word, rather than reflexively discounting this as a product of self-interested historical actors’ “false consciousness.” It’s a reminder of one of progressivism’s blind spots—in English soccer parlance, its inclination to play the man, not the ball.
Many of Watson’s historical observations about germinal-stage progressivism could have been written of its current form. He remarks on the juxtaposition between its eyes-on-the-prize goal orientation and disdain for attaining popular assent to its reform agenda, witnessed in Wilson’s withering condescension toward “public criticism” as a “clumsy nuisance, a rustic handling delicate machinery.” And he draws a throughline from the God-bothering messianism of early progressives like Walter Rauschenbusch to sanctimonious social-justice activists.
But how far is today’s progressivism really descended from the 1900s version? University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser has described the former as a compound of original progressivism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism, with an admixture of countercultural emphasis on personal growth. Still, Watson crystalizes an inalienable aspect to progressivism past and present: its protean, remorselessly acquisitive nature, ever on the lookout for the next moral improvement project (and the political clients this yields).
Progressivism is an uneven book. Claremont Review of Books editor Charles R. Kesler contributes a foreword and figures in an exploration of the intellectual genealogy of the conservative challenge to the liberal consensus on progressivism, but excerpts from Kesler’s book, I Am the Change, materialize in the text as if delivered from on high, sending the reader to the endnotes for their provenance. One learns much from Watson’s survey of the literature about the historiography of progressivism, but soon wises up to his modus operandi of arraigning its works—finding each in error for slighting progressivism’s subversion of the Constitution. And Watson’s otherwise felicitous prose is marred by occasional archaic locutions. The obscure Latinate “in fine” is preferred to “in short,” and I thought “desuetude” had passed into…desuetude. The Dwight Macdonald line about a work having “enriched my vocabulary, or, more accurately, added to it,” comes to mind.
But ultimately Progressivism is insightful and rewarding. And Watson owns the prejudices of his cohort, referring to the “deep attachment to the Constitution and to the regime that is experienced by the revisionists.”
This is more than can be said for progressives with their avowals that their creed is reality itself. “[I]n truth,” Watson writes, “liberalism was all about theory from the very beginning.”
Stephen Phillips has reviewed numerous books for The Spectator, Economist, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, and Times Literary Supplement.