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Week 4: Progressive Liberalism—Contemporary Voices

How can liberalism support more personal freedom yet less economic individualism---and is libertarianism our destiny?
100109 Ford Hall Forum

Turning from the theologically-infused liberal Protestant proponents of Progressivism of late-19th and early-20th century to some of its proponents in more recent decades, one is struck by both continuities and ruptures. In Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country—originally delivered as the Massey Lectures at Harvard University—we hear many echoes to the founders of Progressivism, including frequent invocations of John Dewey. This should not surprise us, given Rorty’s lineage: he was the maternal grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch. However, in chapters explaining the development of “modern liberalism” in Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power, we see a concerted effort to create some distance between Starr’s updated liberalism and Progressivism. I think there are reasons to wonder whether Starr succeeds in separating the two as cleanly as he might wish.

Rorty’s short book Achieving Our Country sought to revive the fortunes of the Left from what he regarded as its lamentable embrace of cultural and identity politics. He called for a robust re-engagement with the Progressive legacy that had been established by Dewey, Croly, and Whitman, and in particular called for an embrace of the aspirational nature of the American project that had been relinquished by the Left following the disillusionment of the Vietnam War. His rhetoric, and even his theology, was deeply inspired by his Progressive forebears. Rorty called for a rejection of the idea of original sin as part of the inescapable human condition, condemning the Augustinianism of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jean Bethke Elshtain for pessimism about the potential for politics to overcome what traditional theology regarded as our fallen condition.

Instead, he evoked the names and language of John Dewey and Walt Whitman, both of whom aspired to “achieve our country,” to bring into being a nation that had been placed by Augustinians outside history with the eschaton, instead calling for the replacement of the “nation state” with the “kingdom of God.” Such an aspiration called for a reimagination of human potential, a possibility that had been created by political democracy and its generation of new human types, new forms of life, even humans with “more being” than predemocratic humans. America, Rorty argued, had been understood by the Progressives to be the “first cooperative commonwealth,” and even the usherer in of a world system that would supercede the nation-state: “the Parliament of Men, the Federation of the world.”

In contrast to Rorty, Paul Starr seeks to ground progressive (or “modern”) liberalism within the orbit of classical liberalism’s realism—thereby embracing the whole of the liberal tradition—on the one hand endorsing substantive commitments of the Progressive tradition, while at the same time disavowing aspects of Progressivism that Starr regards as based in unwarranted idealism and tending toward dangerous forms of paternalism.

Starr credits “modern” liberalism with four innovations that depart from basic aspects of “classical” liberalism:

1. Liberalism’s embrace of democracy

2. Progressivism’s call for greater economic equality (and expansion of federal government)

3. Libertarian liberalism’s call for expanded personal liberty (and a corresponding diminution of government)

4. Liberal Internationalism

Two of these are particularly worthy of some attention, numbers 2 and 3—the expansion of national power in order to address economic inequalities and promote equal opportunity; and the simultaneous commitment to decreasing both local and national power in regard to personal liberty (i.e., the demise of “morals legislation”). While these represent seemingly opposite commitments, they are born of a similar set of concerns and commitments. Emerging in reaction to growing economic inequality with the rise of the industrial revolution (and exacerbated by the dynamics of global capitalism), “modern liberalism” arises in significant part out of the same motivations of classical liberalism: in order to liberate people from unchosen, oppressive circumstances.

Progressive liberals conclude that while the political project of liberation has had considerable success, the price of that success—particularly the liberative effects of the market—have paradoxically resulted in a situation in which large numbers of people are increasingly destined for stunted lives due to penury and the narrow options for economic success. The original need to restrict arbitrary government is now amended to include more oversight over the economic concentration of power. Government—liberal government—is now seen less as an obstacle to personal liberty than as an essential partner in liberating people from the injustices of an economic system that generates titanic forms of inequality.

At the same time, a traditional role for government is enforcement of laws regarding “morals and manners.” Like straitened economic prospects, these laws and rules come under suspicion for leading to stunted and narrow experiences. Starr quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, who writes (in words that echo John Stuart Mill) that “the theory of the Constitution is an experiment, as all of life is an experiment.” Government in the realm of private action and morality is reduced in scope and activity, born of the belief that anything should be permitted so long as no one is immediately and obviously harmed.

While one can perceive the theoretical consistency of the two positions—both aiming at affording the opportunity for varied and fully actualized life plans—at the same time one is also confronted by their contradiction. In economic matters, as a nation of citizens we are to view our fates as being bound together, with each of us owing to everyone else an obligation to afford decent prospects for a fulfilling life. Our lives are inextricably linked together, and the nation is to provide the umbrella through which our shared fate is mediated (the socialist thinker G.A. Cohen compared a nation to a camping group, in which all work together for the benefit of each other, without keeping close tabs on who brings or uses necessary goods).  While Starr abandons much of the quasi-theological rhetoric of the original Progressives, the aim is the same—to foster a sense of deep social solidarity among all citizens within the nation.

However, in the realm of personal morality, we are to regard each other as radically individuated selves whose actions should be of no concern or moment to anyone else, as long as no one is being obviously harmed. While seeking to infuse the economic realm with the mantle of morality, in the “personal” realm, the language of personal choice comes to predominate.  Progressives argue that the sum of individual choices in the economic realm has enormous implications for the social whole, requiring a commitment to redressing the social dislocations that the sum of those individual choices involve.  However, the same logic is not to apply when considering “personal choice.”  While the accumulation of various personal decisions—for instance, divorce or pornography—in fact arguably has rather profound social implications, we are largely required to ignore these in the name of the liberty of lifestyle “experimentation.” We are to adopt an attitude of “non-judgmentalism,” and even indifference.  These two core commitments of modern Progressive liberalism induces schizophrenia that so deeply informs contemporary American politics.

As we will see, the opposite tension (and even schizophrenia) applies to “Natural Rights Conservatives,” who defend an extensively unregulated market and support various forms of morals legislation. What we should notice is that the two political worldviews have been successful mainly in the areas where they are more “libertarian”: progressives in expanding the sphere of personal liberty, conservatives in defending an extensively free market order (both, of course, would likely conclude otherwise). What is noteworthy is that neither has been nearly as successful in the less “libertarian” part of their agenda, which suggests that the “contradiction” at the heart of their respective commitments has a tendency to resolve itself in the favor of social “solvents” rather than “morality.” This outcome may be deeply reflective of the overall tendency of American politics, born of the liberal tradition.

Starr finally wants to claim that “modern liberalism” is distinct from late-19th and early-20th-century progressivism in several respects. First, he claims that liberalism has made its peace with democracy. However, liberalism’s continued reliance upon courts to circumvent popular opinion (e.g., in the gay marriage issue), as well as its enthusiasm for expansion of government bureaucracy (and its close alignment with public unions) belies this claim. Secondly, he claims that modern liberalism has abandoned the “paternalism” of the old Progressives—who supported Prohibition and eugenics, among other issues. But modern liberalism’s obsession with bodily health, evident in its war upon smoking, fast food, and large sodas suggests otherwise. Its support for unlimited (and publicly funded) abortions—even its distaste for unaborted humans with Down’s syndrome—and its growing enthusiasm for euthanasia also suggests otherwise.

Lastly, Starr suggests that modern liberalism has embraced a more realist “liberal internationalism” that accepts certain inescapable aspects of power politics that aim in general for the support expansion of liberalism, though recognizes the need for realist compromise (here, he seems to be thinking of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy).  However, this stance seems to be at best a temporary commitment, with many liberals favoring the ultimate overcoming of the nation-state in favor of what might ultimately be a single liberal cosmopolity, one global nation ensuring uniformity of law, global oversight of global corporate power, and a borderless, open liberal society. One need only recall Rorty’s hopes for a “parliament of men, a federation of the world” (quoting Tennyson) to understand that a different end-game remains the aspiration of “the party of hope.”

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.



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