Posted by: jackslife | October 8, 2009

Conservative Progressivism

Patrick Deneen has a really interesting post up on FPR about Reagan conservatism and progressivism.  He makes some really interesting points about some of the rather progressive viewpoints that characterize modern conservatism.  He references the following section from a David Brooks piece that was written after Reagan’s death –

To understand the intellectual content of Reagan’s optimism, start with American conservatism before Reagan. It was largely a movement of disenfranchised thinkers who placed great emphasis on human frailty and sin, the limitations of what we can know, and the tragic nature of history.

Conservatives felt that events were moving in the wrong direction and that the American spiritual catastrophe was growing ever worse. Whittaker Chambers observed that when he left communism and joined the democratic camp, he was joining the losing side of history. In his influential book ”Ideas Have Consequences,” Richard Weaver argued that American society was in the midst of ”a fearful descent.” To describe modern life, the leading conservative thinker Russell Kirk used words like barrenness, sterility, inanity, hideousness, vulgarity, sensationalism and deformity.

Conservatives looked back sadly to customs and institutions that were being eroded. What was needed, many argued, was a restoration of stability. ”The recovery of order in the soul and order in society is the first necessity of this century,” Kirk argued.

Reagan agreed with these old conservatives about communism and other things. But he transformed their movement from a past- and loss-oriented movement to a future- and possibility-oriented one, based on a certain idea about America. As early as 1952 during a commencement address at William Woods College in Missouri, Reagan argued, ”I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”

Reagan described America as a driving force through history, leading to the empire of liberty. He seemed to regard freedom’s triumph as a historical inevitability. He couldn’t look at mainstream American culture as anything other than the delightful emanation of this venture. He could never feel alienated from middle American life, or see it succumbing to a spiritual catastrophe….

Unlike earlier conservatives, he had a boyish faith in science and technology (Star Wars). He embraced immigration, and preferred striving to stability. On the economic front, he inspired writers like George Gilder, Warren T. Brookes and Julian Simon, who rhapsodized about entrepreneurialism and wealth creation.

I think that Brooks was probably right on in his take on Reagan.  Reagan was a big believer in American exceptionalism, the forefather of GWB in this arena.  His summoning of the Thomas Payne line, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” goes a long way toward explaining the modern conservative agenda.  These words would be just as much at home in the mouth of progressives as it is on the lips of Reagan.  The only question is who is doing the world building, and what tools do they choose to use.

I don’t want to take anything away from Reagan as a leader.  He was a great leader and definitely changed the world for the better in many ways, but I think that it is hard to measure the impact that his thinking has had on our world.  By surfacing a moral majority who backed a limitless society focused on economic growth and fiscal hedonism.  This marriage of morality and financial libertarianism created a moral sanction for viewpoints that were once considered anything but conservative.  Reagan’s epitaph reads, “I know in my heart that man is good.”  These words may show an optimism and faith in mankind, but they cannot be accurately called conservative.


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