Is This the Year We Recognize the Failure of Progressivism?

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This year is looking more and more like one of those “years of decision” that have marked profound crises and changes in American history. I’m speaking not just about the presidential election, or whether or not Barack Obama gets a second term. Obama is merely a symptom of our educational, social, economic, and political dysfunctions that in turn reflect the failing core ideology of modernity expressed by progressive politics. The “decision” that has to be made this year is whether we finally abandon that nexus of ideas that has led us to our current economic troubles.

That ideology is predicated on the belief that advances in scientific knowledge have revealed the truth of human nature and society, and that such knowledge can lead to technical interventions that in turn will substantially improve human life. “The behaviour of human beings,” Isaiah Berlin describes this belief, “both individually and in the aggregate, is in principle intelligible, if the facts are observed patiently and intelligently, hypotheses formulated and verified, laws established” as was occurring in the sciences such as physics, astronomy, or chemistry. With time the “human sciences” such as psychology and sociology, along with new advances in biology and physiology, would achieve knowledge of human beings and their actions equally reliable and certain. “Once appropriate social laws were discovered,” Berlin continues, “rational organization would take the place of blind improvisation, and men’s wishes, within the limits of the uniformities of nature, could in principle all be made to come true.” Contrary to the past, when irrational superstitions, religious beliefs, and traditions limited man’s progress and left him mired in fear, poverty, and violence, the new techno-elites armed with this scientific knowledge and the techniques it has created will shape and transform human nature and thus help the human race progress beyond these miseries.

That, in a nutshell, describes the major political and social movements of the last two centuries, including some of the bloodiest in history. This idea is also the foundation of progressivism, which strives to give power to self-proclaimed “experts” in order to create policies for the centralized, increasingly powerful and intrusive state. Armed with that coercive power and new technologies, the state can impose laws and policies that supposedly will achieve “social justice,” a utopia of economic equality, perpetual happiness, and material comfort. The price? The erosion of political freedom, personal autonomy, and personal responsibility, all sold for a mess of nanny-state pottage.

The current economic crises here and abroad are manifestations of the shipwreck of progressive ideas on the rocks of human nature, the unpredictability of the future, and the complexity of social reality. In Europe, the transnational, top-down-managed E.U. was created to knit traditional enemies together by trade and economic integration, which required a single currency and anti-democratic regulations imposed from above by Brussels and Strasbourg. Ignored were the very real national, ethnic, and cultural differences that give people their identities and partly accounted for their historical conflicts with one another. It is these same differences that are now dividing the monetary union, differences expressed politically by the voters whom the Eurocrats have brushed aside for decades. There are no “Europeans” sharing a common identity after all, but only Germans, Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Englishmen, with conflicting national interests, mores, and ethics.

But the economic crisis was created in part by another, equally dangerous delusion: that each state, abetted by the regulatory coercive powers of the E.U. super-state, would direct and guide its economy in order to finance a network of social welfare entitlements insulating people from the costs, trade-offs, and failures that always have characterized human existence. A revealing letter published in 2003 by two European philosophers, Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas, expressed this vision that underlay the E.U. project. Especially revealing was the philosophers’ emphasis on the need to minimize the “sociopathological consequences of capitalist modernization,” and on a “preference for the protective guarantees of the welfare state and solidaristic solutions” as opposed to “an individualistic performance ethos which accepts crass social inequalities.” The lavish social welfare entitlements designed and controlled by government functionaries and monitored by Eurocrats are the means for achieving these utopian boons.

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  • femi mafe

    Scientific theories of positivism and progressivism have so far failed to adress human equality and free us from suffering and instead led us to a volatile world which is about to combust. We need to find true ways to convalesce the society before we all get swallowed up in a resultant state of anarchy. My pointer for a solution is beyond human theories. The state will continue to erode human rights in search for control. Already, the true values that propeled modern developed societies have almost been fully eroded. Jews and the church are becoming the whipping dogs for society’s failure. We would all soon turn out to be the losers in the claws of despotic governments. Let’s turn back to God in search of true solutions or else just kiss our present gains in civilization and progress goodbye.

    • Jim_C

      Progressivism has given us safe working conditions, clean air and water, safe food to eat, the work week, the living wage, protection from abject poverty, protection from predatory industrial practices. Now you can argue that many of the institutions set up to do this are "outdated." But you can not say they did not free us from suffering, uphold human rights, and give us more freedom to succeed when they clearly did as a historical FACT.

      • Ghostwriter

        I agree that not all the Progressive's actions have been bad,Jim_C. What many don't like is that it's being taken too far. Too much government regulation over everything. Too much regulation is just as bad as too little. There needs to be a balance. Right now,the scales have tipped into the "Too much" column.

        • Jim_C

          And I am willing to concede that maybe some of the institutions we relied on in the 20th century need to be reformed or replaced. We need to recognize that in many cases, though, regulation derives from the industries, themselves, in bids to advantage themselves over competitors. The growth of government–something I agree we should be vigilant about–is absolutely related to the growth of these industries and the influence they can, in effect, buy. Thus, government regulatory bodies can be BOTH: too byzantine, unyieldy and costly to business; AND so complicit with certain regulatees that there's no will to enforce. Wall Street is a clear example of this.

          In fact I think if conservatives would stop to recognize this, they'd have a very compelling platform.

  • PermReader

    Rational explanation of the irrational human nature makes all predictions shaky.The paradox of the modern history is the appearance of the movements and regimes that declare the progressism,while creating medieval slavery and the kind of the inquisition,and the other ideology of the national conservatism,turning the country into the war mashine and creating the modern religion of the aryan god.European progressivism meet not only the beginning socialist problems,but the real medieval Islamist antagonist,whom they don`t want to notice,the future enemy

  • amused

    With the exception of Greece , which literally borrowed more money than it's economy was ever capable of paying back , showering it's residents with early retirements in a nation which most of the jobs are government jobs , including railways etc , the rest of the failures -Ireland Portugal .Spain and others , fell victim to the derivatives scvams started right here on Wall Street ……..yet you call this the fall of progressivism ? It is no coincidence that only the strongest economies survived the housing bubble and subsequent market crash . Or did anyone think thayt the Wall Street gaming was limited to the U.S. ?
    "The Fall Of Progessivism " ? Funny …the Europeans followed our lead , with bad investment products [derivitives ] and all fell into the pit . You call that "progressivism " …lol…that make you feel better ?

    • Lucid

      Derivatives are not necessarily "scams;" they are merely investments with a very high degree of risk. When the US government mandated that mortgage bankers grant loans (CRDA) to unqualified borrowers (also with a very high degree of risk), some financial institutions packaged these loans for sale to third parties as a way to recoup money from bad investments forced by government. It is indeed the failure of Progressivism because the CRDA was an attempt at "Social Justice" which became financially unsustainable as bankers attempted to cover their losses by excessive insurance or the selling of derivatives. Sensible captiatlism would have denied unqualified loans, but kept the companies making the loans solvent.

      • amused

        The US did not ":mandate " bankers break their own rules making loans to unqualified people …that's your meme and delusion . Your notions of what caused the housing bubble aare a bit skewed , not to mention uninformed .Derivitives and "swaps " are a form of insurance , and in this country any insurance operator must have a specified liquidity to cover losses . The banks were allowed to wiggle out of that all important requirement by calling the game something other than insurance , and compounded that with throwing private equity into this gamble . Greed was the name of the game , not "social justiuce ' , nor was it progressivism , it was chicanery by capitalists breaking all rules of fiduciary responsibility . The derivitive/swap game was being played long and hard before the housing bubble burst , therefore your statement that they were employed to cocer losses is NONSENSE . It would do you well to know what you are talking about before making such uninformed satements , based on your personal political ideology andf NOT facts.

    • kong.ming

      Since the early 90s Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hide their exposure to sub prime mortgages due to big government Congressional democrats' houses-for-votes pork spending schemes: The democratic heads of oversight in the Senate, Chris Dodd, had his name on a list of "Friends of Angelo": Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo. Barney Frank had his homosexual lover Herb Moses on the board of Fannie Mae.

      For years Republicans held hearings to reform these trillion dollar sources of waste and corruption only to have democrats either act like nothing was wrong or accuse them of racism. Obama voted present on a 2005 reform bill and wrote a letter advocating more money for ACORN. Today it continues with billion dollar bailouts and bureaucrats hiring teams of lawyers at tens of thousands of dollars an hour charged to the taxpayer to obstruct any reform.

      Derivatives allow investors to minimize risk and drive more funding in the market for much needed work like cancer research and energy prototypes. They had little to do with mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps which was due entirely to an over evaluation of the housing market, based solely on a lack of oversight by insurers and most notably government sponsored entities.

      Our problem today is insolvency. Low energy cost despite every attempt of the Obama administration to crucify producers keeps us afloat right now. Further government regulation like the Volker rule, which has no affect at preventing fraud waste and corruption, will dry up investments.

      • Amused

        More uninformed partisan bullsheet , just like Lucid's .You folks really need to read things published by REAL and OBJECTIVE economists with no political ax to grind , bcause you all parrot the same inane garbage meant only to demean the opposition . As far as politicians go , good ole'boy NEWT as well as Clinton as well as just as many Republicans ALL contributed to the fast and loose gambling that went on ….Europeans jumped on the same bandwagon and went into the pit just like we did ….. and all you folks out there watching your 401's going up ….and no one even stopped to think …hey that house aint worth 500k ! veryone knew BEFORE the BUST , that the last ones out of the Movie House would burn . So in effect everyones to blame , but you know better huh ? It was those democrats , those "progressives " oh you're so full of shiiiit man , it coming out your ears .

        • Amused

          The 2000 DotCom bubbnle as well as the Housing bubble and phony derivitive games were ALL easily predictable , that is IF people could see through their greed , but as we all know ,greed blinds people . All the sane tactics of investing "puts " and "margin " went out the window in a wild greedy frenzy , even Greenspan knew it , but didn't have the balls to interupt the feeding frenzy . Everyone thought to themselves .."we'll get out before the suckers " , and guess what everyone got burned ,EXCEPT .those who did not play the game. Wall Street is there to faciltate American Buisiness and grow it , not to be a casino for the fast and loose gamblers .

          • kong.ming

            Big government liberals blame Wall Street , banks, lack of regulation, low taxes, and conservatism in a pathetic attempt to hold onto their power and hide their record, like:
            -Obama being part of the Democratic Senate from 2004 to 2008
            -Obama voting present on GSE reform
            -Barney Frank wanting to roll the dice
            -Charles Schummer saying everything's okay
            -Friend of Angelo Chris Dodd.

            Senate Democrats, along with GSE executives, keep their jobs, pensions, bonuses, medical insurance while receiving immunity on criminal charges and billions of dollars a year in bailouts despite their destruction of the Western economy. Year after year Obama and Senate Democrats run up trillions of dollars in debt due to grafting and handouts for votes schemes.

            Decades of new regulations, overhauls and bailouts constantly fail because of fraud and conflict of interest. While the public equity market failed, the private equity market boomed and new investment methods emerged online.

            Further regulations on markets only serve to dry up equity and actually increase the power of the large volume traders while decreasing the capital available to small volume manufacturers whose cost will only trickle down to the consumer. It also raises numerous unintended consequences concerning freedom of speech and the entire equity market, for instance Apple at one of the lowest P/E ratios trades at 14 times "liquidity".

            Hard truth is investments should not be viewed as collateralized loans and investors should only risk what they are willing to loose.

          • Jim_C

            If you read what Amused said, you'll see he includes all of us as to blame. Indeed, much of the blame simply goes to the average couple who bought more house than they could afford. We all know someone who did. But there were a lot of private players who saw a great opportunity to swindle a buck.

            Blaming Wall Street is simplistic, that is true. To do so does not exculpate Fannie and Freddie and their congressional pals (from both parties, it turns out). But if you really want to get angry, read about what happened on Wall Street–REAL condescension, REAL "we know better than you" attitude, real government collusion, real duplicity–most of which they managed to make legal over the last few decades. But the emails are there. The accounts written by people in some of these companies should really give one pause about what sort of animal we allowed to run loose when times were good.

        • MKS

          Amused – If your points really were that good, you would not need to season them with so much invective.

          Progressive, "liberal," and leftist policies have been tried repeatedly in the Soviet Union, the PRC, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and many other political entities of various ethnicity. Western European nations have made softer socialism look good for a little while during the time they were propped up by U.S. defense facilities, but that is unraveling now. Progressive, "liberal," leftist, socialist policies simply do not succeed in fostering creative, motivated, liberated lives for humanity.

          • Jim_C

            "Progressive, "liberal," leftist, socialist policies simply do not succeed in fostering creative, motivated, liberated lives for humanity."

            Well, you lump a lot of "isms" together as if one means the other there. But yours is a claim easily refuted by a trip to Western Europe to look at the educational systems, industry and lifestyle.

          • Amused

            If my points were so bad ….you wouldn't have to change the subject . As for invective ? I'm being generous , because when the facts are available , indeed laid down under the noses of people ,who are so opinionated , so filled with partisan B.S. , displaying such cognitive dissonance , that "invective " as you call it , merely emphasizes the FACT , that the arguments you counter with are simply based in a self-imposed IGNORANCE . You can't rebut facts with political memes .Your ranting about communist countries and your utterly weak attempt at a fractured analogy proves that , first and foremost YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT .

          • Amused

            Needless to say your patented rhetoric and overuse of the terms "socialism " – "leftist " – "liberal " and " progresdive " ,have absolutely NOTHING to do with the housing bubble , derivative/swaps or any of the resulting consequences . You are free to your opinions , free to be ignorant , free to ignore facts You are not free however to exercises in revisionism , or to express opinion as fact. I'm a capitalist , hjowever our trouble have been brought about by capitalism without ethics , capitalism run amuck , with free enerprise only as an excuse for the greed and avarice that drove the engine which went off the ralis . The European Economic Situation and that here in the U S is a DIRECT RESULT OF PRECISELY THAT BEHAVIOR .

  • tagalog

    The idea that the end of progressivism is a hopeful sign is in error. Progressivism, in one form or the other, along with its sister ideology, vanguardism, have been with us in the West since at least the classical Greeks. So has the other side of the coin, the idea that people are fallible and must be allowed the maximum possible play for their individualism, since only personal freedom can give us access to a chance at the realizing our human potential. Both visions of human nature are inborn in our civilization, and will be with us until Western civilization leaves the scene. So after today's version of progressivism, we will have some other form of progressivism to deal with. Hopefully, it won't be grounded in racism, racialism, collectivism, statism, or any of the other forms of progressivism we've had to deal with in the past century or so.

    • Amused

      Noble words , as long as your seeking your potential with YOUR OWN MONEY . Butvtghat's not how it played out , now was it ?

  • Mayan spirit

    Well, it must be this year or never — Dec. 21st being the end that is.

  • Tanstaafl jw

    It's certainly the end of Keynesian economics.

    • tagalog

      Respectfully, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for government to give up on the Keynesian notion of using government money to "prime the pump." It doesn't matter too much that it doesn't work

      • Le Beau

        And defenses for it still abound, everywhere. I think it's a mistake to assume anyone is going to abandon an idea because of a rational argument or evidence that it's wrong — when the idea was never adopted in the first place because it was rational. In other words, Keynesians aren't Keynesians because they are convinced by its logic; they are Keynesians because it tells them what they wanted to hear.

        And it continues to. :)

        • Le Beau


  • Youssef

    All have witnessed the event that had happen on the 24th June 2012 in Egypt where the race of president was being made, the Islamists party who have risen to take power has finally taken place where Mohammed Musri has won the election and has being made the new president of Egypt. What will now happen to the Christian who are living in Egypt today? Ahmed Shafiq said during the presidential race, that if the brotherhood comes in, Egypt will go in to a dark age.

    Read more:


    • Johncdavidson

      If the Christians are forced to leave will our President welcome them to come across the border in Arizona knowing they might not vote for him?.

      • pagegl

        No, just like in the Sudan and Nigeria, Obama will continue to ignore the slaughter of non-Muslims by the jihad. Most likely the MSM will play right along with him.

  • clarespark

    Modernity and progressivism are linked in this article, but the science proposed by progressives was pseudo-science and mystical with a scientific face. I spent half a year studying The Nation magazine in the crucial year of 1919 and found mysticism and top-down management, but not modernity (that stresses science in service of individual learning and a better life). See…. "Populism, progressivism, and corporatist liberalism in The Nation 1919."

  • Ronald Johnston

    We need to dissolve this government and start over!!!!

  • Chezwick

    "Is This the Year We Recognize the Failure of Progressivism?"

    Sorry, but no. Why? Because "progressivism" is a religion. No amount of empirical data will ever change the thinking of its believers. It is a blatant form of willful ignorance.

    • Jim_C

      I hardly think Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were "willfully ignorant." As I mention below, faith in markets is also a religion. And one even its champions like Alan Greenspan have since gone on to temper.

  • Western Spirit

    i have an idea, let's all join a confederation of nations that will erase all human consequences for suspect behavior, and eliminate everything that gets in the way of us doing whatever we feel like doing—like religion, for instance.

    and establish a utopia on earth where everything is equal including behavior because in this progressive delusion there is no good or evil.

    or scrap that idea entirely because it doesn't compute with reality. truly jesus's perception of satan's delusional powers has proven invaluable in helping us understand the nature of evil, how it operates and succeeds.

    like we know progressivism is evil because it isn't true and cannot ever be viable in this world of duality where it can only cause trouble and loss of freedom.

    i don't think it is a delusion that will go away quietly, though, because it's a dream that suits too many people.

    • Amused

      Oh what a droc of sanctimonious B.S.

    • tagalog

      And anybody who doesn't go with the flow, well, we put him or her in a labor camp and re-educate them.

      • Amused

        Yea , all you "eternal victims " of those lefties better run , lest you find yourselves behind the barbed wire death camps designed specifically for conservatives . .it's all in the socialist/stalinist/leftist/communist/nazi/progressive SECRIT PLAN !!! RUN MAN RUN !!!!! .

  • Asher

    Progressiveism is definitely recognized by most Americans..The question is will we be able to vote this regime out..or do they have plans to foil legal american elections and keep the Dictatorship in place, nullifying our Constitution and our branches of Government.

  • pagegl

    The founding fathers were far better students of human nature than the progressives. They understood what happens when you encourage sloth and reliance on the government and when you stifle individual freedom and growth. The founding fathers developed their solution to the foibles of human nature by empitical study; progressives ahve been trying to shred that solution because their solution is, as noted above, a religion, a matter of faith that they and only they know the solution to human nature. The progressives will never learn that human nature does not change.

    • Jim_C

      Is faith that markets will always work themselves out not also a religion? If we're being intellectually honest, we have to admit that its the other side of the coin.

      As for the Founding Fathers, they did have a genius for understanding human nature–but the debate about the role government, particularly, the federal government–plays alongside this nature is as old as the Republic itself (older, in fact). One doesn't have to look hard to see "progressive" ideas in the writings and correspondence of the Founders. I'm not claiming them as progressives–but nor were they inimical to that strain of thought. Liberty and progressivism are not mutually exclusive.

  • kong.ming

    This article forgets to mention fraud, probably on purpose because it wants to attack just the progressive philosophy and not its implementation. However fraud should be the only reason we need to avoid big government tax and spend policy as there will always be grafting for example Nancy Pelosi's 757.

    Also shortly after the progressive movement science proved that their is a limit to certainty on very large and very small scales.

  • mrbean

    "Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy; its claim to virtue is the equal sharing of misery." Ahhh,,, and misery loves company. The truth is that no small number of American citizens are now socialists, only, they usually aren't aware of it. These are people – and we've all met them – who never heard a proposal for government involvement they didn't like. They only ask that one of two criteria be met: The proposal must sound convenient for them or inconvenient for someone who they envy. Oh, and, yes, I have always known that greed and jealousy — as opposed to some noble desire to help the downtrodden — are what drive leftists.

  • tagalog

    Progressivism has been with us since at least Plato. So has vanguardism. They will not go away with the end of this latest expression.

    The limited vision of human nature has been with us since Aristotle. That will not go away either.

    Those conflicting visions of human nature will not end before Western civilization does; they will just take on different colorations as circumstances change. The limited (Sowell calls it the constrained) vision will not change much, since it's rather simply stated. Progressivism is also on the simple side, but it is susceptible to nuanced expression. But the bottom line is that progressivism is going to come back with some new approach as to how authoritarian government and the vanguard that head it up will provide utopia for the governed. Some of the governed will like it, some will prefer human liberty and the freedom to define one's life as best one can.

  • Iratus Vulgas

    It were as if Thornton was reading my mind. I too have considered the imminent demise of American progressivism. It’s about 50 years younger than Marxism, and perhaps on a similar course as Soviet Communism and the Berlin Wall. If so, the left wing apologists will cling to their failed ideology right down to the last crumbling brick. And even then, many leftists will remain steadfast that progressivism could work if only it were correctly applied. Some people never learn.

  • popseal

    The arrogance and academic snobery that makes up the core of leftist thinking will never admit to 'wrong thought'. It will always be somebody else's fault when 'progressivism' fails to make life full and meaningful for its adherents or the victims that buy its lie.

  • scherado

    No. That should be obvious.

  • scherado

    Elaboration: NOTHING will change while the major News outlets and entertainment are run by Progressive/Leftist/Liberals. Period.

    • Jim_C

      Most popular media outlet is conservative. Stop being a crybaby.

  • Schlomotion

    I defy you to look at Facebook and then say again that "human social reality" is complex. Secondly, if technocrats with devices designed to modulate human behavior are undesirable examples of "progressivism," as Mr. Thornton claims, then the TSA, backscatter X-ray machines, facial recognition, intent monitoring kiosks, unmanned drones, and all of that nonsense are hallmarks of the same. What to do about those?

    • Jim_C

      Come on, Schlomotion. Progressive/liberal/lefty = BAD. No need to think things through!

  • Jim_C

    Society comes at a cost, and people require governing. In creating a culture where liberty is the fundamental value, it is optimal to inculcate values by which we can govern our own natures. But humans are flawed; we still require protection, we require justice, we require enforcement, and we require "commons" wherein these values can be raised and grown (for example, an educational system to create responsible, informed citizens, and infrastructure like roads and transportation systems to keep commerce flowing).

    The progressive era, historically in this country, was a major enhancement to liberty and justice, cemented into our can-do spirit. And the conservatives at the time? They went kicking and screaming.

    Conservatives today are openly contemptuous of the notion of a "commons." Of course, nobody complains when the pork comes to THEIR district. Everybody likes having clean air and water, roads to travel to work on, schools to send their kids to. But God forbid something be posed as being for the common good! Oh no! You must be a "collectivist!" Same knee jerk reactionary response you accuse progressives of. And anyone who's ever read my posts know I'll fess up to any liberal knee jerk reaction. I'm one of the people who thought the Scott Walker recall was a bad idea, mainly because the reaction against him was so knee jerk.

    Progressivism "failed" us? My kids have good schools to attend, clean air to breathe, water to drink, and parks to enjoy. Some "failure."

  • amused

    Well said Jim , Conservatives are expert at maintaining the staus quo , even to their own detriment , hazard and expense . Oh they know things must change …..but "just not right now " .So they make the term "progressive " a perjorative in their lexicon of enemies of the state and world . LOL…whilst they partake in the in the benefits brought about by progressivism .
    I'll give ya a good picture of Conservatives …..way back in the 60's when the Beatles invaded the States , there were small groups of morons /and /or their offspring ,putting them down because of their hair ….they looked like idiots then and they look like idiots now ,and Buckley's turning in his grave over who are calling themselves conservatives , when in realkity they are simply narrow minded self righteous hyporites