What does progressive conservatism mean? Labels can confuse more than they clarify, and sometimes they lie. People asked how Obamacare could raise healthcare costs. It was labeled the “Affordable Care Act.” And how could the mobs in Portland be dangerous? They call themselves anti-fascists.
Similarly, the progressive label is often dishonest. Is it progressive to sneer at working class people and call them deplorable? And if the self-styled progressive is intolerant, what’s progressive about that? He’s given up on the liberal’s free speech rights and searches out thought crimes with the goal of canceling people and getting them fired. There’s even something a little passé about the label. Not so long ago, it meant Enlightenment principles and left-wing economic policies such as Medicare for all, but today’s progressive has reverted to the premodern identity politics of tribe against tribe, race against race, that is destructive of democratic dialogue.
Old-fashioned Democrats would have been horrified at this. They were patriots who supported free markets and fought to expel communists from their party. With progressive Republicans they helped heal their country’s racism and sexism. Unlike todays leftists, they defended Western civilization and weren’t cultural barbarians. They stood up for what was right, did great things, and their errors (the Great Society) were mistakes of the mind and not the heart.
Their passing has left a hole in American politics. But if today’s Democratic Party has given up on those older values, so much the worse for them. If they turn every question into one of race, let the Republicans be the party of all lives matter and the common good. If the Left has bought into cancel culture, let the GOP defend free speech and the free exercise of religion together with old-fashioned Democrats who have been abandoned by their party.
Right-wingers detest the progressive label without knowing a great deal about it. They trace the modern regulatory state all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt’s embrace of administrative agencies and think that that’s when it all went to hell. But then a lot of things needed regulating 120 years ago. The municipal corruption and slum conditions described by muckraking journalists such as Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Roosevelt’s friend Jacob Riis would disturb everyone today. No one would want to go back to the unregulated meatpacking industry portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Right-wingers are Manicheans who see things in terms of black or white, but the attempt to read everything malign into progressivism distorts it “as if through a fun-house mirror,” in the words of Ken Kersch. In truth, there was no one progressive movement but a variety of them. Some were recognizably left of center, such as that of Herbert Croly (1869–1930) with his mistrust of “extreme individualism” and faith in centralized government and scientific planning by a body of experts. Others, especially the western agrarians, were conservative and individualistic and more Jeffersonian than the Hamiltonian Croly. What they wanted, and what every conservative wants today, was a mobile society where everyone who puts in the effort can get ahead.
The conservative strain in progressivism arose in the west, the land of free soil and free labor where the Republican Party was born, and found its champion in the first great progressive historian, Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932). What made Turner both a conservative and a progressive was his celebration of democracy and freedom, which he said were the gifts of the frontier. Our history was forged not in Jamestown or Boston but in Stephen Vincent Benét’s Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat and the way in which America had constantly reinvented itself in its restless movement westward, even as the dude became Mark Hanna’s “damn cowboy” when Theodore Roosevelt bought a ranch in the North Dakota badlands.
American history has been cast as a struggle over race, between North and South. By contrast, progressive conservatism asks us to reimagine our history as a contest between eastern and western states. Eastern states were corrupt, undemocratic, and immobile, said Turner, while western states were the repository of republican virtue, democratic, and mobile. They had to be to attract the settlers they needed, and so they competed for people by offering them fresh starts, free land, and egalitarianism. They gave women the franchise, enacted initiative and referendum laws, and supported the popular election of senators under the Seventeenth Amendment. They liked competition and didn’t think there was enough of it back east. All this came to define the American Dream, the idea that there were boundless possibilities of self-improvement in this country. In time, the eastern states that were losing people to the west began to compete for people by liberalizing themselves. It all came from the west.
If progressivism lacks a clear meaning, conservatism isn’t better defined. You might think that, if nothing else, conservatives would oppose radical change, but progressive conservatives sound like revolutionaries when they talk about taking back the culture. The Left’s long march through our institutions has silenced and excluded conservatives, and progressive conservatives say we should break up the monasteries. That’s progressive, but it’s not how conservatives used to think. Evidently, progressive conservatism represents a blending of former labels.
Progressive conservatives support our country’s free-market economic institutions. But if conservatism means a bias against change and innovation, the label doesn’t fit free market progressive conservatives. Nothing is more radical than the way in which free competition promotes mobility by churning our economic institutions, burying one corporate behemoth after another in what Joseph Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Trump was a progressive conservative when he objected to trade treaties that subject American firms to unfair foreign competition, but he didn’t attack free market capitalism. That job he left for the Democrats.
Progressive conservatism is a well-understood term in our sister democracies. There it means a conservatism that is alive to changed circumstances that call for reform and that is unwilling to let the party of the Left become the sole agent of progress.
Edmund Burke was the founder of modern conservatism, but that didn’t make him a reactionary. Like his fellow Whigs, he supported the post-1689 British constitution, urged conciliation when American Patriots were on the verge of revolt, and backed Catholic Emancipation in Ireland. It’s not enough to look backward, he thought, and society must incorporate a principle of progress. “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” And like all progressives, Burke loathed corruption in government and prosecuted Warren Hastings, the governor of Bengal, for exploiting his office. But if he wasn’t a reactionary, neither was he a modern progressive who scorns the past. Wise policy, he said, always looks back to our heritage in charting a course for the future. “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
That was a progressive conservative.
You’ll not find abstract theories of government in Burke. He didn’t think they existed and mocked anyone who thought they did. Instead, he said, a statesman should be guided by his sense of his country’s identity and the circumstances before him, the people to be persuaded, and the obstacles to be overcome. He thought Britain should make peace with the American colonists not because he agreed with their principles but because he thought it imprudent to make war upon them. Questions of sovereignty and inalienable rights were quite beside the point.
The progressive conservative is curious about people and how they fare, not theories. Like William Butler Yeats’s Seven Sages, he’ll learn from those who have walked the roads and mimicked what they heard. In 1822 this was William Cobbett, a progressive Tory who wanted to travel from Kensington to Uphusband to report on the lives of ordinary Englishmen. By coach he could have done so in eight hours, but he decided against this. “My object was, not to see inns and turnpike-roads, but to see the country, to see the farmers at home, and to see the laborers in the fields; and to do this you must go either on foot or on horse-back.” The result was Rural Rides, an account of the agricultural distress and ministerial corruption that he learned about from his rambles.
Then, in the 19th century, a distinct school of progressive conservatism arose, led by Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister of Great Britain in 1868 and from 1874–80. In the 1840s, he created the modern progressive conservative Tory party by opposing the free trade policies of the Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Party. Like Trump, Disraeli thought free market orthodoxies had ignored the plight of forgotten classes of his fellow citizens, and these included not only Britain’s farmers but also the industrial worker in the new factory towns. In Sybil, Disraeli said England was divided into two nations:
Between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. … The Rich and the Poor.
Right-left distinctions often make little sense when imposed on the past, but to the extent they do, Disraeli was on the left of Peel’s Conservative Party. His fellow conservatives wanted nothing to do with English radicals, but Disraeli signaled his sympathy with them. “Although we do not approve of the remedy suggested by the Chartists, it does not follow that we should not attempt to cure the disease complained of.” And a year before Friedrich Engels shocked readers with his description of the wretchedness of East End London in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), Disraeli had written no less passionately about economic inequality. (READ MORE from F.H. Buckley: Defying the Desecrators)
Then, like Trump, Disraeli campaigned on issues that his opponents thought they had owned. As prime minister, he extended the franchise to all adult male heads of households in the 1867 Reform Bill. If Peel thought the Tory Party should make its peace with the middle class, Disraeli proposed a different national party based on an alliance between the country’s farmers and the then-disenfranchised poor. Since electoral reform was going to happen anyway, some thought this cynical. Yet it was simply an application of the ideas he had put forward years before, in Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), and in stealing the issue from Gladstone’s Liberals he had “dished the Whigs,” as Trump was to do in 2016.
Like Trump, Disraeli was also a nationalist who understood that this imposed a duty to promote the common good and the well-being of all fellow citizens and not simply a favored few:
I have always considered that the Tory party was the national party of England. It is not formed of a combination of oligarchs and philosophers who practice on the sectarian prejudices of a portion of the people. It is formed of all classes, from the highest to the most homely, and it upholds a series of institutions that are in theory, and ought to be in practice, an embodiment of the national requirements and the security of the national rights.
What Disraeli had created was a socially conservative and economically centrist Tory party, the ancestor of Trump’s Republican Party. He had taken the Whig’s issues away from them, just as Trump had done in dishing the Democrats in 2016.
It was in Canada, however, that Progressive Conservatism really took hold, and this became the name of the official Tory party from 1942 to 2003. The 1942 name-change came when the Tories offered the party leadership to the leader of the western agrarian Progressive Party. The current Conservative party, created in 2003, was formed on the merger of the Progressive Conservatives with the Canadian Alliance Party, whose roots lay in another western progressive movement. There, as here, the west saw itself as an open society, egalitarian and untainted by eastern privilege and corruption.
That is progressive conservatism, in the two countries we most closely resemble. We are presidential in our system of government and they are parliamentary, but all three have a tradition on the Right that wins elections when it defaults to progressive conservatism.
F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at Scalia Law School.
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