In this brief essay I want to focus a little closer on social progressivism. First though, we need to lay out some preliminaries. The idea of a cluster of social issues is problematic in the very first instance. As Charles Cooke has pointed out in his book, “The Conservatarian Manifesto,” there is no logical connection between the various issues that are considered “social.” Under the general umbrella of social issues have been gathered, abortion, gay rights/marriage, transgenderism, drugs, the death penalty, gun control, evolution/creation, stem cell research (this issue has faded more recently, but one could add cloning). Just from the listing one could see how problematic it is. I could be opposed to abortion, but for gay marriage, and against the death penalty, and support gun control, or I could hold vice versa or any other combination. There are some people who are very consistent on each side, but I think most, more or less, have varying degrees on positions. But the main point I want to make is that there is no logical connection of social issues. Instead, what I want to focus on is the particular moral stance that is at the core of social progressivism, and that animates how a progressive would take an approach to the various political issues of his or her time, regardless of what issues are considered to be “social.”
Jonathan Merritt had a recent column in which he argued that moral relativism had been superseded by a new moral that is at the center of much of our cultural life. He argues that the core moral, what I would argue would be that of social progressivism, is discrimination, and more particularly anti-discrimination. This would be the oppressor/oppressed axis that Arnold Kling discusses in his book “The Three Languages of Politics.” That axis is the lens through which progressives see the world around them. Thus, the oppressor discriminates against the oppressed, and this must be rectified. Hence, the Christian baker, of my previous post, is the oppressor discriminating against the oppressed, and the state has the obligation to make sure that this discrimination does not take place.
In the last couple of years we have seen movements on college campuses for safe spaces, complaints of “microaggressions,” and other anti-free speech protests. These are anything but liberal protests. This is a movement that is against free speech because it is believed that free speech only benefits the “oppressor,” or those who currently hold power. Thus, speech must be regulated to ensure that speech power is equalized, and “bad” forms of speech are eliminated from the common lexicon. All forms of heresy must be suppressed. These kinds of views are closer to Puritanism than to any kind of modern liberalism. Discrimination is key here, because these all reflect views of the powerless, those who have been discriminated against and oppressed.
This is why it is my contention that progressive leftists are actually closer to some forms of conservatism that seek to force people to live by certain religious standards, than to genuine liberalism that seeks toleration in society for various lifestyles and beliefs. The point for liberalism is that the state is neutral towards the good life because the state is agnostic towards the good life. People may or may not be agnostic, but the state is because the state has now immediate way of determining what the good life is. The only thing the state can do is enforce one particular type of good life, or none at all. Now are there some goods that the state must protect? Yes, and these goods that it protects is what allows people to pursue their own ends, without state interference. And this is what I want to move my focus towards next time. We have to determine what is both necessary and sufficient to have a free society. What are the institutions and norms required to achieve and maintain a society that is generally and equally free for its members.
P.S. I want to add before closing, that the argument has often been made by conservatives that America is becoming much less moral, and is on the path to losing all moral notions and ending in moral nihilism. However, I hope this essay has made clear that exactly the opposite has been happening. If anything we have been becoming more moralistic, not less. Morals have shifted, but have not gone away. In many(if not most) cases, these morals have deep Christian roots, but have been reshaped and rethought around the progressive axis.