The Magazine

Providence and the President

George W. Bush's theory of history.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By JAMES W. CEASER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Under its adopted name of liberalism, the Progressive idea supplied the theoretical backbone of the Democratic party up through the 1960s. To read some of Lyndon Johnson's speeches is to have the feeling of looking at a grammar school version of some of John Dewey's writings. Even the term "Great Society" was used by Dewey. Then one day--and looking back, it seems to have occurred almost that suddenly--the great idol of History collapsed. Under the pressure of opposition to the Vietnam War and the accumulation of postmodern thought, the Left abandoned History and chased Progressivism from the temple. A New Left, as it called itself, pronounced the American experiment flawed and argued that American civilization was following a downward course of increasing dehumanization and alienation. The "Port Huron Statement," the manifesto of the New Left, proclaimed, "What we had originally seen as the American Golden Age was actually the decline of an era."

Since the 1960s the Left has struggled, without much success, to find a substitute understanding of the historical experience. One group, the cultural Left, has followed in the footsteps of the New Left, elaborating and perfecting an insistence on decline. Its message, heard daily on any elite college campus, holds that the Enlightenment has been an ongoing violation of the "other" (meaning, as need requires, the third world, minorities, or women) by the "hegemon" (the West, America, whites, or males). A second group, leftist communitarians, has abandoned the intellectuals' customary adversarial posture and now celebrates the American tradition. Communitarians look with acute longing to the American Founding, only to a Founding understood--surprise--as a "share and care" communitarian venture. Finally, a third group of postmodern progressives has concluded that without a belief in Progress, the Left is doomed to irrelevance. Led by the philosopher Richard Rorty, this group recommends going back to the future and recycling the idea of Progress, only with the postmodern stipulation that this idea is nothing more than a compelling story. Liberals today, Rorty says, should spin "a pageant of historical progress," in which they "tell themselves a story about how things might get better." If you build it, they will come.

II.

MODERN CONSERVATISM, meaning the conservatism that took hold of the Republican party with Ronald Reagan, established itself on a different plane from that of History. It has rested on the standard of nature, and conservatives have looked first to permanent principles enshrined in documents like the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, conservative statesmen have recognized that people also expect an account of where things fit into the flow of time. Political leadership must do justice to the experience of history.

But conservatives have been perplexed by the question of History, and their thought and instincts have pulled them in different directions. During the long period of Progressive intellectual dominance, conservative thinkers contested the Doctrine of History, but from opposite ends. Some accepted the idea of Progress, arguing with liberals over how to achieve it. Progress, these conservatives insisted, would be the order of the day if only society abandoned measures of collective planning and put its trust in the forces of the market. Something of this spirit survives in modern libertarian thought.

Other conservatives found fault with the whole idea of Progress. Southern Agrarians referred contemptuously to the "Gospel of Progress," decrying the thinness and materialism of the vision. Others insisted that the Doctrine of History failed to prepare people for the inevitable trials, tribulations, and reversals that were intrinsic to man's experience. Progress was a cheap elixir that sold short-term hope at the expense of longer-term understanding. Who living in the middle of the twentieth century could even begin to square the idea of Progress with the experience of the times? A more sober way of thinking was demanded, one that took account of what many conservatives called the "tragic sense." Some pushed this sense to the point of gloominess. Since tragedy proved the falsity and fatuity of the idea of Progress, it was welcomed as an indispensable companion. Conservatism became associated in some quarters with refusing to accept success for an answer.