The Idea of Progress and the American Dilemma


By Wayne Allensworth

The idea of progress holds that mankind has advanced in the past … is now advancing and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future… The idea of progress is a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is inseparable from a sense of time flowing in a unilinear fashion.

Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress

The 21st Century has been quite a ride, or a nightmare, depending on one’s perspective. At the dawn of the new century, “gay marriage” still seemed a wacky proposition. I doubt very many would have foreseen the wide acceptance of “Drag Queen Story Hour” at school libraries. “Pro-choice” advocates defensively denied that abortion was killing. Some of them even reflexively repeated Bill Clinton’s claim that he wanted abortion to be safe, legal, and rare. And “woke” wasn’t yet a word in our political vocabulary. Our national monuments stood unscathed, and far fewer Americans believed that our history started with, or was defined by, the introduction of black slaves in 1619. The U.S. government could still pretend it was something other than a cover for globalism.

All that changed very rapidly.

The last vestiges of an old America that may have at least given lip service to skepticism about foreign intervention vanished in the smoke at the Twin Towers on 9/11. From then on, as “W” famously put it, America’s godlike role was to “rid the world of evil.” Americans’ collective memory evaporated as they seemed to jettison any grounded sense of identity, parading their bloated militaristic bumper-sticker “Americanism” in massive Hummers. It wouldn’t be long and the American heartland that provided so much cannon fodder for globalism’s conflicts of choice would be sinking in a morass of unemployment, drug addiction, and suicide. “Deaths of despair” belatedly became a subject for discussion. The  monuments started coming down, as “racism” was deemed to be America’s original sin, and slavery somehow a uniquely American or Western crime. “White” became a curse word, “whiteness” a pathological condition. The notion that nations without borders could not really be nations became a controversial position, and the US southern border subsequently was as gone with the wind as isolationism and George Washington’s Farewell address. And there was, no doubt, a thread connecting all those phenomena.

As late as Barrack Obama’s emergence as a national figure, even he denied supporting gay marriage. But that would change very quickly as well. More surprising was how Middle America rapidly adjusted its sights. This observer was shocked — but perhaps not really surprised — at how quickly “gay marriage” was accepted by many, maybe most, Americans, even otherwise conservative people who staunchly voted GOP and idolized Ronald Reagan. When a transvestite creature called Ru Paul was able to host a popular TV program, the stomach-turning truth was there in front of us. Americans would largely accept the absurd “T” in the emergent “LGBTQ” shibboleth. Then, not surprisingly, the mutilations of “trans” children began. “Gays” became unquestioned victims, joining blacks and other supposedly “marginalized” groups in the globalist Pantheon. To be a victim was to be a martyr, a hero to emulate and admire. Our moral universe had been turned upside down. And, again, a thread ran through all this that connected these phenomena with the global bullying, as impotent as it may have been, of the Blob-like Washington-centered empire.

And that thread runs back to the very beginnings of the now defunct republic.

Progress as an American Ideal

Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind, which became an Ur-text for postwar conservatism, and The Roots of American Order, contended that the American War of Independence was fought with conservative aims in mind; namely, preserving the “Rights of Englishmen” that had been hard won through a number of centuries in the British Motherland. That made it different from the French Revolution, which was carried out with very different aims. That’s true. But it’s also true that a decidedly unconservative thread ran through the American Revolution as well. Tom Paine’s radicalism was there as well. And recall that our own Ben Franklin once opined that any state that acknowledged the “Rights of Man” was a philosopher’s homeland.

America was born in the Enlightenment and reflected its values, which included faith in Progress. Progress as in a steady, inexorable, advance of improvement, fought for, but somehow inevitable. Embedded in this faith was a distorted version of Christian salvation within a linear sense of time. Heaven would be an earthly Utopia. Salvation would be a technical achievement with no ultimate limits or understanding of the actual inevitability of tradeoffs. Progress, however, would not always mean betterment and might come with a heavy price. Yet the faith of Progress meant jettisoning not only a sense of balance, but also any humility or doubt. Questioning Progress was a heresy. Any failures of the steady advance occasioned intensifying the dogmas and projects of Progress.

More importantly, and this is the critical point, America was always the Land of Opportunity, more than it was our Homeland, in mythic “Americanism.” The Western frontier myth was gradually made part of a metaphysical aim, the reinvention of the self. A new land for a new self. The Shining City on a Hill that was meant to be an example to the world over time became the revolutionary center of the globalist universe. Our national myth became inextricably wound up in a highly individualistic Progress-oriented view of self-realization. It’s not a great leap from a Land-of-Opportunity/Horatio Alger national myth to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which opened the floodgates and eventually led to the “Great Replacement” invasion ongoing at our southwest border. If America is, indeed, the Land of Opportunity, and the American Dream is an individualistic dream of self-realization, not a Homeland for Americans, then only “racism” would resist opening the candy store’s doors for all. The egalitarian strain in American culture was abstracted and universalized. America was Progress, advancement, change, self-realization, and endless revolution.

None of this was inevitable. Other paths could have been taken, but Lincoln’s great state consolidating crusade, marching to the tune of an idealized “Battle Hymn,” two world wars and ideological warfare (“freedom” and “democracy” vs. “tyranny,” “Capitalism” vs “Socialism”) burned a Whig view of history as endless Progress into the latter-day American Mind.

Progress was linked to economism, which further disconnected American identity from the actual country and its historic experience. America was great not because she was ours, but because she was more prosperous, providing material comforts at a higher level than other countries. Patriotism was reduced to material and technological bragging rights, especially during the Cold War competition with the Soviets. “Freedom” didn’t simply mean political liberty. In that idea of Progress was born the ideology of universal humanity’s progression toward perfection, of “breaking down barriers,” and “being all you can be.” America was engaged in a contest of revolutions, Capitalist and Socialist, with the Soviets. Which revolution would be more successful?

The Cold War as Progressive Crusade (The End of History)

The revolutionary aspect of the Cold War competition had been present from its start. But the role of neo-conservatism in Reaganism baked Progress into the conservative cake once and for all. Neoconservatives jettisoned any signs of foreign policy realism for a messianic global crusade for “democratic capitalism,” and they soon became indistinguishable in a practical sense from neoliberals, who also embraced capitalism as the revolutionary engine of change. Ronald Reagan himself stated the revolutionary creed at Moscow State University in 1988: “Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuous revolution of the marketplace.” Here’s Reagan on America as a universal nation (it was a short step from this to “diversity is our strength”): “America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of, but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.” There is no evidence in these words of any notion of America as an historical nation. And without that notion, foreign policy becomes a matter of mission, not national interests.

The myth of WWII as the “good war” had already taken us a long way down that road. In the myth, America had not fought the Axis because she was attacked, but to combat “Fascism,” which turned out to be a mantra that would be useful at home for the nascent globalist elite in discrediting atavistic “isolationism,” deemed a fellow-traveling ideology of Fascism. Americans, so the myth went, had fought Fascism, a collectivist antipode to radical individualism, because it was the enemy of Progress. American messianism was, and is, real.

The next shoe dropped in 1989, when Francis Fukuyama published an essay in The National Interest, an essay that would become a widely discussed book, one that was a blueprint of sorts for globalism. The book, published in 1992, was The End of History and the Last Man.

What Fukuyama posited wasn’t that all struggle, strife, and achievement—what most of us think of as “history”—would end, but that human development had reached its endpoint. As Fukuyama saw it, the apex of the evolution of mankind’s social, economic, and political development had been attained in liberal democracy or “democratic capitalism,” concepts that have since morphed into what we recognize today as “woke” politics and corporate globalism. A post national elite that had evolved during the Cold War emerged as the dominant force politically and economically in the West. That elite trumpeted the victory of “liberal democratic capitalism” over Communism.

Post-national elites disdained the nation-state, which the global managers envisioned withering away as transnational institutions and a new, global citizenry displaced distinct peoples and national identities. According to the globalist gospel, consumerism would satisfy every human need, and the masses would settle into their role as cogs in a vast economic machine, one unimpeded by traditional boundaries, moral precepts, and oppressive social institutions. The Cold War had been a struggle of alternative developmental models and democratic capitalism had won. Now, the rest of the world would, perhaps in fits and starts, accept that as the only viable developmental path. End of History ideology tread ground covered by Hegel, then by Marxism’s dialectical materialism, putting its own gloss on “history” as a dialectic.

So went the theory. And so went conservatism, now simply one arm of an official ideological spectrum that ran no further to the right than neoconservatism and in time merging with neoliberalism, which became an important component in a technocratic alliance of leftist and rightist Western elites. The language of Progress was built into neo-conservatism and inevitably became the mold for popular conservatism, one that did not break entirely with Donald Trump’s emergence on the political scene.

Americans as Progressives

Americans believe in Progress with a capital “P.” If you want to know why resistance to globalist wokeism has been relatively feeble, why “gay marriage” and the LGBTQ agenda has gone so far — it’s now a pillar of US foreign policy, for example — why even in red states the abomination that is abortion has constitutional protection following the overturning ofRoe vs. Wade, there is your answer. It’s an old idea, as Ribert Nisbet pointed out, but it became a core, even foundational, idea in the West and in our culture.

For years, as an example, young me found it hard to fathom why protecting the American environment, its natural beauty and its wildlife, had been ceded by conservatives practically in its entirety to the left. In pave-over-everything, don’t-get-in-the-way of Progress (that word again) America, it seemed to me that environmental protection was a profoundly conservative issue, as it was in a number of other countries. The devolution of American conservatism, such as it was, to economism was a done deal, as they say. “Growth” and “development” were corollaries to Progress.

“Change” in the American political vocabulary means “Progress” and “Progress” means improvement, no questions asked. No one wants to be seen as backward, and heaven forbid that one indulges in nostalgia, or holds out in the belief that change does not necessarily mean improvement and can mean quite the opposite. The ideology of Progress has us in its tight, and deadly, grip.

Americans, I think, are mostly progressives of one stripe or another, and by that I don’t mean reformers in a Teddy Roosevelt sense. I mean they believe in their bones that the past is dead, that the future is a blank slate on which a never-ending progression toward mankind’s control and dominance of the world and of nature itself will inevitably be written, and that each step away from the past’s dead hand is a good one. That reinvention is the ideal, and self-realization the goal. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” is not for them. Utopia beckons in one form or another.

Small wonder that the forces of Progress overwhelm them psychologically, even when their instincts might take them somewhere else.

What Comes Next?

A fairly large number of us instinctively know that we are on a disastrous course. What we lack is a conceptual approach to looking at our dilemma or understanding what is happening to us. So, we fall into the trap of using the enemy’s egalitarian progressive language, undercutting our own solid instincts. Or into the morass of Flat-Earth craziness.

If conservatism means anything now, if we mean to rebuild something once the Blob fails, or even if we simply try to distance ourselves as much as possible from it, then Progress as an ideological, religious dogma must be rejected root and branch. Americans’ reflexive progressivist optimism — and I do not mean the “can-do” spirit that has served us well — must be replaced by hard realism. 

We have no other choice.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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