So, with Christmas quickly approaching and the UK parliament backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill, things look incredibly precarious for supporters of progressivism. Not only did the Conservative party win the recent general election with a landslide majority of 80 seats (their largest majority since 1987), but the UK electorate appears to have denounced progressive politics outright. Opposition parties and touters of progressive values The Labour Party and The Lib Dems witnessed an abysmal performance, with Jeremy Corbyn bemoaning a “very disappointing night” and vowing to not fight a future election. Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, lost her own seat. Both parties saw their number of seats ebb and serious questions swell concerning how this happened.
There will, of course, be questions concerning what impact the political patronage offered by major UK newspapers had in affecting the election result. Moreover, the question of what side of the wall each party falls on in the Brexit debate will be increasingly germane. These points notwithstanding, The Labour Party and The Liberal Democrats played the progressivism card, and it proved mortifying for the electorate. But why did progressivism wallow and conservatism prevail?
The progressive politics of The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats included, to varying degrees, the redistribution of wealth, the safeguarding of the climate, the reverence of religious and ethnic difference, equalitarianism (particularly feminism), and the quibbling about millionaires and billionaires.
By contrast, the conservativism of 2019 exemplifies affluence, mediocrity, isolationism, proto-Christianity, and a cavil type of classicism. This type of conservativism was foreseen by Friedrich Nietzsche, who anticipated our current cultural and political climate. He warned that Europe’s swelling democratic states would descend into parochialism and mass hysteria. The philosopher even damned Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who unified Germany in the late 19th century, for accruing power by stirring nationalist resentments and appealing to racial purity.
True, the major conservatives in politics today may well have eschewed any clearcut racial puritanism, but nationalist purity has become the byword of any electable conservative party.
The galling reality of 2019 and surely 2020 is that progressivism is not so clearly different from its conservative foe. Not only do they stand hand-in-hand in their parochiality and just as quick to parade their classicism, but the reality is that both fail to go beyond conventional values.
Ask anyone to nail down what “progressivism” means, and they will likely say, right off the bat, “a commitment to gender and racial equality”. It will be a hard sell not to agree that this should always be what is crucial about progressivism, but the griping and accusatory fashion by which progressive proponents carry themselves has failed on these fronts. True, progressive politics has procured many a wonderful victory in such areas, but there is a sense that although the old ‘malefactors’ are not the new, fortunately, there are still malefactors. In other words, out goes the misogyny and attacks on people of colour, but in goes the misandry and vilification of white people owing to their putative ‘privilege’.
If we accept that progressivism is a movement that enacts a ‘going-beyond’ conventional values, or at least to some degree, surely this must be the yardstick by which we judge movements that play the progressivism card. While the Tories trumpet a new beginning for the UK in a non-EU era, even if their ambitions are ethically criminal, a lack of persuasiveness in the conservative fold will be hard sought.
For those who are big believers of progressivism, there is growing disenchantment whether it will be able to recover anytime soon. Two fulcrum issues that progressives need to ask themselves are: 1) how do we inspire people out of their political doldrums, and 2) how do we go beyond conventional values and initiate the road less travelled.
Franklin Roosevelt once remarked that “Progressivism…is fundamentally the attempt to mould social life in the light of the best available knowledge and in the interest of a humane ideal. It lives by the definite formulation of convictions, by the initiation of specific programs and by the creation of opportunities to try them out.” This is the prime exemplar of what progressivism needs to be in 2020. Any remonstrations, of course, that claim that progressives, by and large, do appeal to the best available knowledge will surely by foolheaded. After all, knowledge is now seen as a weapon for structural power and hence worthy of censorship.
Conservatism is rooted in preservation; progressivism advances alteration. “These are different love languages” once remarked New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow. Now, and arguably more pressingly than ever, we have to make a rudimentary decision who we wish to be bedfellows with. After all, only one will truly wind down the doldrums of an increasingly bloated political elite.