Conservatism and Progressivism in American Politics

American political and social life is driven primarily by two interests that are made to be reconcilable. For one, there are commercial interests based on money and the accumulation of wealth. In the past, writers and observers of American politics such as the famous Alexis De Tocqueville have argued that the character of the “American Spirit” is based entirely on the pursuit of money. Also, many enterprising individuals or groups will convert commercial and financial power into intellectual and social endeavors through involvement with civic and religious groups in order to put a gloss on their business activities.

            Nevertheless, what distinguishes American life from the cultures and lifestyles of all other countries is its seemingly classless and egalitarian social structure whereby individualism and social equality enables the free pursuit of individual interests in a largely independent manner. There are, however, certain pitfalls associated with a society based on equality and independence, as mentioned by Alexis De Tocqueville in perhaps the most famous book ever written about American life titled “Democracy in America.” For one, an egalitarian and independent society can trek into chaos. Or, because of a general apathy towards politics within society, opportunistic groups within government such as the “neoconservatives” of the early 21st century can try to centralize power and subject the public to an overbearing state apparatus. As Tocqueville wrote, the older a democracy gets, the chances of heavily centralized power increases.

            Given our heavily militarized state – and given that much of what we consider to be “political grievances” in American society actually amount to nothing more than personal frustrations – the trend is heading more towards the hyper-centralization of power rather than anarchy and chaos. The general trend towards hyper-centralization of power in America has also been highlighted by some contemporary thinkers such as Niall Ferguson and Francis Fukuyama. Human nature dictates that those who seek to centralize power are self-interested like anyone else, with little to no regard for the prosperity and well-being of most people. Those who are entrenched in power mainly through bureaucratic avenues are concerned merely with adventurism and “flights of fancy” to borrow from Andrew Bacevich, which in turn leads to fraud, waste, and abuse of power

            To illustrate this point, one need not to go further than basic statistics pertaining to government spending in recent times. According to some estimates, about 70 to 80 percent of government spending in America has nothing to do with internal economic and social development. Based on a recent study by the Watson Institute at Brown University, America has spent approximately 6.5 trillion dollars on the Middle East and Asia since 2001. Also, much of this money has been borrowed from sources like China and must be paid back with interest. Thus, the Bush-era seizures of power in the post-9/11 period and the hyper-centralization of power by a handful of people within the American bureaucracy can only be reversed through immense civic activism and widespread awareness of what actually occurred in the corridors of power over the last two decades.

            What occurred at the top in the last couple of decades has also led to immense polarization within the two-party system of American politics. But as Morris Fiorina and Matthew Levendusky have shown through their research, there is little evidence that polarization is occurring within the broader American public. Rather, the polarization within American politics is largely limited to the political class and is exacerbated by the mainstream media. In general, the views of the American public are becoming more similar rather than different, and most Americans hold a mix of traditional and modern views, whereas the political class and the mainstream media is starkly divided. As a result, there is a significant disconnect between the American people on one hand and the people who claim to represent the American public within the bureaucracy, political parties, and the mainstream media. These three entities – namely, the bureaucracy, political parties, and the mainstream media – make up what is known as “The Iron Triangle” in American politics. This “Iron Triangle” is heavily entrenched in Washington and it maintains its power primarily through the creation of echo chambers and the denial of public trends.

As Joseph Nye wrote, Congress responds to “squeaky wheels,” and as a result the extreme and vociferous elements of both parties garner more attention than the moderates. On one hand, the Republican party is being dragged towards radical populism which manifests into a disdain for non-whites and an urge to dismantle the American government. On the other hand, the Democratic party is on track to turn the United States into a welfare state which in turn will put an immense strain on business and entrepreneurship. Radical and irrational prescriptions are being proposed for complex problems and issues by the two major political parties in the United States, and as a result most Americans are somewhat alienated by the political process. Michael Lind made a keen observation of where most Americans actually stand vis-à-vis the directionality of the two political parties by stating that “there is a large base of independent-minded and alienated voters who, along with enlightened business leaders, may support a forward-looking political agenda that does not fit comfortably into today’s Democratic and Republican parties.”

            Due to competing interests and the institutional processes embedded within the American system of governance, changes and reforms are designed to be incremental. Thus, as a result of our experience with the coronavirus whereby one-third of the American economy vanished overnight, building a safety net for small businesses and workers over the next few years should serve as the foundation for broader reforms pertaining to issues such as foreign policy, fiscal policy, the appointment of judges, and the reestablishment of public trust in government in the coming years and decades.

            Despite the transformation of the two established political parties in recent years at the hands of their extreme elements, the roots of the two political parties in the United States rest within historic philosophical traditions which in turn prompt both the conservative and progressive movements. Thus, within the American political and social context, it would be helpful to understand the aims and objectives of both the conservative and progressive movements in the United States in order to gain a broader understanding of American politics as a whole.

            As far as conservatism in the United States is concerned, it equates to what Andrew Bacevich called an “ethos or disposition” with a set of principles or tenets such as individual liberty, sanctity of private property, limited government, fiscal responsibility, cultural preservation, the enabling of free markets, and a deep suspicion for utopian ideologies such as Maoism or Marxism. Furthermore, conservatism in the United States is about the preservation of a way of life and a way of thinking in the face of superfluous change and modernity. In a nutshell, conservatism aims at what is “possible,” not what is ideal, given that human nature and thus the human condition is imperfect and as a result utopia on earth is unattainable despite subjective notions of “change” and “progress.”

War and inequality are inherent flaws of the human condition which cannot be remedied through revolution because human nature is inherently corrupt, according to conservative thought. In terms of today’s conservative movement in the United States as represented by the Republican party, it is for the most part a combination or “fusion” of corporate elites and grassroots social conservative voters. During election seasons, Republicans usually put forth candidates who appeal to grassroots social conservatives, but when elected, these candidates and elected officials immediately cater to big money interests through passing deregulation measures and tax cuts that do not benefit the average voter.

On the other hand, America’s progressive movement rose in the early 1900’s, and its rise coincided with America’s transition from an agricultural era to an industrial era. During this “Progressive Period,” several historic reforms were passed through legislation which were aimed at holding big money interests accountable to the people. Perhaps the key idea behind America’s progressive movement is that the earth’s wealth and natural resources can be used for the betterment of all people, not just a few. Due to an immanent transition from an industrial era to a digital era on a global scale, we are perhaps on the verge of a renewed progressive movement similar to the one that had been spurred in the early 1900’s. Unlike conservatives, pragmatic progressives believe change and progress are possible but only in a gradual and incremental manner, not through revolution as suggested by radical progressives and Marxists. Whereas conservatives dismiss structural changes and reforms through the state as being futile and ineffective in prompting changes to human nature – which conservatives generally view as being inherently corrupt and static – progressives often tend to view human nature as something that is capable of changing and evolving through the right kind of action, effort, structural changes, and reforms.

In reality, however, both political parties and thus both the conservative and progressive movements in the United States are stymied by what former President Dwight Eisenhower called “The Military-Industrial Complex” and as a result both parties and movements are shells of what they used to be due to the hyper-centralization of power at the hands of this “Military-Industrial Complex,” which is comprised of a handful of military officials, intelligence officials, and weapons manufacturers. The benefits of this overseas enterprise are accrued by a few, not the many. Eugene Debs, an anti-war activist in the early 20th century, once said: “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles…”

As Eisenhower said in his “Farewell Address” in 1961, the “total influence” of the “Military-Industrial Complex” on not only political and economic life but also spiritual life in the United States “is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” Correcting the imbalance between the interests of the “Military-Industrial Complex” on one hand and popular interests on the other hand – which in turn would enable the establishment of a social safety net for all Americans – will be the most challenging and most crucial political and social endeavor of our time. There is thus no mystery as to why the late great Martin Luther King Jr. – after addressing the issue of civil rights – immediately shed light on the excesses of the “Military-Industrial Complex” shortly before his assassination in 1968.

But based on actual political and social trends, America is becoming more progressive but in a moderate sense rather than a radical sense, with classic liberalism and conservatism against the ropes and on the defensive. As John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira have written, this new “Democratic Majority” is unique in the sense that it “does not represent a radical or aggressively left-wing response to conservatism, but a moderate accommodation with what were once radical movements.” In general, what is emerging within the American body politic is an entirely new bloc of activists and voters which Michael Lind has called “The Radical Center.” This “Radical Center” is comprised largely of Generation X and Millennial voters who resist being dragged into either pole of today’s political environment. Lind also argues that there is a national consciousness or identity developing in America which in turn is gradually discarding white supremacist ideas and thoughts.

In a nutshell, the “Radical Center” – which is comprised largely of disaffected voters, workers, and business leaders from all races and religions – want evolution rather than revolution or the overthrow of established political institutions and systems. The “Radical Center” also seeks to break the monopoly of the two established political parties in favor of a more pluralistic system along Northern and Western European lines. In order to make the political parties more representative of the American people in general rather than being mere echo chambers for a small slice of politicians and media talking heads, the majority bloc of Americans either have to create a third party or take over one of the established political parties, according to Lind. Regardless of how this majority bloc organizes and proceeds, it appears as though a new kingmaker is about to emerge within American politics.

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