It is well-known that Wisconsin Progressives were born out of the Republican Party in the early part of the 20th century. Less well-known is that there is a strain of American conservatism that is opposed to Wall Street sorts of corporate greed and pure free-market ideology, against threats to civil liberties, while supporting the health of local economies and local institutions, both public and private. It’s called “conservative communitarianism.” There is also an anti-war faction of conservatism, perhaps best represented in the pages and pixels of The American Conservative. You won’t hear much talk of such conservatism on the mainstream media, which tends to sell oversimplification for the sake of selling.
If you put these two conservative positions together, you get, essentially, contemporary progressivism, except that the communal/anti-war conservatives are not fond of federal assistance for the poor and elderly.
Two recent columns shed more light on just what conservative communitarianism is, one by Ed Kilgore in The Washington Monthly, and a response to Kilgore by Samuel Goldman in The American Conservative. Here is how Goldman explains one difference between progressives and communitarian conservatives:
“When progressives and some libertarians consider a pastor, philanthropist, or local worthy, they see a would-be boss whose illegitimate power is derived from social capital rather than financial capital. Communitarian conservatives, on the other hand, see authority rooted in place and tradition, and based on enduring cooperation rather than a momentary calculus of interests . . . For communitarian conservatives, liberty means civil freedom tempered by social interdependence and moral restraint.”
Goldman is, I think, saying that the progressive would replace “social interdependence and moral restraint” with a radical individualism, a secular moral relativism (and oppressive government.) But what about the progressive pastor? Or the creation of local business cooperatives? Or the interdependence and morality of civil rights? Or a corporation whose failure to act upon local communitarian values and an innate sense of moral restraint requires the EPA to protect citizens from harm? Or what about local citizens working together to do what the EPA is failing to do?
So a communitarian conservative wants to conserve civil freedoms and the health of his or her local world, and so does a progressive. But the conservative sees no role for government, and the progressive sees no role for religion, but, of course, that’s way too simple. We all honor, to some degree, place and tradition, but if we take love of place and tradition to an extreme, we cannot look beyond our own parochial and privileged positions. And we all, except perhaps for the strictest anarchists, see the value in having various governments to do, or help do, what even the strongest communities cannot.
Progressives and conservatives ought to be conserving things together, ought to be opposed to factory farms and other corporate abuses while conserving civil and achieving human rights for all. (And where, by the way, is the conservative outcry against damaging kinds of new technologies?) We all want responsible, humane government, not corrupt, oppressive, violent government just as we all want responsible businesses and responsible schools. And we all recognize that individuals have responsible roles to play whatever their personal circumstances may be, while understanding that some need more community and government help than others.
My point is that the political terms we throw around can unnecessarily and harmfully obscure what we have in common as well as define crucial differences.
- The history of the left-right divide: A centuries-old argument defines our politics, and offers a way forward (salon.com)
- The Big Society, Neo-liberalism and the Rediscovery of the social in British Politics (reclaimingthesocial.wordpress.com)
- New Book: Toward an American Conservatism: Constitutional Conservatism during the Progressive Era (volokh.com)