Better Humaning

The Problem of Progressivism

"The left is eating its own!"

The Problem of Progressivism

With more and more people talking about “the left cannibalizing itself” and “liberals eating their own,” or how “democrats need to unite to defeat Trump,” we need to keep reminding ourselves and others about the problem of progressivism — instead of just beating the dead horse that is the problems within progressivism.

I’ll start with the second one, because that’s what everyone won’t stop yelling about, and I’m afraid if I don’t do a little yelling you won’t hear me out on the part of this that I think is important.

So here it is, me jumping on the dogpile: the left has some problems, and we’re getting in our own way.

And that is true for the “right,” the “center,” liberals, progressives, leftists, Libertarians, Republicans, and so on.

Literally every political camp has problems. Any collection of humans with a count greater than 0 has problems.

So, why is the trope of “liberals eat their own” so pervasive?

There are a ton of answers to that. Pick your favorite: fear that truly progressive policies are popular, deep-seated White supremacy combined with “demographic shifts,” people repeat things they hear on TV, “but identity politics!” All of those likely carry some-to-a-lot of truth, depending the person spreading the trope in any given moment.

But none of those are are the true Why. The one Why to Rule them All.

The Why of Power is the explanation that won’t change — regardless of trends in policy, activism, and culture — and will forever be relevant. And it’s the thing that makes progressivism distinct from conservatism.

It’s the problem of progressivism. Namely, the problem that progressivism exists to solve.

That problem is simply this: How do we create a future that improves upon our present and our past, without repeating old mistakes?

“How do we go forward?” Not back. Not stay here. Forward. Somewhere different. Somewhere we’ve never been.

To do that, we need new ideas. That’s not just an empty cliché. There is tautologically no way around it.

New ideas are like baby sea turtles born on a wide stretch of beach: vulnerable, easy to attack, and unlikely to survive, but numerous enough that the ones that do survive are enough to help the species flourish.

The turtles who make it to the ocean do so because their siblings die.

Maybe the turtle who made it was slightly faster, slightly better camouflaged, or just luckier than the turtles scuffling around who didn’t. From our view, it would be hard to see them apart.

For every progressive idea-turned-reality that we take for granted now, there were a multitude of ideas that were up against it — an attitudinal race across the beach. And defeating those ideas was necessary for the new idea to survive.

When we talk about “progressive infighting” we’re talking about the very mechanism that makes progress happen.

Most ideas aren’t great ideas. So it’s beneficial that they don’t all make it into the world.

A lot of great ideas get shut down because they’re too early, too scary, or delivered by the wrong messenger. This is the penalty we pay by challenging ideas at all.

We forget about the turtles who didn’t make it. Call it survivorship bias, or blame it on a form of socio-political homeostasis: we quickly adjust to new normals, take things for granted, and forget about the struggle required to birth them.

Look around your world right now. The device you’re reading this on, the place you’re reading it, and everything surrounding you are the byproduct of the ideas that survived. The technology, relative safety, access, agency, and more that are central to your life are gifts of historical progressivism. They’re the turtles that survived.

Every progressive idea that we take for granted now was impossibly naïve, impractical, and — if you were just going by the odds — really shouldn’t exist. Take public libraries for an example.

Why isn’t conservatism afflicted with the same problems as progressivism? Why aren’t we always hearing about “the right eating its own”?

Because modern conservatism is trying to solve a different problem. “How do we not go forward?” Or, in more extreme cases, the problem of “How do we revert back to how things were?”

Progressivism is an external display of vulnerability, while conservatism is a rejection of the vulnerable.

That’s not meant to be an appraisal of progressivism or slam of conservatism. It’s just a characterization of how the two ideologies diverge.

Want to see the difference between these two mentalities play out in a non-political, non-sea-turtle sacrificing way?

Ask a parent of multiple kids what it’s like picking a restaurant.

Progressivism is the parent listing a bunch of different places the family might go for dinner.

Conservatism is the arms-folded, indignant children repeating, “No.” And when asked where they want to go, the one kid who says, “I don’t care, just none of those places,” and the other says, “I want chicken nuggets again.”

If you’re a parent and that example makes you feel worse than a newborn sea turtle, sorry for highlighting your daily trauma.

If you’re a conservative and that example feels like a slam, pick a new restaurant. We’re sick of chicken nuggets.