The Images of Progressive Citizenship

I have written elsewhere that the primary task of the Progressive state is the rearing of good citizens.  In this way Progressives participate in a very ancient conversation about citizen virtues and the common good.  To understand them well, one ought to pay close attention to the cave wall, to the images and ideals they craft in order to play on widely accepted moral principles and, then, to alter or shape those principles in an ongoing reeducation campaign. Progressivism is, first and foremost, a moral vision and its power rests squarely on how compelling democratic citizens find that moral vision.  The rearing of good citizens requires, as a result, first deceiving citizens by “framing” policy alternatives in such a way as to tap into the linguist moral resources of the people and then, second, altering the moral framework by steady efforts at reeducation by several key institutions like the media, the judiciary, higher education, but especially government schools.

Progressives operate with a very modern almost Rousseauian anthropology in which they assume humans to be naturally good but corrupted by society.  Understanding their anthropology and how Progressives conceive of the relationship among individuals, society, and government are essential to understanding both their objectives and their strategy.  Diverse “private” interests, they believe, introduce a corrupting selfish individualism that robs people of their natural fellow-feeling and sense of natural community.  Private interests foster hierarchy and dependence—dependence of the personal variety, making one person or family dependent on another person or family.  In the industrial age this dependence became cold and abstract, with workers dependant on a class of industrialists or capitalists.  The story has remained the same in our information age and more globalized economy. Self-reinforcing economic hierarchies are the primary sources of moral corruption because they promote selfishness, inequality, and debased forms of dependence. The corrupting nature of this economic system deforms all participants and therefore alienates people from their natural selves—from their own goodness or virtue.

This economic system, the Progressive account goes, is abetted by a social system that privileges associations that separate people, that instill unnatural habits and prejudices.  Families may be useful in rearing children, but as often as not they perpetuate bad beliefs and tell stories about the gods or about history that corrupt the young.  Churches, the Boy Scouts, Rotary clubs, or any number of associations perpetuate divisive and destructive ideas as well as provide a set of ideas—drawn from this corrupted history and religion—that reinforce the exploitative economic system.  As a result, however empowered by the vote citizens might be in theory, the social and economic system in which they live has successfully distorted their view of the nature of things and therefore turned natural virtue into social corruption.  Unable to see things as they are or should be, citizens require reeducation.

If democratic citizens were in touch with their natural (their real) selves, they would vote in such a way as to express their civic virtue.  This is an article of faith for contemporary Progressives as is evidenced in the works of people like George Lakoff and Thomas Frank.  From their perspective the first task in rearing citizens is to deploy political language in such a way as to “frame” the issues so that citizens recognize that their natural interests are aligned with Progressivism.  Non-progressives have so successfully adopted the charmed vocabulary (e.g., freedom and equality) of American political life that Progressives must consciously and carefully frame their issues in such a way as to “take back” these words.  So, the first step in the rearing of virtuous citizens is for Progressives to become savvy with how they present the images on the wall—words and images that guide people back to their natural instincts in spite of decades of social and linguistic corruption.

Closely related to linguistic framing, Progressives seek to control the story, the history, the myth of America.  The Progressive tale of America incorporates two themes.  The first is that America has a long history of exploitation.  The second is that the American story is nonetheless progressive because governmental centralization has made possible a greater measure of equality, freedom and justice for previously exploited groups.  The Progressive account of America depends on associating government activism with equality and justice and, by contrast, private and social institutions with inequality and injustice.  Controlling the production of American history (controlling how the story of America’s past is told) instructs citizens to associate themselves with the progressive forces of government activism and it allows Progressives to employ nonsense like claims about being on “the right side of history” in their defense of changes they propose for America.

Both the linguistic framing and the historical myth-making are central to the Progressive effort to rear virtuous citizens.  Without a story to which one can belong, without an account of how America became what it is, then the ideals Progressives propagate are too abstract.  But when America is a story with good guys and bad guys, and a story where the trajectory is clear, then citizens have a clear script by which to participate in politics.  Knowing that fairness, equality, and justice are on the march and that slave-holders, robber barons, and defenders of patriarchy are associated with every inequality and injustice about which Progressives moralize, the virtuous citizen knows to which side he belongs as a partner in the American pageant of justice and freedom.  Both linguistic and historical framing are means by which to create a moral narrative that re-centers the good and that more accurately (from a Progressive view) positions the boundaries of acceptable beliefs and actions.  Broadly speaking, then, Progressives must first control the images on the wall, supplanting what have been the damaging and corrupting myths of the powerful economic elite—the 1%.

The success of Progressivism depends, as I asserted earlier, on the degree to which citizens accept the moral vision presented by Progressives.  From their perspective the greatest challenge comes from overcoming social corruption that issues from social institutions and private interests.  Framing the policies carefully with a charmed vocabulary and getting control of the story Americans hear about their own past are necessary but insufficient—Progressives need more than images on the wall.  Progressives must control key institutions that have, however indirectly, the instruction of citizens as their objective. In the end, they must prepare people to be receptive to the wall images—for the citizen to recognize the truth of the images rather than be in need of persuasion.

Among the institutions crucial to the Progressive task of rearing citizens, none is as important than the vast government-sponsored educational establishment.  Government schools (by which I mean primary and secondary schools) have largely given up being public institutions and are, instead, instruments of government elites to mold the beliefs and affections of each rising generation.  The distinction between government and public is crucial and revealing in this case.  Let us call public schools those that are responsible exclusively or primarily to the community they serve.  Imagine a small town with one k-12 school that is funded exclusively by local taxes.  School goals and curricular objectives issue from an elected school board.  Through this form of democratic representation, the community establishes the criteria by which to hire and retain faculty according to their needs, standards, values, and particular local culture.  In short, the school is an extension of and a reflection of the community.

By contrast, government schools seek to transform rather than reflect the communities they propose to serve. For schools on this side of the spectrum (and the details still vary dramatically from state to state) funding is funneled through the state in order to create equity among districts, making the schools responsible (obedient) to the state educational establishment rather than to the community in which they are embedded.  Decisions about curricula and textbooks issue from government bureaucracies and the development of credentialing requirements places assessment of qualifications for teaching outside the reach of the community or its representatives.

Public schools participate in society, by which I mean the array of social institutions like family, churches, voluntary organizations, and, of course, public schools themselves.  By contrast, government schools, as the primary government means of rearing virtuous citizens, undermine those social institutions.  Public schools are fully compatible with a robust social order.  They contribute to communities of self-governing citizens since they are both expressions of community self-determination as well as serving to reinforce the distinctive values and ideals of that particular public.  In other words, public schools are part of what Robert Nisbet called “mediating institutions” that serve as protective and nurturing structures between individuals and the government.  By contrast government schools not only escape direct public oversight (and therefore stand as a government entity imposed from outside of the community) but they work against the provincial beliefs of social institutions—introducing cosmopolitan and moral teachings meant to orient individual citizens to the common good as determined by the government establishment.  By undermining the moral authority and roles of social institutions like the family, government schools rear virtuous citizens whose moral compass is compatible with the General Will as expressed by the images Progressives project on the wall.  If government schools are successful, each graduate will understand and find completely uncontroversial the stories they see on the wall about America, policy, and the inevitable course of history (right side of history).

The premise of this essay is that Progressives seek to create a virtuous community by means of undermining all non-governmental institutions (not eliminate them but undermine their roles and authority) and by rearing citizens who accept the moral vision of Progressivism.  The larger premise of the series of essays I am writing about Robert Nisbet’s defense of a social “laissez faire” (see the first two essays in this series here and here) is that the current austerity faced by America and Europe is creating the necessary condition for Nisbet’s new laissez faire.  Several recent indicators suggest that Progressivism in America (Europe is a different matter) has failed at rearing virtuous citizens for its beautiful community and that the near future in America is open for the rise of vigorous challenges to the administrative state as well as a new version of American self-sufficiency.

Progressives (my description of what is a Progressive appears in this essay and then the contrasting definition of liberalism in this essay) have much more institutional power than their numbers would otherwise suggest.  They not only have great power in higher education, in many parts of the media, in the judiciary and legal class, but they have slowly come to dominate most of the public school systems in America despite a long history of schools being rooted in local communities.  If one looked only at those institutions, America and her values would be fully consonant with Western European democracies. But each of those institutions face reaction from a non-progressive public.  The most interesting example in recent months is a Gallup poll that shows public confidence in public schools (which are closer to my use of government schools) has dropped to 29% from 58% in the first poll of 1973.  The regular and steady decline (with a period of rebound during the Reagan years) follows the general trend away from government schools.  Whatever causal relationship might be behind this drop in confidence, the low estimation that citizens have of this vaunted institution (the virtue of government schools is a regular feature of the images on the wall projected by Progressives) exposes a severe, and I think healthy, doubt about the institutions most charged with rearing virtuous citizens.

The collapsing confidence in government schools encourages not only home schooling and charter schools, both of which have been on the rise for decades, but makes possible political pressure to return primary and secondary education to the communities.  To the degree that this happens, schools begin to reflect their individual communities and therefore introduce much greater diversity to the educational system.  Much more importantly, turning school governance, policy, and curriculum over to the families and communities they serve instructs the people in the art of self-rule.  In America, a long tradition of taking responsibility (through various local means) for the services that the community needs has produced a most successful example of robust citizenship tied to both local conditions and collective purpose.  Pushing to make government schools increasingly public would constitute a huge step toward the rebuilding of a self-governing social order.

Progressivism, I said earlier, will succeed or fail depending on the degree to which its moral vision becomes broadly persuasive to the people.  The only Progressive president we have had in the post 1945 era, Barack Obama, regularly exposes the rhetorical and substantive weakness of Progressivism as a moral vision in America.  His speeches are charged with a moral vision that transcends private interest.  He frequently claims that he supports positions (e.g. gay marriage) not because they are popular but because they represent “the right thing to do.”  An even more revealing statement, however, is his now infamous “you didn’t build that.”  No matter how that claim is read in context, it reveals his belief that the state has an open-ended claim on the liberties of citizens because it has made their success possible.  Clearly, for Obama, “it takes a village” really means that it takes the state.

If the American people reelect Obama after they become fully aware of his Progressive vision, then indeed we have joined the Western Europeans in soft despotism. It is less clear how these virtuous citizens, reared to be participants in the Progressive community, will respond to the imposition of austerity—for in that event they face not the failure of the state, but of their moral vision.  But, judging by a whole array of indicators, Americans are different civic creatures from Europeans and a long history and habituation of localism, self-reliance, and a robust social order has built into our cultural bones an unwillingness to be reared by the state. The coming time of austerity will help remind us of who we are and of our moral vision that sees citizens reared by families, churches, and local social networks to be persons rather than individuals.