The Arrogance Of Progressivism

Peter Berkowitz has a really interesting column at Real Clear Politics regarding the “discrepancy between candidate Obama’s [moderate] rhetoric and President Obama’s [partisan] words and deeds” and the rhetoric of progressivism as it attempts “to conceal the gap between what majorities want and what progressive leaders want to enact in their name while insisting proudly on the purity of their democratic credentials.”  Berkowitz identifies three strands of thought that are unified in modern progressives such as President Obama.

First, is the concept of “deliberative democracy”:

The key is the claim that the policies that theoretical reason demonstrates are fair and just are democratic in a higher sense than the policies that the people have voted for, or want to adopt in the here and now, or may wish to enact in the future. Not content to conclude that the mismatch between the public policies they deduce from theory and the people’s expressed political preferences reflects badly on the people, deliberative democrats go farther by decreeing majority preferences contrary to democracy, or at least the imperatives of democratic theory. It’s not merely that deliberative democrats believe that their theories give expression to something better and loftier than what the majority of the electorate chooses. It’s that the choices people would make – were it not for their poor education, combined with passions and prejudices corrupted by the imperfections of social life and the inequities of the market economy – are what deserve the designation democratic.

In other words, there’s something the matter with Kansas, so we need to do for them what they would do for themselves if they weren’t so ignorant and backward out there in flyover country.

Second, is the progressive’s notion of pragmatism:

Like deliberative democracy, the new pragmatism makes use of a fundamental deception. It purports to focus on practical consequences and to eschew fixed or dogmatic opinions. In fact, the new pragmatism equates what works with what works to increase government’s responsibility to promote social justice in America as progressively understood.

But, in the process, it can’t escape contradiction. On the one hand, it reduces morality to interest, and dismisses the distinction between true and false as a delusive vestige of an obsolete metaphysics. On the other hand, it treats the progressive interpretation of America as, in effect, the one good and true account, empirically and metaphysically. Under the guise of inclusiveness, it denigrates and excludes rival moral and political opinions.

Hence President Obama’s annoying tendency to dismiss the opinions of detractors as mere talking points not worthy of discussion or consideration.

Third, is empathy infused with progressive content:

[E]xcellence in empathy depends on experiences of oppression and exclusion, which provide insights into justice that are otherwise unobtainable. But proponents of this school of thought do not regard all experiences of oppression and exclusion as equal. Although in The Audacity of Hope Obama recounted that his formative experience in learning about empathy came from appreciating the perspective of his white grandfather, law schools generally teach that the experience of discrimination based on race, class, or gender is particularly instructive, if not indispensable. Moreover, proponents of empathy deem its truths final, permitting no appeal from them, certainly not to reason or empirical evidence or alternative understandings of justice. Those lacking the approved experiences must accept the accounts of what justice demands from those who possess them. The knowledge yielded by empathy, it is further argued, is especially relevant to the judge’s task. It justifies judges in overturning precedent and fashioning new rules of law from the bench. 

* * *

Progressives use this mistaken understanding of empathy to give democratic legitimacy to exercises of government power that circumvent majority wishes as reflected in the laws of the land. As with deliberative democracy and pragmatism, this has illiberal and antidemocratic implications. The equation of progressive policy outcomes with empathy encourages judges to go beyond their area of professional competence to probe the inner workings of the souls of the parties that come before them. And ironically it leads to the constriction of empathy, because it persuades progressives to dismiss as cold-hearted and benighted those who disagree with them about politics. That is, it inhibits progressives from feeling and understanding the world as do conservatives, not a few of whom are ordinary people.

Accordingly, in Obama’s world “empathy has substantive legal content [that] decisively favors ordinary people and the powerless and downtrodden in constitutional adjudication whatever the relevant statutes, precedents, and constitutional provisions.”  So don’t bother him with questions about what the law says, or conservative notions about equality under the law.

According to Berkowitz, and the case is compellingly argued, this witches brew of progressive theory leads progressives such as President Obama to equate progressivism with justice itself:

In the progressive mind – as illustrated by the president’s rhetoric on the campaign trail and conduct in office, and professors’ theories about deliberative democracy, pragmatism, and empathy – progressives are moderate and post-partisan because progressivism itself is not a flawed and incomplete perspective but rather the comprehensive perspective that has at last transcended the flawed and incomplete perspectives of the past. Progressivism’s vision of reform, progressives suppose, is vouched for by reason, by practice, and by the heart. It is equivalent for them to justice itself.

It follows that those who depart from progressivism are unreasonable, indifferent to or disdainful of how the world really works, and heartless – in a word, unjust. From the point of view of the new progressivism, compromise is form of compassion; it means offering the unreasonable, the impractical, and the heartless a seat at the table and providing them an opportunity to recognize the wisdom of progressive ways. . . .

Confidence that one possesses the complete and final understanding of morals and politics can encourage a politician to think of himself as a transformer and redeemer rather than as a statesman. . . .  One reason that progressives under pressure so readily succumb to the common temptation to deride voters who disagree with them as frightened and foolish and to portray fellow citizens as adversaries to be vanquished is that progressive assumptions about knowledge and politics make such conclusions about those who decline to follow their lead hard to escape.

Read the whole thing.  I stole a lot of it, but there is much, much more. 

The anti-democratic arrogance we see from President Obama and company is grounded on the unshakable conviction that they alone are right — morally right — which is a belief they hold with quasi-religious fervor.  That is why they are unconcerned about the rule of law — it must bend to greater justice.  That is why they disregard the will of the voters — they are too heartless or ignorant to have a say in things (after being so brilliant to elect Obama).

Via Mrs. Hound.

Published in: on December 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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