Monday, February 15, 2021

What Happened to the "Progress" in Progressive?

Peter Juul has a terrific post at The Liberal Patriot on one of my favorite topics, the mind-boggling, completely unproductive progressive embrace of catastrophism. (Sin #3 in my American Compass essay, The Five Deadly Sins of the Left!) Juul contrasts this attitude with the profoundly different approach of FDR as he faced off against the Great Depression:
"President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address rightly remains famed for its recognition that, even at the depths of the Great Depression, Americans had “nothing to fear but fear itself.” In our public consciousness, however, we tend to boil the speech’s message down to this single line and fail to grasp Roosevelt’s underlying point. He didn’t indulge in happy talk or mindless boosterism; indeed, FDR argued that “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” But he knew that doomsaying – “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” – only “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” This sense of what Roosevelt would later call “courage and realism” pervaded his rhetoric during the Second World War as well, countering pessimism and defeatism with a rational belief in eventual Allied victory based “on the latest and best information.”
In contrast to Roosevelt’s practical optimism in the face of the nation’s worst economic crisis and the most destructive war in human history, today’s progressives embrace a fatalistic catastrophism that paralyzes needed action and needlessly polarizes our politics. It’s a deep-seated pessimism that can be seen in issues varying from information technology to racial equality, but it’s nowhere more apparent than in the way progressives talk about climate change. But progressive defeatism often fails to persuade others to support constructive policies and leaves the not-unreasonable impression that many progressives wish to use climate policy as way to advance other, largely unrelated ideological agendas.
That’s clear from the rhetoric employed by activists, journalists, and entrepreneurial politicians to discuss climate change. For many progressives, the fight against climate change has become a quasi-religious crusade – one complete with its own apocalypse. Take Greta Thunberg, the Scandinavian teenage activist who famously wagged her finger at international dignitaries assembled for the United Nations General Assembly and claimed that they had stolen her dreams and her childhood by refusing to acknowledge the impending cataclysm in the way she believes they should. Or the Sunrise Movement that gave then-candidate Joe Biden an “F” grade on his climate change proposals for failing to use sufficiently catastrophic language when talking about the issue....
[C]atastrophism comes with real costs, starting with the fact that it paralyzes action rather than catalyzes it. Existential dread becomes a substitute for honesty and realism about a very serious problem, leading progressives to ignore or downplay obvious policy solutions like nuclear and geothermal power, carbon capture and removal, and building out electric vehicle infrastructure in order to make quixotic demands for radical remaking of societies the world over – or raise implausible geoengineering schemes like dimming the sun. What’s more, the broad center-left forgoes opportunities to build the durable political coalitions around research and development funding and public infrastructure investment that would make a real dent against climate change.
Above all else, though, catastrophism cultivates hopelessness – a sense that the problem of climate change itself requires the sweeping transformation of society as we know it, and therefore it remains for all intents and purposes intractable and unsolvable. Unlike FDR’s practical optimism in the face of depression and global war, progressive pessimism about climate change – and many other difficult problems, for that matter – stymies needed efforts to convert retreat and stalemate into advance. As a result, America finds itself unable to take the effective action necessary for progress in the fight against climate change – even though we have much of the requisite technology to do so. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when progressives stop believing in progress."
Exactly. For the record, here's what I had to say about this subject in my American Compass essay:
"The third deadly sin [of the left] is catastrophism. From the final crisis of capitalism to the inevitabilities of war and fascism, the Left often extends systemic critiques to claims that the Big Meltdown is just around the corner and can be prevented only if the Left comes to power and radically restructures the system. Among many current iterations of this catastrophism, the most prominent one by far concerns climate change.
There are exceptions of course, but the Left’s dominant strand of thinking sees climate change as a trend that will roast the planet and wipe out human civilization unless drastic action is taken very, very soon. For most on the Left, the apocalyptic pronouncements of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are more plausible than arguments that a warming climate is a problem susceptible to reform and better policy, addressable through adaptation and technological innovation. It is assumed that we are headed for, in David Wallace-Wells’ phrase, “the uninhabitable Earth.” When green activists claim we have five or, at most, ten years to solve the problem by achieving net-zero carbon emissions, most on the Left nod in agreement.
So long as the Left appears more interested in finding new enemies than in seeking new friends, it will fail to advance its many important priorities.
Such a rapid transition of global energy systems is a fairy tale, making the situation look hopeless instead of solvable. That is a real liability. Voters want to hear how problems can be solved—not told they’re doomed unless obviously impractical steps are taken. And it doesn’t help that the Left’s version of the steps that must be taken includes a raft of unrelated social programs that would be nice to have but don’t do anything about climate change (see, for instance, the Green New Deal proposed in Congress). Nor does it help that obviously necessary components of a clean energy program like nuclear power are ruled out because, well, people on the Left don’t like nuclear power.
None of this makes sense as either a political or policy approach. Climate change is, in fact, a solvable problem, but it will take some time (2050 is a reasonable target for net-zero global emissions) and massive technological innovation rather than a quixotic attempt to remake the global economy in just a few years. In the meantime, adaptations to unavoidable rises in temperature will be necessary, but these do not require turning the world upside down nor will they condemn billions of people to mass migration and death. The Left has plenty to fight for here, but the political support they need will not materialize so long as they continue their embrace of catastrophism."
And for a bonus, here's some of what I had to say about pessimism and catastrophism in my criminally under-read 2017 book (bad timing!) The Optimistic Leftist:
"It is...staggeringly obvious....that pessimism dramatically undermines the appeal of the left. Why on earth would anyone sign up with a movement that believes the situation is so hopeless? What’s so inspiring about that?
Nothing. Yet the left persists in promoting a viewpoint that leads to paralysis and inaction, rather than robust action and positive change.
The left wasn’t always like this. Historically, the left has been identified with a belief in the future and the feasibility of dramatic improvements in human welfare. That is how I saw it when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and I was happy to join.
But something went wrong in the 1970’s. The great hopes of the 1960’s went aground on the harsh realities of stagflation and then rising inequality and a resurgent right. It was indisputable that progress in important ways was slowing down rather than speeding up as most on the left had hoped.
Various significant electoral defeats for the left followed--most famously the rise of Reagan in America and Thatcher in the UK. And anti-government ideology thrived, both in politics and economics. The idea that government was the problem, not the solution, gained political credibility that would have seemed unimaginable in previous decades and economics became dominated by theories that glorified the results of the untrammeled market.
If that wasn’t bad enough, new threats like global warming emerged that cast doubt on the future of humanity writ large. Scientific progress, which once spurred visions of flying cars and lives of abundance and leisure, now seemed powerless to stop the apocalypse (if not complicit in bringing it on).
Optimism went out of fashion on the left where it has remained to this day. Instead, the left concentrated on reminding voters just how terrible things were becoming. And there was certainly a lot of plausible material along these lines, as Western capitalism continued to underperform in terms of both growth and the distribution of benefits from growth. Data accumulated over time documenting this poor performance—particularly in the early 21st century and in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis--which the left duly promulgated.
Even the great victories of the left in the social realm tended to get lost in this litany of despair.....In short, when the left was winning, it often acted as if it was losing. Not surprisingly, the desired surge in left support has not materialized.
It is time to recognize that pessimism convinces no one. Marx was wrong about the immiseration of the proletariat and contemporary leftists are wrong about the immiseration of the middle class. What is correct is that progress has slowed down, not that it has stopped or reversed. What is correct is that people want to move up from their current life, not that they believe there is nothing good about their current life. What is correct is that pessimism makes people less likely to believe in positive change, not more likely."
There you have it. So channel your inner FDR and turn that frown upside-down!

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