Thoughts about Progressives, inspired by Jonah Goldberg’s new book

I haven’t yet finished Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, which is unusual for me, given that I’ve had it since Friday. It’s the kind of book one gobbles up — but that assumes time to gobble. Since I bought the book and Jonah signed it (more on that later), I’ve been in perpetual motion. You’ve seen that reflected in my blogging silence, and I’ve seen it reflected, as well, in my inability to find time to sit and read.

Having found time to read half the book, though, I can tell you a few things about it.  While Jonah’s last book was about history — namely, the way in which liberalism and fascism have marched hand in hand through the 20th century, albeit sometimes with a smiling face — his current book is, as the title says, about ideas.  Ideas are much harder to marshal into a book.  They’re slippery and abstract and, if I can add yet another adjective, abstruse too.  Jonah does a great job getting a handle on ideological constructs and anchoring them to a more solid world.

The premise of Jonah’s book is an interesting one:  he contends that liberals constantly deny that they are anything but pragmatists, which is a good thing and, say liberals, the complete opposite of an ideologue, which they say is a bad thing.  Conservatives, of course, are ideologues.

Liberals refuse to acknowledge that the pragmatism they describe is simply their willingness to use all possible coercive approaches to achieve their end, with the end invariably being something that falls under the socialist rubric.  By denying that they have an ideology, they are therefore able to castigate conservatives for being blinkered by an ugly conservative ideology that advocates dying sick people, homeless old people, starving children, etc.

Jonah’s absolutely right.  I had my epiphany when I finally sat down and looked at the way in which, during the 1980s and 1990s, Christian conservatives referred to Democrats/Liberals as “secularists.”  This made no sense to me.  As far as I was concerned, the Christian conservatives were the ideologues, with their talk of God and the Bible, and their wacky habit of letting their moral beliefs inform their political stances.  We, the high-minded, enlightened, pragmatic liberals had no ideology at all.  Ideology was solely the Christian preserve and we were simply un-Christians, shedding political enlightenment wherever we went.

It wasn’t until I read Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief that I finally figured out that imposing disbelief on politics is just as ideological as imposing belief on politics. Those darn Christian conservatives were right. Once I had that epiphany, I could never again pretend that my political beliefs were purely the absence of bias and primitivism. (Carter’s book was, obviously, another stepping stone in my slow journey across the ideological Rubicon, from unthinking liberal to thoughtful conservative.)

I still have a lot to learn about abstract political ideas, though, since I tend to be a remarkably concrete thinker. This can be a good thing when I finally understand an abstraction, because it means I’m adept at explaining the abstract idea to others in fairly concrete terms. Not all of us, after all, are philosophers. Jonah’s book is excellent because he too is good at explaining abstract political thought — and, in the case of Progressives, the false denial of abstract political thought — in easy to understand terms.  More than that, and unlike me, he’s extremely knowledgeable, which makes his book both witty (which we expect from Jonah) and informed (which, I have to say, we also expect from Jonah).  As I said to Jonah when we met, I feel as if he’s got the smarter version of my brain.

Here’s what I took away from the book after reading about the development of Progressive ideology:  Progressives have as their touchstone “pragmatism.” This was new to me.  I knew that in the 21st Century, Progressives like to call themselves the “reality-based community,” something that I’ve always seen as a wonderfully ironic joke. Their reality is always bounded by what suits their political ends.

Pure Progressive pragmatism goes behind this unreal commitment to reality.  It turns out that it also means denying the collective wisdom of the ages. Progressives put all their faith in modern science, economics, social science, etc., believing that anything that came before lacked this scientific gloss, making it ineffectual and inefficient.

This refusal to draw from the past’s wisdom means that, for all their constant reminiscences about the Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Johnson and the Great Society, Progressives see these historical events only at the most superficial level.  They stand for the principle that government can do big things. That’s it.  Progressives have no interest in what actually happened. That is, they don’t seek to replicate the precise procedures that FDR or Johnson used — something that is scarcely surprising given the uniformly dismal results. The takeaway for Progressives when they look back in time is simply “Government.” The rest of history is useless to them, because it’s old and wrong, and their experts are very busy reinventing everything in the here and now.

Which leads me to my pithy epigram: Progressives deny that known history has any value, yet they insist that their predictions about the unknown future are entirely accurate.

Pretty good, huh?  And it is, I think, a nice companion piece to my blog slogan:  “Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts.”

Oh, and about that book signing? Two things. One, Jonah wrote a nice inscription in my book: “To Bookworm! Hail, Bookworm” Hail! All my best, from one happy warrior to another.” I liked that.

The other nice thing is that, when I identified myself to Jonah as Bookworm, a gentleman standing in line behind me exclaimed “You’re Bookworm? I love your blog.” To that gentleman: Thank you. You made my day!

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  • Earl

    And to that gentleman, *I* say:  “Identify yourself, Sir….even if only in a private e-mail… that you can be properly thanked!!”
    I taught school for over 30 years, and NOTHING makes a teacher’s day like an old student writing to say “I appreciated what you did.”  I have to think blogging is even moreso….since bloggers so rarely ever see their readers.
    So, Bookwormroom contributors and lurkers…..think back to your school days, figure out the one or two teachers who made a difference for you in a good way, find out their address (we live in the days of the Internet and the loss of privacy, you know – so put it to good use) and write even a short note, with at least one specific thing you appreciate about that teacher.  Then pat yourself on the back for having done a truly good deed.
    AND….if you’ve not done it before this, make BW’s day — send her an e-mail of appreciation and praise….or you could write it here, of course, so the rest of us can see it and perhaps chime in!

  • Charles Martel

    =AHEM= I was the gentleman behind you, Book. I know my looks fooled you. You just weren’t used to seeing me 30 pounds lighter, 6 inches taller, and 25 years younger.
    A lot has happened in the five weeks since we last saw each other.

  • Bookworm

    Earl:  Thank you!

    Charles:  Had it been you, I would have fallen into your arms with a glad “hello.”

    Here’s the funny thing.  I got to the luncheon at the last minute, and there were only four empty seats left.  I grabbed one.  A few minutes later, a man showed up and took the last seat, which was next to me.  I looked at him, and realized that I knew him, not from politics but from law.  We’d litigated against each other years before.  I was a newbie; he was already a seasoned litigator.  He treated me with way more respect than I deserved.  Anyway, we had a nice chat.  You might know him:  Larry Siskind.  Small world, right?

  • Caped Crusader

      Bookworm:  Small world, right?
    Even stranger demo, our son was invited to give a talk about his work at the Swedish equivalent of M.I.T. , about 16 years ago, as he was completing his PhD. at Stanford. His host picked him up at the airport and during the drive remarked his sister had been an exchange student at the same high school. Turned out she was in his homeroom and had helped her with math and physics. Very small world, indeed!

  • Ron19

    I know the feeling of recognition and appreciation you must have felt at the book signing, because I’ve had a similar experience.  (Hello, Patt and Steve Saso of Mill Valley in Marin County!)

    Bookworm, you have well and truly earned this experience.

    G-d bless you and yours!

  • Ron19

    Thoughts about progressives, and others:
    “Dewey,” writes Tiffany Miller Jones, “arguably did more than any other reformer to repackage progressive social theory in a way that obscured just how radically its principles departed from those of the American founding.”
    Part of his trick was being an absolutely terrible writer (a trick countless postmodern academics figured out and emulated). With considerable effort he could manage to be merely dry and boring. But his more substantial philosophical prose reads like a bunch of German words were dipped in maple syrup and dragged across a linty floor before being badly translated back into English by someone with a less firm grasp of idiom. Oddly, the denseness of his prose gave the impression of seriousness. Odder still, given that pragmatism seeks to make ideas “clear,” and yet a lead-lined bucket of mud is more transparent than most of Dewey’s work. …
    And it worked.
    Goldberg, Jonah (2012). The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas (p. 56). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
    An example, using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity:
    When I was much younger, a schoolboy baby-boomer, I wanted to understand Relativity.  The consensus at the time was that only a handful of people could understand it.  This has not stopped a lot of authors from trying to make it understandable.  Since I couldn’t understand even those explanations, I thought that these writers were so much smarter than me.
    Some of them were, but not all.
    Later as the width and depth of my knowledge increased over the years, I found out that these writers didn’t understand it either.  They often gave useless, silly, and wrong explanations and examples of what happens. 
    My turning point was an English translation of Einstein’s own explanation of Relativity, written in 1916. His explanation was clear, and the simple examples he gave clarified and confirmed his theory.  I was able to come up with my own thought experiments and examples.
    After that, I realized that most later writers who couldn’t explain relativity didn’t understand it themselves.  They fell back on half-baked clichés that muddied the waters instead of clearing them.
    The takeaway from this example is that a lot of “deep, profound” exponents of various ideas that are hard to understand by us mere mortals, are actually people who don’t explain well, haven’t thought things through, or are simply dropping talking points, the way some people do name-dropping.  They aren’t any smarter than the average Joe, they just look good.
    For me, the Catholic Faith has many things that I don’t understand well or at all.  But as I learn more, especially from some really smart people such as Pope John Paul II, I understand a little bit more from each thing I study or hear about.
    I have also figured out that many of the liberal media and politicians sound a lot smarter than they are because they toss out a talking point and cliché developed by others and quickly move on to some other topic.  By the time I realize that they are actually both charismatic and clueless, they have long since moved on to several other topics, telling us what to think without explaining why we should think that way. 
    Trying to engage these people in discussion is like the cartoon video you had posted about the kid who wanted an iPod (iPhone?) and would not accept a superior substitute.

  • TheIndependentWhig


    A great insight into the psychological underpinnings of the kind of thought Goldberg skewers is offered by social scientiest Jonathan Haidt in his new book “The Righteous Mind.  Haidt offers a Rosetta Stone for understanding political thought not only of today but through the ages.  I was surprised to find only one post about Haidt in a search of your site.  I highly recommend that you read his book and review it on your blog.   
    Moral foundations are some of the core elements of fundamental human nature, instilled in us over half a billion years of natural selection so that humans can create “Moral systems [of] interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, page 270)

    Haidt sees six foundations, instilled in us by natural selection, that each of us uses in differnt amounts to construct our own morality.   They are harm/care, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression.  The first three are focused on the individual, the second three are focused on binding people together into groups.  Liberal morality rests largely on the first three, and of those mostly care/harm.  Conservative morality rests on an equal balance of all six. 

    In my view, Moral Foundations tell us even more about human nature than even Haidt suggests.  The way I see it:  
    1) Moral foundations are the color receptors of the moral eye. The more color receptors one employs the more of the building block of human nature one perceives.
    2) Moral foundations work together to give us our “gut feel” about right and wrong; our instantaneous, automatic-process reaction of like or dislike, approach or avoid, fight or flee that results from half a billion years of evolution.
    3) Moral foundations are the tools of the controlled-process cognition conscious thought. They are the hammer, saw, pliers, screw driver, et al, we use to process and understand what our moral eye perceives – to make sense of the social world around us – and to construct the reasoned arguments of persuasion.   Reason evolved to serve our intutions. Reason is for winning arguments, it is not for finding the truth (but under rare circumstances it can be used to work toward the truth.) Only the tools associated with the intuitive senses are available to our conscious thought, and in the same proportions.
    In other words, Moral Foundations define the the scope, the limits, of one’s perception, understanding, and prescriptions of and for human nature and the social world.

    Moral Foundations define our moral “vision” in every sense of the word. 

    Understand Moral Foundations and you’ll never look at a political debate the same way again.      

  • TheIndependentWhig

    RE:  Ron19’s comment, “Trying to engage these people in discussion is like the cartoon video you had posted about the kid who wanted an iPod (iPhone?) and would not accept a superior substitute.”
    In my way of thinking, Jonathan Haidt’s research (See his book, “The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”) explains this phenomenon.
    Haidt has shown that the liberal morality is built mostly on three of the moral foundations, and of those, primarily one: care/harm.   Humans are mammals, and as such we spend a great deal of our lives rearing and caring for our young.  We have an innate predisposition to care for others and to prevent one another from coming to harm.  This foundation accounts for about seventy percent of the liberal morality (  It is focused almost exclusively on the individual.
    The same studies show that the conservative morality is built on an equal balance of all six moral foundations.  It starts with care, just as the liberal morality does, but it does not end there.  A healthy, thriving, society depends on much more than the simple “no harm, no foul” philosophy of liberalism.   It also depends on the existence of a sense of proportionality – in one sense, “fairness” – where the benefits of being a member of the group or society are rightfully enjoyed in proportion to the contribution one makes to it.  People don’t like it when other people reap the benefits of the group but don’t contribute to it in relatively equal proportions (i.e. free riders.)  It also depends on a sense of loyalty to the group.  People expect all members of the group to work for, defend, or otherwise support, the success of the group.  It also depends on a sense of structure, or authority, because the entire boat will sink if too many people try to rock it.  It also depends on a sense of sanctity, a sense of esteem and respect for the physical health and well being of each member of the group, and thus of the group as a whole.  It also depends on a sense of autonomy.  People hate bullies.  They tend to gang up to fight bullies, particularly when the bully is the “powers that be.”  In contrast to the liberal morality, the conservative morality is focused not just on the individual, but on the society as well. 
    In other words, the conservative morality fits Haidt’s definition of morality, which is a  system of “interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.”
    Metaphorically speaking, if humans were bees in a hive, the liberal morality would focus almost exclusively on the bees, and the conservative morality would focus on the bees AND the hive, because without a healthy hive it is literally impossible for the bees to survive, let alone thrive.     A Venn diagram of liberal and conservative moralities would be a small circle (liberalism) completely contained within a much a larger circle (conservatism.)   The moral universe of conservatism INCLUDES the moral universe of liberalism, but it’s not the other way around.  Most of the moral universe of conservatism is outside of, external to, the moral universe of liberalism, leading many liberals to believe that the beliefs and practices which follow from the non-liberal moral foundations are immoral.
    The best metaphor I’ve come across for understanding the relationship between the liberal and conservative moralities, world views, and cognitive styles,  is the metaphor of Flatland and Spaceland, summarized by Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”
    The metaphor that has most helped me to understand morality, religion, and the human quest for meaning is Flatland, a charming little book written in 1884 by the English novelist and mathematician Edward Abbot.  Flatland is a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are geometric figures.  The protagonist is a square.  One day, the square is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world called Spaceland.  When a sphere visits Flatland, however, all that is visible to Flatlanders is the part of the sphere that lies in their plane – in other words, a circle.  The square is astonished that the circle is able to grow or shrink at will (by rising or sinking into the plane of Flatland) and even to disappear and reappear in a different place (by leaving the plane, and then reentering it).  The sphere tries to explain the concept of the third dimension to the two-dimensional square, but the square, though skilled at two-dimensional geometry, doesn’t get it.  He cannot understand what it means to have thickness in addition to height and breadth, nor can he understand that the circle came from up above him, where “up” does not mean from the north.   The sphere presents analogies and geometrical demonstrations of how to move from one dimension to two, and then from two to three, but the square still finds the idea of moving “up” out of the plane of Flatland ridiculous. 
    The reason for the political divide, then, is that liberals and conservatives talk past each other as if we were Flatlanders and Spacelanders.  To a conservative, talking with a liberal about moral issues – and politics is morality in action (i.e., as Haidt says, “moral thinking for social doing”) – is like the Spacelander trying to explain thickness and height and breadth to a Flatlander.   To a liberal, talking with a conservative is like trying to have a conversation with a being from another planet.  They just don’t “get” the “reality” of things in Flatland. 
    Since conservative morality is so much broader and deeper than that of liberalism, liberals have a really hard time comprehending it.    They truly are like Flatlanders trying to understand Space land; it’s just not possible from within their moral and cognitive universe.  The tools, the capability, to grasp the concepts, simply don’t exist in their world.   They don’t even know what they’re looking at. 
    The only possible explanation, therefore, from within the moral matrix of liberalism, for the views and policies of conservatism, is that conservatives must be, can only be, in some way mentally or morally dysfunctional.   And so liberals have practically no alternative but to ascribe conservative views to some sort of mental or moral dysfunction, like racism, homophobia, misogyny, blind belief in some sort of superstition (i.e., religion), or general bigotry of one kind or another.