Why progressivism fails

Byline: | Category: Above the Fold, Culture, Environment, Government, Military | Posted at: Friday, 28 March 2014

Two days ago I picked up the theme of a Jim Geraghty piece and said that Progressives are so fixated on ends that they have no allegiance to means and have no consideration for the negative consequences of their utopian dreams.  On a related note yesterday, Daniel Henninger wondered “Why can’t the Left govern?”

Henninger focused on President Obama, whose only major legislative accomplishment has worsened American health care, and on Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose attacks on New York’s charter schools spiraled out of control and sunk his high approval ratings to below 50%, and on France’s François Hollande, whose draconian taxes have pushed his popularity to the lowest ever recorded of a French President in the modern era.

Since in my earlier writing I made the analogy between modern Progressives and the era of the original Progressives, let me throw into the mix President Woodrow Wilson as an example of the failure of their ilk to govern.  Wilson was so unpopular at the end of his second term that Warren Harding’s 26-point margin of victory still holds the record for the largest landslide of any President elected in the last hundred years.  None of FDR’s elections were bigger wins.  Nor was LBJ’s.  William McGovern and Walter Mondale both cruised to respectable finishes compared to James Cox, 1920’s loser.  Four years after he left, Wilson’s Democrats were still so unpopular that they didn’t receive even 30% of the popular vote, a pitifully low level that the losing party has never since failed to achieve.

What is it about ideologue Leftists that makes them so unpopular after their failed attempts at governing?

As I said the other day, Progressives believe that they know better than others how others should live their lives.  That makes Progressivism inherently anti-democratic and requires that its adherents subvert truths and manipulate rules to advance their ends.

Democratic governments follow where their people lead.  Progressive governments—those led by people who see popular opinion as wrong—lead their people in a direction that they do not want to go.  When the subterfuge is discovered, or when the unpopular project spectacularly fails, popular opinion turns viciously against the Progressive.

By Executive Order (and not, it is important to note, by an act of Congress) President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information in 1917.  The CPI was known by the New York Times as the “Committee on Public Misinformation” and by harsher critics was called the ominous sounding, “House of Truth”. This was America’s World War One propaganda ministry.  It fabricated German atrocities, as well as American strengths. Anticipating by nearly a century the notoriously faked photo of an Iranian missile launch, one early CPI story announced that “the first American-built battle planes are today en route to the front in France”.  The false “news” was accompanied by doctored pictures that were in fact of a single plane that was still in testing.   (If you have ever wondered why the horrors of the Holocaust took so long to gain traction in the American press, in part, it was because Americans were still skeptical after having been lied to by their own government about imaginary German horrors from the last war.)

The CPI’s tactics came straight from its allies in the Anti-Saloon League, which employed a similar propaganda machine and a similar virulently nativist message to advance the cause of Prohibition.

Democracies don’t like being lied to.  As soon as the war was over, the magnitude and frequency of the lies became apparent.  Americans quickly recognized that their entry into the war was a catastrophic mistake.  The result was that by the end of the 1920s, the label “progressive” largely had disappeared from the American political lexicon, not to be resurrected for another eighty years.

Democracies also don’t like failure.

To the Progressive, ideology trumps results.  Most arenas outside of government don’t work that way.  A product that isn’t popular loses money.  It matters not how noble the cause or its producer.

In government failure is so easy to achieve because success is so difficult to ascertain.  Ironically, it is the very nature of popular forms of government that makes this possible.  Democracies, because they lag popular opinion—and especially constitutional republics, that purposefully employ procedures to dampen the excesses of democracy—are necessarily lethargic beings.  Results arrive at a glacial pace.  It is often years after one has advanced a program that it can objectively be determined to be a success.  By then it is too late for its advocates to be held accountable if it had failed.

In 2002 I was part of an efficiency project initiated at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.  The idea was that TRADOC should measure both the resources put into its programs and its programs’ results.  For each program the objectively measurable input was money.  I had no objection to this.  However, since most of those programs were years-long projects, there was the need for intermediate objectives.   It turned out that in almost every case, the measurable “output” was also money.  If a project was expected to cost $100 million, the faster it could acquire that hundred-million was the measure of the success of the project.  Each program was its own self-licking ice cream cone and no one was ever going to be judged on whether or not the program actually worked.  The programs themselves became the goal.  Left far behind were the goals of the original programs.

If this attitude exists within the military, a branch of government which occasionally gets called upon to deliver demonstrable results (ie, win a war), imagine how detached other branches of government are from having to account for their successes and failures.  This is the perfect camouflage for a Progressive as he never has to face judgment for his results.  All that matters is that he tried.

Returning to Henninger’s column, he likens Obamacare to the international anti-global warming movement and concludes that their “activity is increasingly disconnected from the issue of mitigating climate change.”  It’s no wonder; Progressives steeped in a lifetime of bureaucratic myopia rarely have to achieve a measurable outcome.  And on those few occasions, as in the case of Obamacare, that they are successful in shepherding a program through to fruition, they are unprepared by their upbringing as to how to create a program that actually demonstrates a successful result.  So when Nancy Pelosi unfacetiously said that Congress had to pass the 2,000 page bill so that they could find out what was in it, she was confessing to being not unlike the automobile-chasing dog:  “Now that I’ve caught the car, what do I do with it?”

Today’s New York Times makes this point.  The White House announced yesterday that six-million people had signed up for Obamacare, a figure that “the law’s backers hail as a success.”  But not so fast.  Drew Altman, President of the Kaiser Family Foundation (an organization which has long been supportive of Obamacare) attempted to redirect the issue as to whether or not the program itself is successful.

“The whole narrative about Obamacare — ‘Will they get to six million? What is the percentage of young adults going to be?’ — has almost nothing to do with whether the law is working or not, whether the premiums are affordable or not, whether people think they are getting a good deal or not.”

Altman is right to point out that the goal of Obamacare is not that people sign up for it, but that it work.  That’s something that the Progressive is unprepared for.

Progressivism exists outside the arena of accountability.  Its practitioners have never been judged on ultimate outcomes.  While it is in the pursuit of their programs that they often can claim a noble rhetorical advantage, It is only after their program is law that it is on full display.  Then the autopsy of its failure exposes their lies and the anti-democratic subversions employed to bring about a program the population never wanted.  And that is why when Progressivism fails, it fails spectacularly, and why the Progressive is so often ultimately judged to be a governing failure.

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