An immigration activist attends a rally outside the Supreme Court to call on Congress to include a pathway to citizenship in the Build Back Better Act on Friday, December 17, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Why the Idea of Progress Is Dead in America

The Right's assault on reason and intelligence has killed the notion that things can improve.

A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.--William F. Buckley, Jr.

Americans have become so inured to perennial gridlock in politics that when significant legislation passes, it's regarded as a minor miracle. Should that legislation actually do something positive for the population as a whole, rather than for a few billionaires or corporations, we suspect divine intervention.

America, once the quintessential young country, is becoming as culturally static as the late Ottoman Empire.

Once there were periods of our history like the Progressive Era, the New Deal, or the Great Society, when Americans perceived, however dimly, that using government to obtain a more abundant and just life for all the people was both feasible and desirable. Those eras now seem as dead as the Pleistocene and attempts to resurrect their spirit about as practicable as reviving the wooly mammoth.

Policy goals like universal health care, a feature of most developed countries, is now viewed as being as wildly utopian as the post-World War II dream of a flying car in every garage or electricity too cheap to meter.

Measures applying to our built environment show the same lassitude. The 1930s was the great period of public construction. Public parks, whether built by federal, state, or municipal agencies, reflected a forward-looking vision. Not only did they provide Americans with sorely needed leisure in a natural setting, the facilities of that era were constructed with aesthetic sensitivity, as a glance at the lodges, picnic shelters, and natural stone retaining walls reveals. The same mood pervaded the many libraries and post offices built at the time.

Yet today, with a GDP of $21 trillion and vastly more advanced technology, why are our urban areas visually and functionally blighted by above-ground power lines strung between wooden poles, lines routinely knocked down by windstorms, freezing rain, and idiotic motorists? Why do we have cities as large as 400,000 residents without public transportation? Why is passenger rail unavailable to the vast majority of the country, and the trains less advanced than those of Morocco? The major roads leaving cities invariably feature mile after mile of eye-lacerating strip malls, Walmart megaboxes, pawn shops, payday loan emporia, and chain eateries, all as if designed by some perverse genius with a lust to make the world intolerable.

This retrograde trend is not confined to government policy. Author Kurt Andersen has argued that the political and economic rigging of American life has come with a side-order of cultural stagnation. According to Andersen, it started in the 1970s as a regression to a simpler time before Vietnam and Watergate, with nostalgia-soaked movies like American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show blazing the trail. During the Reagan ascendancy, it was in full swing. He notes that apart from high-tech devices, the "look" of American street scenes, of American life, of its cultural texture, is remarkably similar to 40 years ago.

This explains the fact that most movies now are either the umpteenth sequel of some blockbuster of Star Wars vintage, or a live-actor rehash of a cartoon, or a transparently juvenile and escapist theme that, somewhat discordantly, appeals to elderly Baby Boomers. This is perhaps one more confirmation that they never did want to grow old--or grow up.

After the dizzyingly rapid evolution of American popular music throughout the 20th century, the last few decades have seen near stasis. Revivals of 1960s rock acts became popular in the 1990s. Now they are ubiquitous, being in demand by nostalgia-besotted Silents and Boomers who, unlike their children, can afford the concert tickets--as long as the acts sing exactly the same tunes, in exactly the same manner, as 50 years ago. How long is Mick Jagger, at 78, going to keep this up?

America, once the quintessential young country, is becoming as culturally static as the late Ottoman Empire. "Make America great again" is a potent slogan precisely because it appeals to the futile yearning by the very demographics that vote in the highest percentages, the Silents and Boomers, for the myth of an impossible time-travel to the days when they were young. Because they vote, and Millennials do not, they can impose both reactionary politics and cultural torpor on the rest of the country.

When nostalgia becomes a knee-jerk political reflex rather than simple regret over the loss of parents or one's fleeting youth, it is an inherently reactionary sentiment. In ancient societies, where advances in technology and social organization, if they occurred at all, were measured in centuries rather than years, progress was by modern definition impossible. "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun" So sayeth Ecclesiastes.

The impulse to create an imaginary utopia being an incurable human trait, it has been placed it in the past: a Golden Age, when gods walked the earth, and men were men. After a few heretics and insatiably curious tinkerers like Galileo began using their brains rather than their memories, it led to the Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions. As I have written previously, the reaction against these movements was the birth of modern conservatism in the Western world. It amounted to a claim that humanity had sinned by attempting to overthrow God's wisdom and substitute its own overweening hubris.

The founder of postwar American conservatism and enforcer of his own notion of its orthodoxy, William F. Buckley, Jr., may have acted out in his usual publicity-seeking as the bad boy of the 1950s when he defined a conservative as someone who wanted to stop history. But it revealed a subliminal motivation now rampant in the Republican Party: the desire not merely to halt history in its tracks, but to turn it back decades or centuries; in their minds. a better place.

In the same way as Joseph de Maistre (whom I regard as the founder of reactionary conservatism in the modern Western world) sought the restoration of monarchies, absolute deference to the Pope, and a return to pre-Enlightenment Europe, American conservatives want to repeal nearly every social advancement since the New Deal. To judge from the conflict over Confederate statues (key word: "heritage"), it appears that some of them would just as soon return to the social order of the antebellum South.

As might be expected, de Maistre was a fierce opponent of science and reason. This phobia in contemporary American conservatism first surfaced in the 1980s. Attacks on the EPA, on wildlife, habitat conservation, and more may have first been tactically motivated to tap into rising public cynicism about government--its supposedly meddling and the agency's scheming bureaucrats.

But it had deeper sources as well. For de Maistre, men poking into the unknown blasphemously mocked the inscrutable mysteries of divine providence. James Watt, Reagan's dispensationalist Christian interior secretary, revealed his shoulder-shrugging attitude towards the environment this way: "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. Whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations."

Possibly the most benign example of scientific progress in human history has been the development of vaccines. Measles, an infectious disease that each year once killed several hundred people and caused about a thousand cases of encephalitis in America, was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000. But thanks to the entrenchment of reactionary attitudes, measles has returned. Even before the current COVID pandemic, anti-science superstitions became embedded in the GOP. In 2019, Texas Republican State Rep. Jonathan Stickland called child vaccinations "sorcery,' apparently because they infringed on parents' biblical right of exclusive and tyrannical control over their children.

Such outbursts are not the rantings of a few scattered crackpots in the GOP. The party's actions during the COVD crisis are too familiar to need recounting, and would fill a hefty casebook of clinically pathological behavior. Much of it came from the very top, although its ideological pedigree is less well known.

In 1995, Congress's Office of Technology Assessment had published a landmark work on the impact of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a setback in medical treatment that is now pervasive. But that same year, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich abolished the organization. Having dispensed with a bunch of naysaying eggheads, he and his colleagues could pursue fatuous policymaking unchallenged, such as his completely unrealistic belief in the low cost and high effectiveness of missile defense.

We have now reached the point where humanity is on a tightrope. We must continue forward with science, technology, and a spirit of progress; if we stand still, we'll fall off. The current world population is 8 billion: a figure beyond earth's capacity to sustain at current resource usage. Science must advance just to feed, shelter, and provide medical care for these people without plundering resources--while at the same time taking urgent measures to arrest anthropogenic climate change.

Some liberals may tut-tut schoolmarmishly about "ignorance," meaning simple obliviousness to facts. What I have described is exactly that, but it is also something more deeply troubling and less amenable to correction: a systematic corruption of the power of reason and a conscious renunciation of critical and analytical thinking in service to a toxic ideology that hates progress as it hates human equality. There is no need to belabor the point about which interests in our society benefit from this intellectual deformation.

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