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More On Progressivism And Liberalism


by Eric Rauchway
In the course of genteelly disagreeing with me, Casey Blake puts his finger on one of the major controversies in understanding early c20 progressivism: Did progressives like Walter Lippmann want to grant an educated class authority in ruling a new technocracy, or did they see this class of experts as having a special role in helping a democratic society conduct experiments in ruling itself?

Actually, I'm not sure whether Casey is saying that Lippmann is a bad choice to represent the view I'm describing as progressive, or that progressives of that era were in general not very nice about democracy. If the former, then I disagree, genteelly, only a little: Certainly Lippmann sometimes, especially later, said rude things about the reasoning capacity of a citizenry saturated by phony images from sensationalistic media.

But if it's the latter, then I demur vigorously (if still genteelly). I think progressives maybe teetered between the two positions described above (only a saint could never grow frustrated with the reasoning capacity of a citizenry saturated by phony images from sensationalistic media, and so maybe Dewey was a saint, but you can't build a political movement on expectations of saintliness) but that their basic philosophy was as I described it.

Let's look for example at James Kloppenberg on Lippmann's fellow New Republican, Herbert Croly. Kloppenberg explains that Croly's 1909 book, The Promise of American Life "occasionally seemed to depend on the sensitive, dynamic individuals who lead rather than the unimaginative masses who follow." But in his 1914 Progressive Democracy, he "replaced that residue of faith in a Comtean priesthood with a more clearly manifested faith in the democratic will, a faith inspired by pragmatism." And then Kloppenberg quotes Croly saying that democracy

assumes the ability of the human intelligence to frame temporary programs which will provide a sufficient foundation for significant and fruitful action. It anticipates that as a result of such action a progressive democracy will learn how to be progressively democratic.

Kloppenberg goes on to summarize the position like this:

First, knowledge is never a simple reflection of the world outside us. It inevitably contains a fiduciary element; its verification requires us, in James's phrase, to "trade on each other's truth." Second, neither this pragmatic knowledge nor the sort of progress stemming from it is automatic. Third, our intelligence cannot yield definite answers to social questions; it only enables us to construct possible solutions ... solutions we must then test in practice. Finally, no abstract scheme of progress can be presented in advance; as individuals and as a society we can only tackle our problems instrumentally....1

This Croly sounds to me very much like the exactly contemporaneous Lippmann who argues that there's a need for progress away-from, rather than progress toward; the Lippmann who sees the progressive project as dissolving altogether the existence of "authority" in society. Actually, with the book in front of me I see Kloppenberg says much the same about Lippmann:

Lippmann's faith in science was not naive.... not the science of positivism but the ... experimentalism of James.... Lippmann insisted that nothing can be more unscientific that the masquerade of certainty, and only one sort of political system leaves room for, and even insists upon, doubt. "There is nothing accidental then in the fact that democracy in politics is the twin-brother of scientific thinking."... This was precisely the argument that Dewey had tried repeatedly to make, but he never made it more persuasively--perhaps because he never made it so clearly.2

Neither Lippmann nor Croly, Kloppenberg points out, ever did such good work again--and Kloppenberg attributes it to the pressures of producing weekly prose. (What will happen to thinkers who blog?) But it was, at this high-water mark of progressivism, their position.

Was this idea limited to highbrows (or if you're really picky, middle-highbrows and up)? I argued in this book that no, it wasn't. Which tells us a little I hope about the relevance of this argument today. As John Judis pointed out in comments on the previous post, this is the period when "progressive" and "liberal" in our modern American senses diverge; it's useful to understand why. Another commenter on the previous post asked why I hadn't quoted the recent NYRoB exchange between Thomas Nagel and Michael Sandel. The answer is, I hadn't got it in the mail yet (some things I still have to read on paper). But what Sandel says about liberalism's "unconvincing neutral ground" and what Nagel says about the restraint of liberalism echoes Lippmann and Brinkley on liberalism reasonably nicely; this is still an important debate.
1This is on 315-6 of the linked book.
2Ibid., 319-20.

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