About three months ago, two well produced thirty second ads, focusing on the dictionary definitions of liberalism and conservatism, caused a stir on YouTube. Liberalism was painted as "free from bigotry," "favoring proposals for reform," "open to new ideas" and, above all, "progress" oriented. Conservatism, on the other hand, was "resistant to change" and "unimaginatively conventional." The punch-line is a direct question: Are you sure you are a conservative and not a liberal?
These stereotypes follow much of the conventional wisdom about what separates liberals and conservatives: liberals want to reinvent society for the better, conservatives are thick-headed and resistant to change. Much of the left (especially on the West Coast and in several Mountain states) now self identifies as "progressive." To grow this new constituency, democratic think tanks trumpeting the message of progress and the role of new technologly have started to form.
Just as liberalism was redefined away from its 19th century meaning—there is now classical liberalism (adherents of free market policies) and modern liberalism (the very opposite)—progressivism grew away from its early 20th century meaning. Unlike the anti-business, quasi-socialist progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt, modern progressives, in the words of Markos Moulitsas, seek "restrained government, fiscal responsibility, and—most important of all—individual freedoms." (Italics in original.)
This redefinition of the Democratic Party isn't a coincidence. One of the core challenges now facing the Party is the collapse of the New Deal coalition and adaptation to the underlying economic realities that brought it about. Bill Clinton's rallying cry to "end government as we know it" was an attempt to reform government along private sector lines. Democrats needed to discover new ways of providing security for the middle class and welfare for the most disadvantaged, while promoting individual responsibility and liberty.
We have now entered what has been termed the "post-Fordist" economy. In the 1990s, microprocessors and primitive forms of networked communication and decision making—DarpaNet and its civilian manifestation: the Internet—changed the economic rules of the game. The need for increasing flexibility and mobility defied traditional regulatory mechanisms and put the state into retreat. Big Labor, for example, saw its unionized voting block decrease by nearly two thirds—from 27% in 1930, to 10% in 1997. Nowhere is this change better demonstrated than by the growth of the post-industrial Silicon Valley and the fall of the industrial Route 66.
The "New Politics"—which tries to addresses changing demographic and technological realities—started in 1992 with President Clinton and has only accelerated as Democrats engaged in soul-searching following 2000, 2002 and 2004. This group, according to Moulitsas, stems from the "growing ranks of Western Democrats who...will hopefully lead to the reformation of the Democratic Party and a new embrace of the politics of personal liberty." Seen objectively, the New Politics is a way of leveraging the private sector to make government more accountable, more efficient and more oriented towards promoting liberty and progress.
The progressive crew behind Howard Dean, for example, used the Internet and other private sector techniques to orient politics around the average citizen, providing a way of moving the policy debate from Washington, to the living room or basement of any individual with a computer. The power of the individual was cemented when Dean proved that many small donations could be just as effective as a few large ones.
The only problem is that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who, in principle, represent the goal of individual liberty and private sector solutions to public sector problems. Democrats often seek to do just the opposite: inserting government, in the form of regulation and taxes, into the private sector. So why are progressives supporting Democrats instead of Republicans? Two reasons. First, and most importantly, the principles of conservatism have been misrepresented. Second, there is some disagreement between progressives and Republicans on the proper role of government.
The mischaracterization of conservatism stems from an ignorance of how American conservatism differs from European conservatism. In 1957, the young political scientist Samuel Huntington, according to Mark Henrie, famously defined American conservatism, as an ideology seeking to "conserve and consolidate the progressive liberal tradition." Since America was founded on enlightenment liberalism, conservation of the status quo meant a vigorous defense of meritocracy, individual freedom and free markets. This stands in contrast to European conservatism, which was pushed forward by Agrarian landholders seeking to defend aristocracy from the radical concepts of democracy and capitalism.
Many current Republicans have perpetuated the Democratic characterization by championing socially illiberal causes such as blunt government intrusion into the issues of, for example, gay marriage—as opposed to letting the standards of society guide policy by deferring decision making to States and the Judiciary. Republicans have also displayed an alarming degree of cronyism. Overcome by current events, progressives fear that the Republican Party is being dominated by the excesses of Barry Goldwater and Pat Robertson.
Corruption has also reached a critical level, boiling over into several visible scandals. But corruption isn't confined to one party. The 109th Congress was chastised by Democrats for putting politics ahead of the common good and using majority status to stymie dissent. Low and behold, when in power, Speaker Nancy Pelosi committed every sin she so vehemently denounced on November 6th. Republicans have been routinely shut out from voting on their own proposals during debate. Within a week of returning to Capitol Hill, Democrats threw a reception for "big-name democratic lobbyists." Not to mention that K Street "firms are hiring away key Democratic congressional staff members."
The point isn't to argue that the Democrats are more corrupt than Republicans (they probably aren't), but to show that corruption is the white noise of government. The only way to keep the negative effects of corruption and politicization to a minimum is to keep government to a minimum. Progressives understood this when they call for reform measures that limit the power of the public sector in relation to the private sector (for instance over personal liberty issues).
When it comes to economics, the progressive vision is slightly more complicated. Progressives see the success of areas such as Silicon Valley as a consequence of massive government expenditure in infrastructure, education and—most progressives don't like to admit this—defense. Under the progressive vision, government should play the role of enabler.
It rightly caused a stir when Nicco Mele, Howard Dean's head webmaster, joined the McCain campaign. He did so because McCain exemplified those virtues progressives seek: McCain championed individual liberty and spearheaded reform proposals—such as campaign finance reform. McCain isn't the only Republican who exemplifies freedom and progress. When former Mayor Giuliani called upon the Republican Party to "redefine itself as 'the party of freedom,'" it was more than just rhetorical flourish. It was a call to reassert the defining Republican concern for the consolidation of the progressive liberal tradition: individual liberty, free markets and small government.
Instead of using government resources to directly improve the lives of individuals, compassionate conservatism—or progressive Republicanism—is the belief that government is a tool to help the private sector advance socially agreed upon goals. Discussing the public school system, Rudy Giuliani noted that he would use private sector techniques to help "revive it, reform it, and change it," not dismantle it. Similarly, while the exact merits of Romney's market-based healthcare can be debated, it is in some ways a step in the right direction. More importantly, it was enacted in an overwhelmingly blue state.
Progressives need to get past their knee-jerk attribution of malign intent to Republican reform efforts. Instead, they should look at the virtues of a policy using the rubric of individual liberty, private sector efficiency and the changing economic realities of America—the very defining principles of their ideology. If their goal truly is progress, then their best bet may be the Republican party.
Jacob Aronson is a research fellow at the World Without War Council, a Berkeley non-profit seeking domestic leadership in progress towards American security and stable international peace.