I’ve heard this from progressives and left-wing activists, including my own family. They say, usually after a long stream of unfortunate events, and following a glaring failure on the part of some progressive party they had invested their hopes in, that the conservative/reactionary party(ies) seem more honest, at the end of the day. I’ve heard this said about Trump, and I’ve certainly heard it said by more right-wing, less liberal people. This opens up. many streams of thought for me, and I’d like to focus on three of them: firstly, what does it mean to be liberal, or progressive? Is it an economic viewpoint or a social one? Can it be anything else? Secondly, why is it that conservative parties can seem more “down-to-earth”, “pragmatic”? Thirdly, why are progressive parties so disappointing? And all of these are, to me, related questions.
Starting with the question of the realm of progressivism, we have the complicated task of defining its borders. Is it simply a political term? What does progressivism mean? And how is it opposed to conservatism? There are academic definitions, and then there are “feelings”. In reality, people who define themselves as progressive can differ wildly in their opinion on various subjects. To most, however, it seems as though investing wealth into the governing body’s own people is the way forward. By that, I mean education, public health, social welfare, and going as far as the arts. Investing in people seems to make them less stressed, more cooperative. They have more energy and time to invest back into their society. They feel a sense of community, and they are more likely to create, whether it is a business, a scientific tool or a painting. But these are the same people that can invest their resources into holding governments accountable. These are all my own understanding of socio-political issues. To me, they also explain some economical decisions by “progressive” parties, such as taxing the rich. But the truth is, for me, progressivism goes deeper than that. It is a belief that people – anyone – can thrive if given the right tools and resources. It’s also a belief that the world is more beautiful when everyone is doing well, or as well as they could be. Hidden within this belief is something that has only become apparent to me recently. It’s the fact that being lazy, and not doing anything outwardly productive should be a right, and not a luxury afforded to the rich who are allowed to make themselves richer without trying. That’s because I believe that important things happen within us when we’re not trying to (or having to) be outwardly productive, and we currently have the resources to feed everyone without having to work more than we already are. We just hoard them, myself included, by virtue of my Canadian passport.
So, in a sense, progressivism is an all-encompassing philosophy that relates to what we believe to be most beautiful. And that philosophy often finds its roots in our world-view, and the life that we have lived so far. I’ve lived a relatively good life, and with parents that try their best to love me, and that translated into an optimistic world-view. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, and this is only my own personal views informed by my journey. People will disagree. But I’ve come to believe that this sort of progressivism, when applied thoroughly, has no borders, and finds its leadership in the most marginalized people, truly. Because you cannot be healing from the deepest pains and yet wish that same pain on others, and you cannot be progressive and believe that war is a valid solution to a problem where there was no war to begin with. I’m reserving my opinions about the occupation of Palestine, because that is a horrendous situation that I don’t fully understand, but I cannot condemn a people who are fighting for their very right to exist, just as they lose everything, from land, to wealth, to family, to life. The point is, if you believe that life is beautiful, you could never truly wish for another person to lose theirs. An oversimplification that has served me well in times of despair.
And so, in essence, progressivism is based on a dream, something founded on reality as we wish for it to be. And for that reason, it can seem out of reach, and for many people, investing in something out of reach can feel like a waste. For me, however, imagination is our one assured link to a better future.
That was a whole spiel in itself, but we were asking ourselves why conservatism “feels” more “grounded”. I use quotes, because these are words that mean different things to different people, and I can’t pretend to know exactly what they mean to them. It is my own impression that I’ll try to convey. Conservatism, to me, can “feel” more grounded because it’s a political philosophy that aims to maintain things as they are, regardless of any existing inequities. There’s something very tangible about maintaining what is. There is a very real danger to one’s way of life, when confronted with change. Immigrants come and they come with their own cultural baggage. Improving the living condition of the most marginalized people poses a real threat to the way of life of the wealthy, who will no longer have access to a poor working class in need of wages. And that change will cause ripples throughout society. Conservatism is, from where I’m sitting, fundamentally opposed to fundamental change. Improving things is ok, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the structures that conservatives find familiar and comforting, and that often includes social hierarchy. This is where the definition falls apart. What can truly be improved in the lives of people who need it the most, without fundamental, structural change? And whose interests are truly being protected? Whose way of life is being preserved, and at what cost?
So far, my conflict with conservatism has mostly been ideological. But beyond the slogans and the promised, there is another issue. Conservative parties, much like progressive ones, are allowed to present themselves in one way, and behave in a different way. For example, conservative parties, maybe in line with their interests, tend to invest in policing, and often have relaxed views of natural conservation. Again, it’s important to ask whose way of life they try to preserve. However, more “progressive” parties can enact similarly regressive policies, but hide it behind the veil of their ideals to shield themselves from criticism. The truth is, to be truly progressive, many parties would have to attack many of the same institutions that are responsible for keeping them in power. Plus, many of the industries that are harmful to our collective well-being contribute financially to our way of life. Disrupting them would mean drastic changes in our way of life, like getting rid of the oil industry in Canada and suffering the economic consequences. And in that sense, most governments are conservative! And in truth, changes like that are so important that it would take considerable planning and research to tackle them. Same goes for defunding the police, or improving the educational system. So, regardless of their promises, many progressive parties are bound to disappoint.
Overall, this is why I consider myself politically progressive, but at the same time, I have more than a healthy dose of skepticism regarding politics. In fact, while I believe in the importance of understanding some politics, I don’t believe in them. Not as a solution to our problems. The living situation of the most marginalized folks belies a much more radical change. We were never meant to ostracize the homeless, or blame their situation on some sort of moral failing. Police brutality? Racial discrimination? Why are these accepted parts of our daily lives? And why aren’t we dropping everything to solve these issues? Going to Mars is escaping problems we could solve with the same resources. It’s a vanity project, and a serious disservice to the people who could use the help. But in the end, this is who we are right now. We are all of it, and we are maybe even a little bit afraid, all of us, of being the most marginalized. So, we avoid rocking the boat so much that we might end up at the very bottom.