Monday, February 4, 2013

Unstoppable Force, Immovable Object: The Debate Between Progress and Tradition

In 2009, Howard Fineman wrote The Thirteen American Arguments. It's a book I've referenced in several other posts, and continues to be one of my favorite commentaries on American politics and social policy. The genius of Fineman's book is that he does not argue a singular point on the issues, but rather explains the debate and why it is important. The underlying point of his book is that the debate on issues like immigration, marriage rights, gun control, health care, taxation, representation, and the role of government are not only useful but essential to the health of our Democracy. Without a strong environment of beneficial, respectful argument, our Democracy is lost.

From this perspective, I have developed my own view on the forces that are at play in our politics and our society as a whole. They help to explain our history, how our society has changed, and how we can interpret change in the future. There are essentially two great forces at work at all times: Progress and Tradition.

Progress, being the unstoppable force, is the source of innovation and change. It is the force that drives us toward greater and greater equality. Progress, however, can go too far too fast, causing a situation where our society and culture suddenly shift in dramatic ways that we as the people are not ready for. When this happens, things can become chaotic. Think of the Civil Rights Movement being born out of the major shift in Progress that was the Civil War. The war was a huge collision between the forces of progress and tradition, which had brewed for decades or even centuries.

Tradition, being the immovable object, is the source of historical relevence, doing what works, and keeping things the same. Tradition prevents progress in the worst cases, and slows it in the best. Tradition is what gives us our perspective, our personality, and our history. It cannot be ignored, but it must be tempered.

Inevitably, Progress will win out over Tradition. There is no escaping this, except to become a country ruled by dictatorship, in which case we will have lost Democracy anyway. What we must do is demand that Progress be brought under control and put in the perspective of our traditions. Currently, our two-party system is reflecting a growing tension between Progress and Tradition. Democrats and the Left, currently the party of Progress, are pushing us towards a more egalitarian society with their positions on things like gay rights, abortion rights, gun control, immigration, and taxation. On the other side of this issue are Republicans and the Right, currently the party of strong Tradition, who are working to prevent new freedoms and restrictions from going into effect where none existed before, all in the name of preserving our countries founding principles.

I say that the parties currently express these views because they have not always done so. In the last few decades alone, the Republicans have gone much further to the Right (the reasons for this shift are debatable and many), while the Left has been made to seem more liberal by comparison. In fact, Republicans were once much like Democrats, looking for Progress in Washington, and fighting those who believed states had the right to choose their own direction. The fact that the parties switch positions and even sides over time is well documented.

As I said, Progress is the inevitable victor in this fight. But Tradition plays the important role of slowing progress so that our society can adequately adjust the movement of progress to keep it within the scope of our founding principles, and allow us time to adjust our perspectives and capacities to take on the new demands of our society. It is this debate that will never be resolved, nor should be, because it is what tempers our nation's progress and forges us into a stronger, more unified country as times passes.

We have reached a point of critical mass in this debate. I will not say that this is like the atmosphere that preceded any other great historical event, because I don't know that for sure. But it feels as if the lines that have been drawn in the sand are only deepening for either side, that our great engine of Democracy, which runs on compromise, is running down. When Democracy stalls, chaos ensues. Already we are seeing the effects. Radicalization of our politics, the adoption of conviction to ideals over reason and respect, a breakdown of our social fabric as our leaders turn into screaming children who aren't getting their way.

The reason for this build-up is that Progress has suddenly seemed to grow strong. There are many avenues through which our society has attempted to progress. Healthcare is a big one, with Obamacare dividing the nation almost in half. Then, we have the push for gay rights and reproductive rights. We have the push for immigration reform. We have the push for gun control reforms. And, to a lesser degree, we have movements for reform in things like drugs, information technologies, and education. Even the debates over the role of government and taxation, major arguments of our history, are heating up with the new fight over tax rates and regulations. It seems as if our political system is coming to a climax of contention.

And why shouldn't it? After all, if our political parties are becoming more and more radical, and the doctrine and ideologies of Washington are becoming more entrenched, and there can be no compromise, and there can be no respectful argument, then why shouldn't we be seeing a major build-up in the energy of both Progress and Tradition? They have no avenue to see their ideas take shape, and thus feel as if they are being smothered by the opposition. No one is getting anything done, and they all think it's the other guys' fault.

The best example of this I can give is the recently revived debate over gun rights. In 1999, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, supported instant criminal background checks at gun shows, and for every gun sale. In this video, which analyzes the recent hearings on gun violence, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) questions LaPierre on his change of heart on background checks (the entire video is good, but you can skip to 6:00 to catch this exchange). As the parties have become more and more committed to their fringe extremist views (the Right mostly, but some on the left as well), groups like the NRA have revamped their positions and talking points to reflect this shift, remain relevent, and in some cases drive this change forward. This exchange clearly highlights the gaping chasm of views that plague Washington now, and show just how difficult it has become for there to be compromise and negotiation, the driving forces of Democracy. You can see clearly that no one wins, nothing is resolved, and no progress toward a compromise or any kind of agreement is made. Nothing in this entire exchange moves the groups closer to reaching a mutually beneficial deal, because they are diametrically opposed to each other's views.

All this tension, this build-up of ideology, will erupt. I don't know when, but it will. Those on the Right believe the government is poised for a takeover, and have been screaming about revolution (armed or otherwise) for years. Look at Glenn Beck, and his popularity as someone who regularly warns his listeners to arm themselves, build bunkers, start storing food, and essentially defy the government. On the Left, I think people are feeling a revolution coming on, but a revolution of activism and tumultuous politics, not armed insurgency. It seems as though they are planning for a major political bout over these issues.

In the end, Progress will win out. And if Tradition does not play its part of moderating that Progress, we will have some very serious issues to deal with. Imagine if the party of Progress were given free reign to do what they wanted. If you take the Liberal talking points at face value, you're looking at rising taxes on the wealhty and businesses, fully government-supported health care, education, energy investment, infrastructure, and technology. You're looking at a reduction in our military spending, and probably in our foreign involvement. Limiting the rights of gun owners, environmental protection, gay rights, abortion rights, strict laws on food and health goods and services, and so on. While these may sound good, nothing is good without moderation. These kinds of initiatives could bankrupt the country, plunge us into recession or depression, and we would not have the facilities, institutions, policies, or professionals to meet all these new needs at once. It would be chaos.

This is why Tradition must be observed. Like it or not, we are bound to our founding documents and laws. Whether you take a broad or narrow view of a certain amendment or clause, the law must be observed. I know that many people believe that the government is already well outside the boundaries that it was meant to occupy. However, I feel this is the natural result of our Progress over the last centuries. It is the inevitable change that comes with changes in technology, in social policy, and in the needs of our country. Our founding fathers could not foresee automatic rifles, the internet, or automobiles, but that doesn't mean the government has no influence over them. That kind of static, ineffective governance is the whim of pure Traditionalists, and is just as destructive to consider as a fully Progressive government and society.

In the end, it all comes down to compromise, the one thing we lack at this point, and the one thing we most desperately need. I hope that the coming years will see growth and Progress in ways that are meaningful, and seek to repair the relationship between our parties, and I hope to see a renewed sense of faith in our Traditions and founding principles. Together, these two forces will be what drives us into the future, or keep us firmly rooted in the past.


Anonymous said...

wow, glad I found your blog! It's good to see someone thinking through the political climate in a reasonable manner.

samp said...

Good one. As you can guess I am a traditionalist. I firmly believe in the Constitution of the United States. Our founders were wise enough to allow for amendments but very few and with much debate. Progress in my estimation is killing our country. I know sounds crazy huh? I don't mean moving forward and getting better kind of progress. I mean the "Progressives" kind of progress. Government run and controlled everything. Look around. Just about everything the government has control over or runs is a failure, i.e. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, U.S Postal Service, Amtrak. I could go on. Not failures in that they are not still around, just failures because they all put each of us further and further into debt. Not to mention taking taxpayer money for that great "green" investment call Solyndra (sic)...Why is it they can't find private investors in "green" energy? Who the hell in their right mind would put their money in a project so prone to total failure with no or little return on the investment? So, we the taxpayers subsidize it and loose too. In Vermont we are raping our ridge lines for very little return. Another example of Progress trumping tradition. Sad. I've spouted off enough. Just reiterate I am not against progress but simply they way in which the Progressives use it.....God Bless America...oh maybe I shouldn't say that anymore. That's progress; removing God from out schools, town halls, sporting events and the Pledge of Allegiance. People want to know why things are the way they are maybe they should first look at the removal of God from our lives. Ah Progress.