Progressives for Change?

The air is currently filled with bright-eyed cries for change and promises of hope, “hope you can believe in,” from Americans proud to call themselves “progressives.” Amidst all this good cheer – which this very week has even been liberally spread about the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the more elderly parts of Europe, who have even been told that we will be tearing down a series of longstanding walls “between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew” – it may seem churlish to spoil the party by asking for some specifics about where this change will take us, what it hopes to accomplish, and what in our current circumstances constitutes progress, though such specifics appear be in very short supply.

But there is a still more fundamental question than these policy issues. As someone who has learned much from my fellow-convert, G. K. Chesterton, I can’t help but think that the old man would laugh heartily at all the folks who yearn for “progressive change.” He would surely point out that the same people would be insulted if you called them “dogmatic,” yet the logic of their slogans flatly requires dogma ( as “hope you can believe” in suggests). Chesterton explains in Heretics:

Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible – at any rate, without believing in some infallibility…. [Progress] is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

The logic is simple: Change can only bring the hope of progress if we first know the direction we should go. But in an odd modern sentimentality – perhaps we should say a “faith” that does not want to spell out too clearly what its underlying creed contains – many people blindly believe that promises of change, in any direction, change for change’s sake, will bring us happiness and salvation.

Let us stipulate that a good portion of this will to believe stems from an unholy hatred of all things George W. Bush, as if the mere negation of what the president has stood for must of necessity be holy and just. Blind faith of this kind has in the past ushered in bloody revolutions – just think of how bloody France became after it threw out the allegedly intolerable tyranny of its king. In milder forms, it has produced the poignant faith in, say, Jimmy Carter, a man who attracted political converts with an appeal to honesty and with vague promises of newness following the Watergate scandals and the bumbling blandness of Gerald Ford, but who later left his former votaries sadder and wiser.

Chesterton’s calm objectivity contrasts starkly with the political sentimentality blowing about us in this unusually windy election year. But if the crowds may largely be excused for their emotional inebriation, their leaders are perhaps a bit more sober – and calculating. For insight on this score, let us recall another famous Catholic who visited our shores, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. He had a keen ear for political foolishness when he toured the country in the 1830s and later devoted a chapter in his classic Democracy in America to our use of language. There he skewered our susceptibility to gauzy generalities – and suggested some motives for such loose talk.

He first observed that the most characteristic trait of our speech is the “continual use of generic terms and abstract words.” The Americans Tocqueville met frequently spoke of “actualities,” a term that conveniently lumps together “everything taking place” before our eyes in one word. Ditto “eventualities,” which covers “all that can happen in the universe,” after the moment in which I am speaking.

The frequent invocation of abstract terms, say Tocqueville, “used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it. They make expression quicker but conceptions less clear.” From that time to this, our nimbler American politicians have been especially fond of such obscurity. By exploiting vague abstractions, they “are never obliged by unchanging circumstances to stick firmly to any view once held.” After all, they “will often have vacillating thoughts, and so language must be loose enough to leave them play. As they never know whether what they say today will fit the facts of tomorrow, they have a natural taste for abstract terms.”

Tocqueville shuffled off this mortal coil in 1859, but you could put his words on today’s editorial page and no one would find them dated. So next time you find yourself marveling at some pol’s elaborate vagaries, let Tocqueville whisper a warning in your ear: “An abstract word is like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.”

Scott Walter is a senior fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The views expressed are his own.