In 2016 following the vote on Brexit, an American political journalist wrote:
“But what if progressivism isn’t inevitable at all? What if people will always be inclined by nature to love their own — themselves, their families, their neighbors, members of their churches, their fellow citizens, their country — more than they love the placeless abstraction of “humanity”? In that case, the act of ignoring or even denigrating this love will have the effect of provoking its defensive wrath and ultimately making it stronger.”Damon Linker 2016
His piece posed the problem of a kind of progressive fallacy: the illusion that things always get better, and that the arc of history bends upwards, and in accordance with the values and ideas of a certain proportion of the population. John Gray, the English political philosopher, presents a more comprehensive and incisive account of this lie of human progress, and of the terrible consequences in recent times of such progressive utopianism – whether that be the utopianism of free marketeers on the left and right, or disastrous policies towards Russia or the moral plague of censorious hyper-liberal identity politics. The antidote, in Gray’s view, is a dose of political realism, and the acceptance that some, if not all, political or social problems have no real solution, that conflicting purposes and disagreement on values are the necessary state of any human community and the defining condition of all polities.
Since May 2019 progressive Australia has been going through its very own Brexit or Trump crisis. The progressive cause, a crusade for fairness, the “best shadow Cabinet since Hawke” lost the “unloseable election”. They suffered the hubris of an encounter with the facts of history, not the upward arc of idealistic dreams. In the eyes of this faction of the polity, who have learnt now they are but one faction, with fewer supporters than they had imagined, the people, who in other slogans they claim to put first, had revealed they are not members of the elect who will enter the progressive heaven. They are “dumb” and Australia has revealed itself to be, in a revealing phrase from Jane Caro, a “backward-looking country.”
There is little sign that this group will learn from the surprising gap between idea and reality. Scapegoats will be found, such as the unpopular Bill Shorten. Facts will be reinterpreted in obvious but foolish ways, such as that only x votes had to change and the result could be different. The para-political mercenary class of advisers, consultants and marketeers will talk about branding, and strategy, and campaign techniques. Factions within the faction will defend their favoured policies, and sabotage those they never really admired. But very few if any will go to the fundamental weakness of the progressive cause when it aspires to govern the country.
That weakness is the addiction to the “case for change.” Bill Shorten spoke about this tired cliche of corporate life and progressive pitching at the campaign launch of the Labor Party’s campaign in May 2019:
“Our great country needs real change – because more of the same isn’t good enough for Australia. Our case for change rests on all the great things we are determined to achieve for our country’s future. Everything from equality for women, to getting the NDIS back on track. Our agenda is ambitious – it aims high. We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing the future over the past.”Bill Shorten May 2019
It was Paul Keating who cemented a key progressive illusion into political dogma when he said – when the government changes, the country changes. The absurdity of such a claim was not apparent to those gazing at themselves within the political hall of mirrors. So too, the idea of choosing – truly, choosing?! – the future over the past only confirmed the Labor speechwriters in their misunderstanding of what was happening around them. They showed not a hint of understanding Edmund Burke’s claim that governmetn is a contract between the past, present and future.
To govern a country does not require the government to change the country in the name of an unlknowable future. Still less does it require one faction, who may represent the views of something less than 30 per cent of the country, to change all those who they oppose or just differ from, but who have their own affections, loyalties, traditions, cultures, memories, wounds and hopes. Progressives stand on a soap box and say be like me, or else. They do not realise that the crowd they denigrate may wish to choose a leader who likes them, even if not quite like them, not a leader who seeks to reshape them in his or her (or still worse some gender-confused pronoun) ideas. They seek someone who is a fair magistrate, who may govern the country, and its ceaseless conflicts and intractable problems. Not someone who seeks to change the country, offering a future bound in the chains of their illusions and self-interest.
Image credit: John Gray at the Brainwash Festival, wikipedia