Critique of the Week: Ross Douthat

By Steve McIntosh

In this column I offer constructive critiques of public figures I admire by pointing out how they could benefit from a developmental perspective.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Ross Douthat continues to explore a theme he has been developing in his column over the past year. Namely, how the internal contradictions of progressivism may ultimately prevent it from holding onto the institutional power it has recently gained. 

As a symbol progressivism’s institutional ascendency, Douthat points to the CIA’s latest recruitment video wherein a 36-year-old Latina operative uses the jargon of critical theory to tout her rise through the ranks of the Agency. Douthat argues that the newly “woke CIA” is a sign of “the completion of progressivism’s march through the institutions.”

Yet unlike most other conservative intellectuals, Douthat seems to be more intrigued than threatened by the rising power of progressive culture. While he is quick to point out the pitfalls of progressive ideology, he argues that as progressivism increasingly becomes the new establishment, the radical rejectionism that is baked into its cultural DNA will render it unable to effectively run America’s major institutions. Writes Douthat: “The tension between this institutionalism and the promised radical change may eventually be the new progressivism’s undoing. … The actual application of radical ideas outside the protected spaces of the elite, to issues of crime and policing especially, may lead to breakdowns that cost progressives not just an election but their commanding position within the establishment as well.”

In support of his argument, Douthat approvingly cites the work of conservative political scientist Richard Hanania, who contends that because progressives are naturally more idealistic than conservatives—and thus more activist—it is inevitable that progressives will eventually come to control most of society’s institutions. According to Hanania, democracies tend to reflect the will of their activist class.

I agree with Douthat and Hanania that when it comes to reformist zeal, conservatives are at a competitive disadvantage with progressives. However, I take issue with the notion that idealism inevitably moves to the left. While the motivation to overcome society’s ills is most often associated with left-wing activism, idealists are also sometimes called to moderate or correct the excesses of the left. George Orwell, for example, although a committed socialist, strongly denounced communist totalitarianism. 

While Douthat clearly understands progressivism from the outside (as a conservative Catholic) and from the inside (as a columnist for the New York Times), he tends to see conservatism as the only alternative to leftist idealism. His thinking is thus trapped in an overly simplistic conceptual frame of either left or right, which causes him to pose a false dichotomy—a flattened political geometry—wherein public opinion can only move back and forth along a horizontal political continuum. Idealism, however, can break out of this outworn horizontal framing by moving up. 

Douthat shows why the internal contradictions of progressivism place firm limits on the growth of its power. And it is these very limitations that provide the points of departure for idealism, which is now beginning to reach for a broader kind of inclusivity that contemporary progressivism is not capable of providing. In other words, the restless motivation of idealism is beginning to seek a kind of political higher ground; a position that is effectively “outside and above” the gridlocked spectrum of left and right. If Douthat were to adopt a more developmental perspective—one that is capable of recognizing a vertical dimension of normative growth—he might come to appreciate how idealism itself has the power to escape permanent capture by the left. 

Progressivism has come to dominate America’s mainstream institutions by standing against the negative externalities of what Douthat calls “secularized liberalism.” Its power is therefore grounded in a position of staunch antithesis to the old modernist establishment. But now that this stance of antithesis has risen to become America’s new establishment, this signals the potential for a dialectical move toward the next level of cultural synthesis. And this impending synthesis is now being advanced by the emerging post-progressive political movement. As explained in the pages of The Developmentalist, idealism’s next move is not “rightward,” it’s “upward.”

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