Beware progressives who don’t believe in progress — and conservatives who don’t conserve institutions

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The Hill 19.01.2023


Beware progressives who don’t believe in progress — and conservatives who don’t conserve institutions


The sputtering, 15-round launch  to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s  speakership showcased the power of today’s Republican extremists. Evidently addicted to social media’s polarizing oversimplifications, these flame-throwers must prefer noise-making to legislating. Unfortunately, despite dramatic partisan differences, the Republicans don’t have a monopoly on radical legislators whose lack of faith in America and its government undermines efforts to restore faith in America and its government. This 118th  Congress should come with a political warning label: “This Congress contains progressives who don’t believe in progress and conservatives who don’t conserve institutions.”

Despite a long history of extremists, America has developed — and improved — thanks to its muscular moderates. They keep preserving the constitutional system while updating it. Such backward-and-forward juggling honors conservative Revolutionaries such as George Washington,  who rebelled only because Great Britain assailed the status quo. Similarly, America’s greatest reformers were progressive constitutionalists. Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Betty Friedan, fixed what was wrong while honoring what went right in America too.


Dictionaries define conservatives  as “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc.” and “to limit change.” America’s greatest conservatives, from Alexander Hamilton to Ronald Reagan,  inherited the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke’s “reverence” for “civil institutions.” Burke explained in 1790  that conservatives trust their Founders’ wisdom, the government’s “age,” and its effectiveness in maintaining “a rational and manly freedom.”

Reagan bristled when followers called his presidential program “The Reagan Revolution.” He called it “the great rediscovery ” — “of our values and our common sense.”

This steady red, white and blue drumbeat of American conservative patriotism clashes with today’s heavy-metal Trumpian tantrums. From Donald Trump’s  bashing of America’s “carnage” during his 2017 inauguration , to the Capitol’s trashing  on Jan. 6, 2021, MAGA conservatives keep assailing America’s governing institutions. Calls to “Make America Great Again,” infused with conspiratorial whispers about “The Swamp” and “The Deep State,” suggest their “Great” America is long gone — and that America’s government is irredeemably broken.

This New Nihilism leans left, too. Rhetoric denouncing “systemic racism” denies America’s dramatic break with slavery and Jim Crow while also treating America as forever flawed. When Sen. Bernie Sanders  (I-Vt.) says  “structural problems require structural solutions,” hope endures; when he adds that “Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, education has remained separate and unequal,” he robs Americans of the chance to chart some progress to learn how to progress more. Similarly, when Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) tweets , categorically, “Racism & white supremacy remain the bedrock of our legal system,” or Rep. Jammal Bowman (D-N.Y.) says that  “our current system of capitalism is slavery by another name,” these members of Congress shut down the sifting, brainstorming, and hoping needed to evolve.

Such rhetoric — and assumptions — left and right, leave no room for compromise, for incrementalism, for short-term concessions that can achieve long-term gains. During his winning “Yes We Can” 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama  warned against this  “profoundly distorted view of this country” that “sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” American society, he insisted, is not “static.” Instead, he said, “America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”

Six years later, as president, Obama acknowledged  that, especially when governing, you learn that “progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating, and sometimes you’re stymied.” He understood that in “a time when cynicism is too often passed off as wisdom, it’s perhaps easy to conclude that there are limits to change; that we are trapped by our own history; and politics is a fool’s errand.”


Obama rejected such pessimism, insisting the “story of America is a story of progress … however slow, however incomplete.” He believed that “with enough effort, and enough empathy, and enough perseverance, and enough courage, people who love their country can change it.” Defying his many allies opposing that vision, Obama titled his 2020 memoir, “A Promised Land .”

The American people apparently agree. Finding constructive conservatism and progressive progressivism is good politics, too. Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020 by championing progress, the system, and American values. In perhaps 2022’s most significant campaigns, every election denier  seeking to run future state vote-counts lost — Americans won’t hire barnburners as umpires.

This popular move is also the noble and necessary move: Only by rebalancing both extremes while reinforcing the center can our leaders conserve America’s governing institutions, which, whatever their shortcomings, long have been our most effective progress-generating and hope-affirming vehicles.  

A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of  The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.