Posted: December 27, 2005
A review of Citizenship and Democratic Doubt: The Legacy of Progressive Thought, by Bob Pepperman Taylor
ob Pepperman Taylor has written a useful book, but not perhaps for the reasons he supposes. Taylor, whose book is part of the esteemed American Political Thought series edited by Lance Banning and the late Wilson Carey McWilliams, is clearly a modern liberal. He looks back to the Progressives at the turn of the 20th century because they were the first generation to challenge systematically the principles and achievements of the American Founders. Like the Progressives, Taylor insists that our rights need no foundation in God or nature, but can be vigorously defended by a purely "pragmatic assessment." And he agrees that the Constitution and the judiciary are undemocratic. But he is not principally interested in pursuing these matters or in offering a general interpretation of Progressivism. Instead, he focuses on how key Progressive thinkers understood democratic citizenship in a large, heterogeneous modern state. His aim is to save Progressivism from some of its worst impulses, and thereby redeem its legacy; but he succeeds so thoroughly in exposing its leading figures' flaws that his book will interest critics of the movement as much as its admirers.
A professor of political science and Dean of the Honors College at the University of Vermont, Taylor approaches the subject indirectly, beginning with the Greeks, who invented democracy, but not the kind the founders or the Progressives had in mind. What he admires is a certain communitarian strain that emerges from his reading of Plato's Crito and Sophocles' Antigone. According to Taylor, both Crito and Ismene, the sister of Antigone, exhibit a moral realism that respects the equal dignity of citizens who disagree with them and does not demand of citizens a level of knowledge beyond their reach. By contrast, Socrates and Antigone are both prone to hard-hearted justice and, what's worse, self-righteousness.
With this lesson in mind, Taylor turns to Tocqueville, who in Democracy in America had famously observed that what Americans need is not humility but more pride. Taylor, however, sees pride as leading to the arrogance and self-righteousness that poison democratic politics, turning moderate citizens away from the public realm. With Reinhold Niebuhr, Taylor calls for more humility, which, he argues, will lead citizens to respect one another and to recognize that their opponents are as morally good and as morally compromised as they. Alas, Taylor doesn't seem able to heed his own advice. He accuses James Q. Wilson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Bork, and Allan Bloom of making their case against the decadence of liberal elites "with varying degrees of hysteria," a criticism that, when directed against the mild-mannered Himmelfarb or the judicious Wilson, makes Taylor sound shrill and intolerant. And although he offers Amy Guttmann and Stephen Macedo as their "liberal" counterparts, no such condemnation accompanies his discussion of their work, even when Macedo unapologetically attacks religious conservatives and hopes for the "extinction" of their communities.
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At their best, Taylor argues, the Progressives displayed a becoming modesty, a willingness to tolerate their political opponents that is very much in need in our day. But if their thought is to be useful again, the Left must first learn to avoid two "pernicious ideas" that continue to haunt the "democratic imagination." The first of these speaks to Taylor's long-standing environmentalism, reinforced by his postmodernism: the Left must steer clear of a politics modeled on modern science. He is especially good at uncovering the left-wing Social Darwinism that runs through Progressivism. Conservative Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner counseled society to accept the workings of nature, confident that "the survival of the fittest" would ultimately benefit humankind. But his left-wing counterparts urged men to apply their intelligence to the conquest of nature—to harness its brute forces for the human good. In A Preface to Politics, for instance, Walter Lippmann cast science as the "twin brother of democracy," undermining traditional religious and political authority but forging new communities that would improve the world. Although there are many good reasons to resist the marriage of science and politics, Taylor focuses on the unintended consequences of such a policy for the environment. In passing, he also criticizes this vision's flatness, assuming as it does that the human longing for eternity is simply a throwback to a more superstitious age that has now been overcome by modern science.
If Lippmann can be faulted for his arrogance, Herbert Croly gives voice to the second pernicious error: a utopian hope that all conflicts between individual interest and the social good can finally be overcome. Like Lippmann, Croly criticized the founders, and Jefferson especially, for assuming that the public good would automatically result from individuals pursuing their self-interest. But whereas Lippmann looked to modern science, Croly emphasized the political need to overcome self-interest, indeed to cultivate disinterestedness in the population as a whole. As Taylor notes, this disinterestedness takes on a religious character; it becomes an essential element in the new "religion of human brotherhood."
Later progressives, including Richard Hofstadter, Charles Forcey, Eric Goldman, and more recently, Rogers Smith, balked at Croly's call for disinterested citizenship—to the point that Hofstadter warned against the individual's almost fascistic surrender to the good of the nation. (Croly did say the kind of socialism he supported was national socialism.) Taylor takes a different tack. Based on his reading of Croly's Progressive Democracy, he argues that Croly actually held two conflicting views of citizenship. While he sometimes suggested that citizens can overcome their self-interest and work in a disinterested manner for the public good, at other times Croly took a more expansive view of self-interest, implying that our true interests coincide with the good of the whole. And while this second interpretation may sound more benign (indeed almost Jeffersonian!), Taylor still finds it "alarming" because it is too heroic and does not take into account the conflicts of interests at the heart of democratic politics. In short, "the greatest excesses of Croly's theory were not found in his faith in social science," but rather in
his millennial and humanistic Christianity, his view that democracy was just another way of speaking about the achievement of a holy (yet worldly) community that prevented him from thinking of democratic politics as an imperfect but honorable middle ground, where both sacrifice and self-interest must be found.
Most surprising, however, in a book that wishes to redeem Progressivism, is Taylor's criticism of its high priest, John Dewey. Of course, Taylor praises Dewey for eschewing outmoded absolute truths and for taking a pragmatic view of knowledge. Drawing on evolutionary biology, Dewey argued that all knowledge is subject to revision in the light of experience. But unlike Lippmann, who saw intelligence as a kind of mastery, Dewey believed that science is democratic and provides us with the model for democratic citizenship. Science frees men and women from their childish faith in a supernatural god, providing them instead with a "common faith" that helps them to solve the problems they face in this world. And unlike Croly, who saw the nation as the highest stage of human development, Dewey's philosophy was truly cosmopolitan. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, "an arrogant utopianism haunts even this most humane and pragmatic of American philosophers" because Dewey exempted his own perspective from the criticisms he leveled at others, and did not altogether escape the desire for mastery that characterizes the modern scientific project. In short, Lippman, Croly, and Dewey all fell prey to what Taylor calls the "Emersonian legacy." Rejecting the idea of original sin as an impediment to self-actualization, they failed to recognize that there are limits to human perfectibility, limits set by history, human nature, and (in Taylor's view, especially) non-human nature.
To anyone outside the liberal fold these might seem devastating criticisms, but in the second half of the book, Taylor is at pains to show that not all Progressives suffered from the "Emersonian legacy." In her work at Hull House, Jane Addams displayed a becoming humility: she refused to demonize her opponents and as a rule avoided "moral arrogance." As a pacifist, she opposed World War I, but allowed Hull House to be used as an army draft registration center. Nevertheless, the Progressive pathology occasionally crept into the soul of even this humble reformer. As Taylor ruefully notes, Addams fell back on evolution to explain why humans would eventually become pacifists.
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Taylor looks favorably, too, on the historian Carl Becker, who in his early writings seemed to despair that the past could teach us anything; after the Great War and in the midst of the Depression, his generation had lost all faith in moral certainty, human decency, and even progress itself. But as World War II approached, he found reasons to feel less alienated from the past, and more hopeful about liberal democracy. Not about the Constitution, of course; that was outdated and had to go. But he did have second thoughts about the Declaration. Nothing so radical as affirming the truth of natural rights, which he dismissed as a "cosmological temple," but he did come to see that the "values" of the Declaration could be restated and updated. Taylor regards Becker's doubts about the truth's knowability, or even its desirability, as a kind of "moral honesty" that did not prevent him from defending his political preferences on pragmatic grounds. Still, at times, Becker, like Dewey, had a tendency to equate progress with power, and to assume that scientific mastery of the world would provide meaning to life.
The book's hero is Aldo Leopold, who graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909, and provides the link to "modern environmentalism, the most active and successful of contemporary progressive political movements." Leopold's Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1948, epitomizes for Taylor progressivism at its best: love of nature and humility towards it, contempt for the "modern dogma" of "comfort at any cost," appreciation of beauty, and a sense of high adventure. Instead of appealing to modern science, Leopold looked back to America's cultural inheritance, and especially to the biblical notion of stewardship. Unlike the Communist Scott Nearing (the book's villain), Leopold respected private property, and tried to inculcate in landowners the virtues and sensibility to live in harmony with nature. In a suggestive passage, Taylor allows that America's cultural inheritance may be too ambiguous and that perhaps religion or morality built on classical teleology would better foster the kind of humility Leopold sought. But this was the road not taken. Even Leopold succumbed, occasionally, to the temptations of modern science. Taylor laments that today Leopold is best known for his essay "The Land Ethic," which rests on the scientific image of land as a "biotic mechanism."
That each of the Progressives Taylor discusses at least flirts with modern science cannot be dismissed as a mere aberration, although Taylor pleads exactly that. What he misses is that the pragmatic, progressive politics he favors has been wedded to modern science from the start. As John Dewey pointed out in his essay "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy," written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species, evolutionary biology rendered the whole notion of fixed truths obsolete. Truth was now understood as a process, and pragmatism as a philosophy sought to build on that insight, reconceiving the world on the model of biological naturalism. Taylor is certainly right that such a worldview is unlikely to satisfy the deepest human longings. But his mixture of romantic environmentalism and postmodern pragmatism, based on a pious exhortation to "democratic doubt," is hardly the answer to our prayers.