Reduce, reuse, recyle

Fig.1: Conservativism

Here is a post for those who think that pointing out the inconsistency between a party’s name and its alleged position on an issue constitutes a decisive refutation of their view.  That “conservatives” fail to “conserve” or “preserve” or anything else along those lines does not mean they embody some kind of contradiction.  George Will has used this line on “progressives,” or his army of hollow men in years pastHere he is the other day:

Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations.

What kind of move is this?  I think it’s an equivocation–a rather textbook variety.  Clearly “progressive” means something different to “Progressives” (the name a half-hearted attempt at rebranding “liberal,” by the way).  Will’s thought goes something like this:

your name implies you like progress, but here is progress which you don’t like, so you’re not “progressive.”  Your self-understanding therefore is laughably contradictory.

The problem with this is that “progress” (1)–things getting better, more just, etc–and “progress” (2)–things changing–mean different things to alleged “progressives”.  Besides, what is at issue with voting rights is an empirical question: has progress been made on voting rights?  Progressives say, pointing to the recent election, no; (some) conservatives say yes.

*minor edit for clarity.

7 thoughts on “Reduce, reuse, recyle”

  1. I think you have overreached in your definition of progressive. It doesn’t mean constant change or always trying to make new things. By way of analogy: you wouldn’t fault me for saying that I am making progress building a railroad if I were also trying to prevent people from tearing up the track behind me.

  2. Hi Matthew. I’ve probably been unclear, but what you say seems to be my point. Though the name “progressive” seems to imply an interest in change and progress, it doesn’t mean any change or any progress. And besides, the question with voting rights is whether any or significant progress has been made. If a progressive says no, she doesn’t contradict herself.

  3. This example seems to walk a fine line between an equivocation and a pun. I’m not quite convinced Will is making your claimed statement. I think he’s just using the emphasized line as a way to group several disparate ideas under one heading. Will’s three points — on Social Security, Medicare, and the Voting Rights Act — are simply wrong.

    Krugman had a good post on life expectancy and Social Security

    For Medicare, Will is strangely referencing the argument against Paul Ryan’s proposal, where opponents had to point out that yes, you may call it Medicare, but it’s a different system. Said opponents were not “clinging” to no change but rather arguing against Ryan’s change.

    The argument for the Voting Rights Act is simply that the records show that Will’s supposed “dramatic improvements in race relations” are not all there. It already requires evidence of nondiscriminatory behavior for 10 years, and the places that fall under the Act have not demonstrated this.

    In conclusion, I see that he is punning on “progress,” but I don’t see that he is going so far as to say these people are not progressive. I just see a bunch of unsound arguments. But maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees.

  4. Hey Sean–you’re right about the fine line. So perhaps I’m overselling it. Considering his having used that in the past, and his general tendency to malign his hollow man progressives, I’m disinclined to be charitable. Thanks for pointing the other stuff out.

  5. Similar equivocation from students at ‘liberal arts’ colleges: if this is liberal arts, why are there so many required classes?

  6. I agree, it’s equivocation, and denying context. Another way to write out the first part would go something like this (with the parts Will omits in brackets): 1) Progressives say they like progress; 2) progress is [one form of] change, 3) but progressives do not like [certain forms of] change [I favor], 4) therefore, progressives are hypocrites. It’s a poor argument, and you could also say it’s a bit of a straw man, in that it depicts the progressive ideal as a mindless devotion to every fad, regardless of its merit.

    Leaving aside the logic issues, Will denies his reader vital context here, as usual. As Sean touches on with the Ryan plan, in all Will’s examples, liberals/progressives believe they are fighting against bad changes, but also pushing for positive changes. It’s well-documented that liberals/progressives want to change health care, most of all by passing universal single payer, which they believe will be a vast improvement. (David Brooks likes to pretend such efforts have never existed as well, because then he can depict the Affordable Care Act as horrible liberal overreach rather than a major compromise.) The ACA (based on a plan from the conservative Heritage Foundation), for all its shortcomings, is documented to actually cuts significant waste from Medicare, which surely counts as a piece of “progress.” As for the Voting Rights Act, racial progress has been achieved *despite* Will and his chosen team, not because of them. Jonah Goldberg also likes to trot out versions of this argument, and has done so since 2008: ‘Despite our best efforts to defeat you, you managed to elect a black president, so doesn’t this prove racism is dead, and that you have to stop pointing out our racism?’ (Similarly, Lindsay Graham suggested that the best solution for dealing with the sequester was “repealing Obamacare,” even though it saves money. The pitch boils down to, ‘You should let us win.’ Also, ‘You should let us win that previous fight that we lost, too.’ Perhaps that’s more analysis than what’s needed; Will has always wanted to repeal the New Deal and Great Society (and other aspects of the Social Contract). Anyway, thanks for the analysis.

  7. Hi Batocchio,
    Thanks for the comprehensive response. I think you’ve identified some version of this move. I wonder, however, if in the minds of some of these guys, whether they’re not being dicks about it, but rather thinking: “yes, let’s be progressive this time, and admit that progress has been made.” Just a thought, but I doubt it, as the progress has been made over the very dead-end objectors who make that argument. Anyway, thanks again.

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