Progressivism is not better than conservatism

A soldier stands in front of a courthouse in Pittsboro, N.C. He stands at ease, his fingers wrapped around the barrel of a bronze musket, his Confederate uniform gone green with age. He has stood there peacefully for more than a century — but just last August, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners ruled that the statue was to be taken down. 

Protestors gathered in two groups by the statue, on either side of the adjoining Sanford Road. On the left side of the street were progressives holding anti-racist signs, demanding that the statue — a symbol of a racist history — be demolished. To the right of the road were Chatham residents who stood in the defense of their heritage, waving Confederate flags. 

The scene at the protests, each side spitting rude labels across the road, embodies the long-standing clash between progressive and conservative values in America. It is easy to point to the achievements of progressive movements — emancipation, suffrage, civil rights, labor laws — and decide that the clash has been settled: Progressives move history forward, while conservatives dig their heels into the ground to hold it back. The argument is not without merit; throughout the arc of history, every bend toward justice has been met by the conservators of an unjust status quo. 

But this argument also leaves us with a troubling, divisive stereotype: Progressives are the party of justice, while conservatives stand in the way of progress. The very connotation held by these words — progression against conservation — leaves us with a reductive and unhelpful view of their underlying philosophies. Similarly unhelpful stereotypes are made of progressives, that they are the starry-eyed idealists, their naive aspirations having no hold on the real world. 

The fact that these philosophies have come to be associated with Democrats or Republicans sticks us, politically, on either side of Sanford Road. Each group misapprehends the goals of the other, thus turning their opponents into boogeymen. Conservatives become guardians of broken, racist and unjust systems, while progressives are intent on ruining the nation in their attempts to “perfect” it.

The true ideology of conservatism has nothing to do with bigotry or injustice. Its foundations are in the respect for tradition and a belief in the maintenance of certain values — whether these be religious, constitutional or cultural. 

Take the policies of democratic socialism, one of the most progressive movements currently moving through our nation. The movement aims to take the policies of socialist countries like Sweden and Denmark and apply them to America. Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has said of these policies: “When I talk about democratic socialism, what I mean is moving away from where we are right now.” 

To a conservative, the idea of trading away one’s values and way of life for free health care and college tuition is fundamentally objectionable. In light of the fact that Sweden and Denmark’s socialist giveaways have saddled them with some of the highest tax rates in the world, the conservative desire to maintain American traditions seems somewhat more reasonable. 

But what about the great American traditions of injustice, racism and inequality? Many criticize conservative thinking as regressive, the kind of stuck-in-its-ways mentality that has allowed injustice to persist for as long as it has. Even today, many necessary advancements are stalled back by a desire to keep things more or less the same. 

Still, conservatism cannot be written off as regressive, or worse, racist in itself. The respect for tradition is not a bad thing; there are a great many traditions that we would respecting a respect for the rules of our Constitution. This respect is only faultworthy where the traditions are unjust, and though progressives have historically challenged injustice and exclusion, this does not make progressivism the righter of conservative wrongs. 

Progressivism is often enough wrong — or at least misguided — on its own. The democratic socialist idea of free college tuition sounds like a fair and promising progression, but the same could not be said of its likely outcomes. 

One reason for this is that free tuition actually raises drop out rates, as there is less incentive for students to complete their degrees. One Manhattan Institute study found that graduation rates were actually higher in G-7 countries that charged tuition as opposed to those with free college. This, on top of a host of other practical issues — a direct harm to private colleges, an overcrowding of schools and a $70 billion price tag — shows us that a more conservative approach might be better suited to the problem.

The bottom line is that neither progressivism nor conservatism can be removed without our country stagnating. Without a healthy clash of ideology, the state has only one voice and one direction — not necessarily the right ones. The idea that growth is always achieved by progressives keeps us shouting from either side of the road; it keeps us from meeting somewhere in the middle and moving forward.

Dillon Cranston is a sophomore writing about politics. His column, “Holding Center,” runs every other Wednesday.