Progressivism’s Life Cycles

Political and social experiments come and go like the seasons. Grand ideas for perfecting humanity flare, run their course, and then pass away, leaving behind only their smiles, wreckage, unpaid bills, and national catharses. Glorious summers of impossible, something-for-nothing progressive promises are followed by discontented winters of squandered opportunities for restoring eternal, classical-liberal values. Radical social experiments, whose outcomes routinely fall short of their intentions, fail in part because of their dead weight, and partly because postmodernist individuals balk at the social coercion that gives progressivism its traction.

An empirical study by the venerable sociologist Robert Putnam, The Upswing (2020, 10–11, and passim), plots the rise and fall of American progressivism’s long cycle. Writes Putnam: “Over the first six decades of the twentieth century America had become demonstrably—indeed measurably—a more ‘we’ society.” Then, “[a]s the 1960s moved into the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond, we re-created the socioeconomic chasm of the last Guilded Age. In that same period we replaced cooperation with political polarization. We allowed our community and family ties to unravel to a marked extent. And our culture has become far more focused on [postmodern] individualism and less interested in the common good.” 

Putnam summarizes this cycle as moving “[f]rom ‘I’ to ‘we,’ and back again to ‘I’.” He depicts it graphically in a series of “inverted-U” curves tracing the trajectory of progressive economic, political, social, and cultural trends. These trends are seen to rise in unison throughout the century’s first half, peak during the 1960s, then regress in unison to the levels from which they began. Many writers have characterized the 1960s as a social and political inflection point; Putnam is the first analyst to document progressivism’s life cycle empirically and comprehensively.

Putnam laments the post-1960s “downswing” portion of progressivism’s life cycle, pleading wistfully for an “upswing” revival to transport America back to the future. A broad sweep of elite social and political intellectuals similarly seek to recommit America to progressive liberalism, including radical members of Congress, and President Joseph Biden. The illuminating downswing phase of Putnam’s analysis suggests, however, that progressivism’s moving finger has written and moved on; nor can all the piety and wit of today’s progressive elites summon it back to cancel half a line.

The life cycle of America’s progressive experiment is not unique. Britain’s simultaneous fling lasted roughly as long: from Chancellor Lloyd-George’s 1909 commitment to socialism, to Thatcher’s 1979 rescue from national bankruptcy and demoralization. Russia’s experiment followed a similar, albeit less genteel course: from Lenin’s communist revolution of 1917, to political collapse in 1991 under Gorbechev. Similar social experiments in Germany and Italy were truncated by world war. China’s experiment continues, although in greatly modified form.

Progressive experiments that have run to completion spanned a life cycle lasting six to seven decades. By contrast, the life cycle of small-scale American utopian societies, which by one count numbered 137 between the years 1787 and 1860, averaged about two years. These sects collapsed as followers grew disillusioned and frustrated with failed attempts to create heaven on earth, and so rejoined the surrounding free society.

One apparent success was Joseph Smith’s Mormon movement. Yet, it too nearly failed after about two years, and would have done so had not Smith abandoned the movement’s utopian socio-political structure. In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005, 155; 183), historian and Smith biographer Richard Bushman notes that Mormonism was “in company with scores of [proto-progressive] utopians who were bent on moderating economic injustices in these years. ... The system never worked properly ... After its brief life in Jackson County, Joseph never put consecration of property (i.e., limitations on private property) in full effect again. ... to this day the principle of consecration [merely] inspires Mormon volunteerism and the payment of tithes to the church.”

Progressive life-cycles inevitably turn upon possibilities for exit. Mobility enables easy exit from small, voluntary sects. Exit from coordinated state-level social experiments is more difficult, yet census data reveal net population outflows from states whose progressive goals exceed budgets and common sense. Exit from national experiments is purposefully difficult: domestic mobility is rendered less fruitful; and the cost of exit across national borders is kept high. Grand social experiments consequently outlast compact voluntary ones. Experiments of both sorts eventually fail: individuals resist progressive coercion through the course of their everyday social and political lives; and governments eventually run out of other people’s money to squander on programs that are neither worth their cost, nor serve the common good.

History and Putnam’s present study suggest that progressivism’s long cycle has been broken. If so, then classical liberalism’s eternal principles can be restored to the social and political mainstream.

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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