The Obsolescence of Left & Right
ON THE EXHAUSTION OF THE IDEA OF PROGRESS
The unexpected resurgence of the political right, not only in the United States but throughout much of the Western world, has thrown the left into confusion and called into question all its old assumptions about the future: that the course of history favored the left; that the right would never recover from the defeats it suffered during the era of liberal and social democratic ascendancy; that some form of socialism, at the very least a more vigorous form of the welfare state, would soon replace free-market capitalism. Who would have predicted 25 years ago that, as the 20th century approached its end, it would be the left that was everywhere in retreat?
But the characteristic mood of the times, a baffled sense of drift, is by no means confined to people on the left. The unanticipated success of the right has not restored moral order and collective purpose to Western nations, least of all to the U.S. The new right came to power with a mandate not just to free the market from bureaucratic interference but to halt the slide into apathy, hedonism, and moral chaos. It has not lived up to expectations. Spiritual disrepair, the perception of which furnished much of the popular animus against liberalism, is just as evident today as it was in the 1970s.
Conservative contributors to a recent symposium on the state of American conservatism report widespread “discouragement” with the accomplishments of the Reagan revolution, so called. Like liberals, conservatives suffer from “demoralization” and “malaise.” According to George Panichas, the “crisis of modernity” remains unresolved by a “sham conservatism” that merely sanctions the unbridled pursuit of worldly success. Clyde Wilson writes that the “everyday virtues of honesty, loyalty, manners, work, and restraint” are more “attenuated” than ever. In the early 1960s it was still “possible to take for granted that the social fabric of the West…was relatively intact.” Under Reagan, however, it continued to unravel.
Ritual deference to “traditional values” cannot hide the right’s commitment to progress, unlimited economic growth, and acquisitive individualism. Conservatives Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming point out that the goal of “unlimited material opportunity and social improvement” plays a much larger part in contemporary conservatism than a defense of tradition. “Skepticism about progress,” once the hallmark of conservative intellectuals, has all but disappeared. “Political differences between right and left have by now been largely reduced to disagreements over policies designed to achieve comparable…goals.” The ideological distinctions between liberalism and conservatism have become increasingly obscure. The old categories no longer define the lines of political debate.
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