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The Future of Progress

by Jeffrey A. Eisenach

Future Insight
Release 2.3 n May 1995

Progress. As defined by its greatest modern student, Robert Nisbet, it is the belief that "mankind has advanced in the past... is now advancing and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future."

No idea is more American. No idea has played a more central role in the development of Western and, more recently, American Civilization. No idea is more important to our collective future.

And, no idea has suffered more than the idea of progress from the cultural nihilism of the past 30 years.

Writing in 1980, Nisbet concluded his landmark History of the Idea of Progress with a warning:

[A]lthough the dogma of progress held magisterial status during most of Western history, it has obviously fallen to a low and sorely beset status in our century. Its future . . . is cloudy to say the least. One conclusion, though, may be stated confidently: If the idea of progress does die in the West, so will a great deal else that we have long cherished in this civilization.

In the thirteen years since Nisbet wrote those words, the decline of progress has continued. One major study of public opinion concluded in 1990 that "Americans resent the present and fear the future," a sentiment echoed by Daniel Yankelovich, who wrote in the Fall 1992 edition of Foreign Affairs that "Voters are coping reasonably well with the present; it is the future they fear."

Or, as Peggy Noonan put it recently, "People don't have faith in America's future anymore."

If America is to prosper as a Civilization, the idea of progress -- our belief in a better future -- must be revived; and, given the idea's robustness over thousands of years, it seems quite likely that it will be. Indeed, there are signs such a revival is underway, and that the rebirth of the idea of progress will be the defining cultural event of our age.

Perhaps, then, we should try to understand it.

Progress Versus Change

The idea of progress is for obvious reasons associated with the idea of change, but the two notions are as different as "precipitation" is from "the pristine winter snow." Change is descriptive. Progress is prescriptive.

Consider the graphic below. Both lines shown in the graph represent change. Only one of them, of course, represents progress. The question is: Which one?

Part of the answer lies in what metric we assign to the vertical axis. Are we talking about the number of automobiles produced or out-of-wedlock births? Does the vertical axis represent a "good" or a "bad"?

Fig. One

Ah, but you have fallen for the trap -- because as you read the paragraph above, you naturally assumed that the number of automobiles produced represented a "good" and "out-of-wedlock births" represented a "bad." Are you sure? Or do you agree with Vice President Gore that we have too many automobiles, or with "Murphy Brown" that out-of-wedlock births represent a positive expression of individual rights?

The point is that progress is a heavily value-laden concept, measurable only in terms of an explicit understanding of what is good and evil, right and wrong. "Good change" is progress; "bad change" is decay. Change by itself can never be, as President Clinton suggested in his Inaugural Address, "our friend." It is either our servant, or it is or our enemy.

Indeed, throughout history, progress has had specific connotations and been associated with specific values. Nisbet argues that:

There are at least five major premises to be found in the idea's history from the Greeks to our day: belief in the value of the past; conviction of the nobility, even superiority of Western civilization; acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth; faith in reason and in the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone; and, finally, belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth.

If these five "pillars" have formed the basis for the idea of progress, as Nisbet says, "from the Greeks to our day," and if the idea of progress is indeed to be reborn, we can expect these central premises to be reborn with it. The opposite however, is also true: The renewal of American Civilization is inevitably tied to the rebirth of the idea of progress.

Progress and the American Idea

Much of what troubles America today can be attributed to the damage done to Nisbet's "five pillars" by what Peter Collier and David Horowitz described as the Destructive Generation -- the period from the late 1950s through the 1970s when virtually every premise of civilization was challenged.

Scholars from the left and right have dissected the decline of American values down to the most minute molecule. From Zbigniew Brezinski's Out of Control to William Bennett's De-Valuing of America, from Arthur Schlesinger's Disuniting of America to Myron Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare, there is no shortage of analysis on either the source or the consequences of that decline.

In their dissection, however, these analyses have tended to ask the wrong question: They have sought to understand what made the patient sick, without understanding what made it healthy in the first place, describing the symptoms and localized causes of "the American disease" but never focussing sufficiently on its relationship to the animus -- the motivating mythos -- of American Civilization.(1)

Yet for America, the mythos is everything. From John Adams, who wrote that the American Revolution occurred first "in the hearts and minds of the people," to G.K. Chesterton ("America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed.") and Margaret Thatcher ("No other nation has been built upon an idea."), The American Ideology it has always been clear that America's identity transcends geography and ethnicity. As George Santayana wrote, "to be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and a career."

As Micheal Vlahos writes, the concept of a transcendent national mission is a central element of "the American myth":

Americans still hew, if unconsciously, to their identity as a "New World." Born to a new world of hope, we have been charged with developing a society that will ultimately uplift all humanity. America in our national idea is, and must be, the source of human progress: first as model, but also as agent of world democratic reform. . . . This myth of America as the dynamo of human progress simply cannot be given up. To do so would put at risk the American identity itself.

Today we have gone a step further, doubting not only that America is the "dynamo of human progress" but that the idea of progress itself has merit.

Progress and the Civic Discussion (2)

If America is founded on an idea, then American politics can be seen as a means by which we reinterpret the idea over time. As Vlahos explains,

The idea is the objective of our politics, since it is the idea of America alone that defines and empowers us. The power of the idea means that political groups must seek its legitimacy first. 'Ownership' of the idea has always preceeded election to office in American politics . . . . The power to reshape the idea is the only real power one can wield in America.

Hermann Kahn, the brilliant futurist, understood this well. In his last work of prescience (The Coming Boom, 1982), Kahn foresaw our current predicament. "The question remains," he wrote then, "whether President Reagan -- and ultimately his successors -- can maintain and build on the opportunities of the present." To do so, he predicted, it would be "important to the coming boom to reestablish an ideology of progress" which would "do as much to hasten the coming boom and give it staying power as any single policy maneuver can."

Today it is clear that Reagan's success at "reestablishing an ideology of progress" did not last long beyond his presidency.

In retrospect, we can understand why: Reagan's vision of progress was in the minds of the American people a vision of America's past. When Reagan spoke of a "shining city on a hill," Americans saw pictures not so much of our future as of a past in which values were clear, government was effective and America was militarily, morally and economically dominant in the world. If you asked almost any American to describe the "shining city" of which Reagan spoke, the image evoked was of America in the late 1950s.

Ironically, the "shining city of the 1950s" that Americans saw in Reagan's vision was none other than the culmination of the vision laid out by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal liberals, a vision expressed, more than in any other single event, in 1939, at the New York City World's Fair, where America's leadership presented a vision of the future explicitly wrapped in the language of progress -- "The World of Tomorrow."

It was, naturally, a vision based on the ideology of the New Deal, a combination of state-driven industrial planning and (we sometimes forget) a view of American culture that by today's standards would be labelled "conservative." Writing in a special edition of The New York Times Magazine timed to coincide with the opening of the Fair, the intelligentsia of the day (23 writers, including H.G. Wells, Murray Butler, Arthur Compton, Charles Kettering, Henry Wallace, Frances Perkins and Henry Ford) described in great detail the historical underpinnings, economic principles, cultural mores and practical implications of a world worth striving for. Follow that vision, we were told, and we would create a world full of wonders -- of interstate highways, jet airplanes, television sets and . . . general prosperity.

Jeffrey Hart wrote in his personal evocation of the fair, From This Moment On, that it was premised on the idea "that American civilization would matter five thousand years from now . . . indeed, that American civilization (this was the message inside the Perisphere) would be the basis for the world of tomorrow."

At the time, and indeed for many years, that assumption seemed entirely valid. As Alice Goldfarb Williams wrote in her treatment of the 1930s, "the World of Tomorrow, literally constructed on the garbage heap of the past, was not empty metaphor; it echoed too often elsewhere." After all, she concludes, "After a six-year interlude of unparalleled carnage, The World of Tomorrow would begin to unfold." What unfolded, of course, was the 1950s, and the realization of -- yes -- jet airplanes, interstate highways, television sets . . . and general prosperity: The very same Shining City Americans imagined as they listened to Ronald Reagan.(3)

As powerful as that vision was, and as long as it lasted, there can be no doubt that its run is over. For the 110 million Americans born after 1960, it is not even a distant memory, and for nearly all of us, if that vision lives at all today, it lives in black and white re-runs of "Leave It To Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" and in yellowing photographs of small children standing with their parents next to cars with large tail fins. It has suffered, as Everett Carll Ladd recently put it, "the worst fate that can befall an idea: It has become quaint."

The Next Shining City

For at least 30 years,(4) America has been awaiting a new vision of its future, the next reinterpretation of the American idea. Ronald Reagan came close to offering it -- but ultimately, while Reagan changed the world, he did not, in this most fundamental sense, change America.

But history will not be denied. A new American vision of progress is beginning to take shape, in the ivory towers of America's think tanks and universities and in grass-roots movements growing up across America. We are about to define for ourselves the next Shining City, and to embark on a new journey of pursuit.

America's next Shining City will be defined by three facts:

First, as William Strauss and Neil Howe make clear in Generations, the Baby Boomers are the most spiritual, moralistic generation since the New Deal.

Second, as Everett Carll Ladd demonstrates in his work on "The American Ideology," the Boomers' spirituality is consistent with the historical American ideology, which is alive and well -- indeed, dominant -- in American culture today.

Third, it is apparent to virtually everyone that the bureaucratic, "welfare state" form of government invented by the New Dealers is obsolete and failing, and that it must be replaced.

The implications of these three facts are profound and pervasive.

First, because the Boomers believe that values are paramount, they are provoking a much needed reexamination of the moral pillars of American culture. Sub-plots abound. Multi-culturalists (adherents to the value that there are no objective values) attack the Christian Right. New Age'rs fight both the Christian Right and the multi-culturalists, arguing on the one hand that the public square should admit only those spiritual discussions that omit explicit mention of religion, and on the other that we must search for and find objective values. The ideological left argues for a new Puritanism against smoking, pollution and pornography, while the ideological right offers its own brand focussing on abortion, promiscuity and . . . pornography.

Older people (the "Silent Generation") and younger ones (the "13ers"), who find the Boomer's fixation on values somewhere between irrelevant and offensive, support "pragmatic" politicians like Perot, worship anti-heroes like Bart Simpson and ridicule with equal disdain Hillary Clinton's "new politics of meaning" and Pat Robertson's more explicit spiritual message.

But these sub-plots are just that. The central fact is that the Boomers are coming to power in every realm of American life, and as they assume the burdens of leadership it is inevitable that they will bring their moralism with them.

The question then raised is whether the Boomers will ever find a consensus of belief. Will they ever agree on the metric by which progress will be judged, or will the next two decades be dominated by re-runs of Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown?

The answer lies in Everett Carll Ladd's work on "The American Ideology." Ladd, the Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, is perhaps America's leading authority on public opinion and belief. He concludes in a recent article that, "in recent years, even though broad social forces centering around education and electronic communications are shrinking the planet, survey research still shows Americans holding tenaciously and distinctively to the central elements of their founding ideology."

Ladd's point is borne out by the breadth of opposition (from Shelby Steele and Martin Peretz to Lynne Cheney and Thomas Sowell) to multiculturalism, the only major, direct challenge to American ideology left on the planet after the death of communism. The American ideology is much stronger than generally recognized, and it is a good bet that the Boomers' quest for a new "politics of meaning" will discover a large common ground within the historical principles of American thought.

The third fact -- the increasingly apparent failure of bureaucracy-focussed "welfare state" government -- creates the prospect for intergenerational cooperation between the two generations that will dominate the next 25 years, the Boomers and their pragmatic youngers, the "13ers."

For the Boomers, the failure of the welfare state is a values issue. The poverty, crime and decadence the welfare state has engendered -- the children shot in the crossfires or abducted into sexual slavery, the abhorrent conditions in public housing, the expulsion of any sense of right and wrong from the public schools -- these unwanted and, for many, unexpected consequences of the welfare state are simply intolerable to a generation that prides itself in doing the right thing. The sense among Boomers that they have a moral obligation to do something about it is strong, growing and increasingly coming to dominate both ends of the old Left-Right spectrum.

For the 13ers, the welfare state is a much simpler matter. It doesn't work. It kills jobs through high taxes and regulation; it can't keep the streets (or even our homes) safe from predators; it produces potholes, traffic jams and bad schools; it costs too much and delivers too little.

In the closing chapters of Generations, Strauss and Howe point out that today's generational "constellation" is remarkably similar to the one in place in the 1850s, when a "Silent" generation of compromisers was suddenly replaced by a "Boom-like" generation of idealists willing to die for principle. But the next three decades portend nothing so dark or menacing as America's Civil War. It is far more likely that the generations of our immediate future will find a shared vision of America's next Shining City and work together in a new age of American progress.

Yes, it will seem messy as it happens. People for the American Way and the Christian Coalition are not about to lie down together, and the very powerful entrenched coalition that feeds at the welfare state trough will not roll over easily for a new generation of reformers, from Left or Right. But the pieces are in place for a new era of American imagination and creation.

The future of progress is bright.


1. In this sense, most recent discussions of the American disease (unwittingly) pursue an implicit intellectual course consistent with what Thomas Sowell identifies as the "unconstrained vision" -- the notion of man's perfectibility. As he explains in Conflict of Visions:

The great evils of the world -- war, poverty, and crime, for example -- are seen in completely different terms by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomenon virtually cries out for explanations -- and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized. While believers in the unconstrained vision seek the special causes of war, poverty and crime, believers in the constrained vision seek the special causes of peace, wealth, or a law-abiding society.

2. I have chosen the term "civic discussion" over "politics" quite consciously. In modern discussions, the latter term has come to connote all that is wrong with the current political system and been stripped of any connection with what is right with representative democracy. As used here, the "civic discussion" refers to America's conversation with itself about the nature of the national myth, a discussion which is most often associated with political campaigns.

3. The extent to which the 1930s defined the 1950s is at one level not surprising: The leaders of the 1950s were, after all, the very same children who attended, or read about, the 1939-40 fair. For evidence, see David Halberstam's excellent history of The Fifties.

4. There is no precise way to date the death of the New Deal vision as a motivating symbolic goal. The end of Kennedy's "Camelot" is the date that makes most sense to me, and scholars like James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray point out most measures of the social pathologies that now dominate our civilization "turned down" beginning in 1963. But there can be no doubt the vision was gone by the early 1970s. (Contrast, for example, the optimism of "The World of Tomorrow" with the nihilism of Dartmouth's valedictory address in 1971: "I have made no plans because I have found no plans worth making.")

Jeffrey A. Eisenach is president of The Progress & Freedom Foundation. The views expressed here are the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Progress & Freedom Foundation, its Board, Officers or Staff.



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