Tomorrow marks the start of the 118th Congress. As political discourse resumes, the phrase we’re likely to hear is that staple of progressive rhetoric: “the right side of history.” We will be told that this is where progressives are, and anyone who disagrees with them is on the wrong side—backwards, obsolescent, headed for the dustbin.
The phrase embodies a specific view of history, the idea that the course of human events—with whatever stops and starts and temporary setbacks—traces an inevitable upward path. The notion dates back to the nineteenth century, if not earlier: to Hegel and Marx, to the liberal or “Whig” historians, to the Progressive movement itself. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
And those on the “wrong side” of history? “History will judge them”—will judge Donald Trump, will judge Bill Barr, will judge Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling, will judge all the bads.
But history does not have sides. It does not take sides. The progressive view of history is not an observation. It’s a theory. It’s a myth that takes its place alongside other, different, historical myths: the belief that history is cyclical; the belief that history represents a long decline from some imagined Golden Age; the belief that we are heading towards apocalypse, or Messiah, or both.
I should say that I am a progressive myself. Not that I believe in the progressive view of history, but that I am politically progressive—at least in the economic, Bernie Sanders sense. But I have lived long enough to know that history is perfectly capable of slamming into reverse and backing up at 50 miles an hour. It happened with Ronald Reagan. It happened with Vladimir Putin. It happened with Trump.
Yet who’s to say what constitutes “reverse”? Who’s to say where history is headed, even in the long run? To take but one example: In The Great Exception, the historian Jefferson Cowie argues that the New Deal and its progeny—the liberal heyday from FDR to LBJ—was not the norm from which we’ve lamentably swerved. It was itself an anomaly, the result of a unique and unrepeatable confluence of circumstances. The norm, he says, is what preceded and followed it. “It might be more accurate to think of the ‘Reagan revolution,’” Cowie writes, “as the ‘Reagan restoration.’”
As for “history will judge”—the moral side of the progressive myth—it is no less a delusion. “History,” of course, means the future, and “judge” means condemn. But to say that the future will condemn x or y is to assume that the future will look like “us”—that by the time the future rolls around (whenever that may be) everybody will agree with us.
Which means that everybody will agree, full stop. But when has everybody ever agreed? When have there not been “sides”? After all, we are the future to those who came before us. And I can tell you that in the 1980s, the left was just as certain that Reagan and his henchmen would be judged by history. Yet here we are, and half the country still believes he farted rainbows. We revile Andrew Jackson, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, but they applaud them. History—then, now, and forever—is nothing but “sides.” To say that history will judge is to make the future our sock puppet, our ventriloquist’s dummy. It is to engage in a particularly feeble form of imaginative compensation.
Why does this matter? First of all, because it makes for complacency. History, in the progressive myth, is a kind of plus factor in political struggle: an invisible force, like something out of physics, that adds its strength to ours. History is on our side—we can’t lose! For decades now, Democrats have been assuring themselves that the coming of a majority-minority America will guarantee a future liberal hegemony. Latinos in particular are supposedly the cavalry that’s riding to the rescue. Well, now it’s beginning to look as if they just might ride in the other direction. As for millennials—a vast electoral cohort that currently skews progressive, and thus the latest leftist messianic hope—people have a funny way of getting more conservative as they get older.
Every time I hear the phrase “late capitalism”—as in, the period we’re living through, a ubiquitous assumption on the left—I want to bang my head against the wall. Who says it’s “late”? We can speak of the “late” Middle Ages, or the “late” Roman Empire, but only because those things are over. We don’t know when capitalism will be over, and we won’t until after it already is. It could have centuries to run. Marx also thought that he was witnessing the final stage of capitalism, and so did Lenin, and so did many in the sixties. Same problem with “late empire,” meaning the American one—another thing they thought they were seeing in the sixties. Yet however ambivalent I am about both, capitalism as a system and America as a power display remarkable capacities for self-renewal—no doubt because they are uniquely open to talent.
The progressive myth of history also makes for arrogance and condescension. I said that the notion of history as a kind of force that blows through human affairs is like something out of physics—but really, it’s like something out of Christianity. It is a secularized version of the Holy Spirit. “History is on our side” is a secularized version of “God is on our side.” “History will judge them” is an update of “God will judge them.” To believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe that it acts through—that it fills—some people but not others. To believe in “history,” in progress as a metaphysical principle, is to believe in the existence of a progressive class: the ones who push history forward, the ones who are filled with the future.
In other words, us. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Which means that we have the right—the duty—to teach others how to live. How to speak, think, eat, spend, make love, raise their children, vote. You know how enraging evangelical preachers can be, how insulting it is to hear them talk about how sinful and benighted the secular are? That is how most people, including a lot of rank-and-file Democrats, feel about the self-anointed progressive class.
Finally, the progressive myth of history authorizes bad behavior. In The Sense of an Ending, the literary critic Frank Kermode expands upon the human need to structure time. We are born in “the middest,” he writes, in the middle of things, and we die the same way. In order to make sense of our allotted span, we tell stories about the end. We tell ourselves that there will be an end: if not to time itself, then at least to our time, our epoch.
But that is not enough for us. We also tell ourselves that we are near the end (“late capitalism,” “late empire”), that we stand in a privileged relationship to history. That ours is a time of inflection, of “crisis”—which is exactly what people on the left have been insisting, with increasing hysteria, since Trump first appeared on the scene. (And yes, they also say it on the right, which doesn’t help.) If Trump is elected, it will mean the end of American democracy. If Trump is not removed, it will mean the end of American democracy! If Trump is reelected, it will mean the end of American democracy!! (Kermode also notes the tendency of apocalyptic predictions to keep getting postponed.)
And this is where the bad behavior enters in. As soon as you declare a “crisis,” an “emergency”—another word you hear a lot these days—you give yourself permission to suspend the rules: to bury a story, to suppress dissent, to betray the principles you’re supposed to stand for. History has charged you with a special duty, after all; the future rests upon your shoulders.
No, it hasn’t. No, it doesn’t. Talk of the right side of history is, at bottom, propaganda—an attempt to persuade us that the largest issues have already been decided.
As the new political season begins, let us not forget that nothing is, in fact, inevitable. The future is open. Let no one presume to foreclose it.
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