Where did current progressivism come from?

Most observers would agree that current progressivism , can be defined as the progressive worldview that sees all racial and sexual disparities as evidence of discrimination, and rejects traditional liberal procedures in favor of totalizing policies that seek to dismantle such disparities and silence dissent. But no one seems to agree on its origin. Is it an intellectual, religious, economic, legal or institutional phenomenon? Its emergence in the last decade has been attributed to everything: academic intellectual trends, declining religiosity, psychology of victimization, business interest, non-manual worker interest, civil rights laws of the years 1960 and imitative tendencies of large organizations. All this seems to have some explanatory power, but none of this seems to be enough to explain the whole phenomenon alone. Let’s consider each one in turn.

Ideas have consequences

The idealist explanation sees this progressivism as the offspring of a long gestation of intellectual tendencies. Specifics may vary, but the general story tends to be the same: Influential thinkers developed a critique of reason, objectivity, and neutrality, which conquered the ivory tower before infecting everyone from Democratic Party politicians to editors of Teen Vogue. Whether Immanuel Kant, Theodor Adorno, or Jacques Derrida, some philosopher began the process by arguing that man does not have sufficient grounds for believing the things he once took for granted, since such beliefs have been filtered – and distorted – by limited individual faculties, cultural biases or “systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what to know and how.” This critical stance in the face of established truths challenged the foundations of Enlightenment civilization and encouraged a view of the world as divided between “oppressed classes” and an “oppressor class”. In an American context, the critique took a variety of forms, with radical feminists arguing that the legal system was “a means of making male dominance both invisible and legitimate” and critical racial theorists arguing that racism represents “the way society [dos EUA] doing business, the common everyday experience of most people of color in this country.” These kinds of arguments eventually entered public debate as standard explanations for inequalities in American society; US institutions ended up being seen only as vectors of subjugation.

However, idealistic explanations leave untouched an important mystery: how did these ideas spread? In a review of Cynical Theories [livro publicado no Brasil pela Editora Avis Rara, em 2021], by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, a As an example of idealistic explanation, Park MacDougald notes that the book never explains how people came to be persuaded by fundamentally unpersuasive arguments. “Sometimes Pluckrose and Lindsay write as if these theories are floating ideas that develop according to their own logic. Sometimes they make an analogy with a virus that jumps the ‘science gaps’ between academia and activism. And sometimes there is no clear agent, as when they write that Evergreen State College ‘was taken over by the ideas of critical race theory,'” writes MacDougald. “But how is a college taken over by ideas? And why this series of ideas instead of others?” The idealist explanation, by itself, seems incapable of answering these questions.

)Psychological Explanations

Two explanations say that current progressivism has gained traction in response to specific changes in American psychology. One establishes that this ideology resembles a religion, filling a spiritual vacuum in American life. Writer John McWhorter argues that “third wave anti-racism [. . .] has actually become a religion”, with a full clergy, in the form of writers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a creed according to the which “racism is intrinsic to the structure of society” and a creation myth involving the African slave trade. [No Brasil, a referência muda. Os mais famosos são Djamila Ribeiro e Sílvio Almeida. (N. t.)] Another sees it as a by-product of the infantilization of young Americans by their well-meaning but overprotective parents. In the bestseller The Coddling of the American Mind , Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt blame the ” security” [safetyism] — which rewards the protection of feelings and severely punishes words and gestures that inflict emotional damage — as a direct cause of political conflict in the

)campi. Lukianoff and Haidt were not offering a comprehensive theory of wokeness

, but their story — that the overprotective parenting style that took hold in the late 20th century produced a generation of hypersensitive children who later entered a bureaucratized higher education system willing to meet their demand for “

safe spaces” [espaços seguros] — is a reasonable substitute for those who see sealing as a form of political activism common to millennials and [i. e., os nascidos após 1980 e 1995, respectivamente] zoomers [i. e., os nascidos após 1980 e 1995, respectivamente].

Still, none of the theories seems decisive. First, pathologizing particular ideas or beliefs as the product of a mental constitution is a reductionist and unfalsifiable move (as is the notion, which dates back to Adorno in the years

, that the political views of conservative Americans are mere symptoms of an “authoritarian” personality type). Neither the religious argument, nor that of victimism, are successful on their own terms: current progressivism tends to err not by making unverifiable supernatural claims, but by making false empirical claims; and psychological changes seem insufficient to explain why lacrador students [woke] came to adopt an identity obsession with statistical disparities as opposed to, say, socialist militancy. And progressive beliefs aren’t just held by zealots and college students. Since the publication of Haidt and Lukianoff’s book, in 2015, the sealing expanded its dominance: senior publishing executives turn down stories from writers of the wrong race; executives at leading law firms create “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” training programs, and the country’s top corporate brands create affinity groups and endorse race and gender claims that the vast majority of their clients would reject.


Two materialist explanations enter into this failure, claiming that progressive policies in the corporate environment serve the incentives of economic actors. First, there’s the “lock-up capitalism” thesis, which argues that executives take a lock-up approach — pulling operations out of republican states, endorsing the bizarre rhetoric of diversity coaches — to make money. Perhaps a company’s endorsement of the idea that the US is founded on the looting of black bodies will allow it to attract more talent, as it hires them from a narrow circle of young people with elite educational credentials whose worldview tends to be progressive. Perhaps a solemn declaration of commitment to social responsibility will enable a company to explore this growing field, as in the creation of ESG funds by financial firms. Or perhaps executives are preempting an anti-capitalist leftist uprising. Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times that “corporate activism on social issues” serves to ” justify the ascendancy of CEOs to cultural lobbyist status, so that the same lobbyists will abandon them […] on the issues that matter most to corporations in the long run.” Former biotech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy develops the argument in Woke, Inc.

, offering a canned history in which corporations, apprehensive about the growing redistributive sentiment on the left after the 2008 financial crisis, made a deal with identity activists, adopting their favorite claims in exchange for being left alone.

This also seems insufficient. As Josh Barro points out, corporate employees are not motivated solely by profit: they may introduce workplace policies because of their own political views. Indeed, many examples of corporations bowing to activists and cracking down on internal dissent within the company have come from the bottom up, not from the top. The ouster of Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla, for his opposition to gay marriage, the firing of James Damore from Google for his report on innate gender differences, the

New York Times

bowing to a staff rebellion caused by a Republican politician’s op-ed, Bon Appetit restaurant chain disbanding its video department over allegations of unequal pay and the Disney CEO attacking a Florida law on sex education in elementary schools only after an employee revolt: in all these cases, the pressure seemed to come from within the organization.

Another materialist explanation, the “progressive workforce” thesis, promises to explain these cases. In short, a surplus of well-educated but insecure non-manual workers use their control over corporate resources to push a political agenda that they not only agree with but also depend on for job stability. In

City Journal, Malcolm Kyeyune writes that America’s culture war can be understood through examining the class interest of middle managers who do not own capital but retain control over how it is allocated. The arguments that seem the most serious for a company supposedly beset by a toxic culture to undergo an audit, or scale its diversity training initiatives, actually constitute a call for a “massive expansion of managerial intermediation in previously independent economic and social processes”. .” Such managers simply want to create more work for themselves (and other guild members). Therefore, the cancellation of dissidents works as a discipline in the labor market, forcing non-progressives to leave the sector.

But how do economic incentives explain most cancellations, which have little to do with material gain, as in groups as amateurish as a knitting one? These cases suggest an ideological dimension to the movement that materialist explanations cannot capture. Explicit examples of coordination between corporations and activists also tend to be scarce. And, at the end of the day, the lacrador verbiage tends to identify capitalism as one of the many interconnected systems of oppression that keep minorities in oppression.

Institutional Explanations

The legalist explanation links progressivism to several American civil rights laws whose vagueness and selective enforcement has led organizations, out of fear, to accept

compliance (compliance) with a growing series of prohibitions on freedom of expression and political dissent in order to avoid prosecution.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 marks the beginning of this story. Its bans on race and gender discrimination were soon expanded by the Supreme Court to include anything that had a disparate impact on protected groups. Meanwhile, affirmative action programs have expanded across government and higher education, on the assumption that disparities between groups would not exist without discrimination—a central claim these days. What we call “political correctness” is actually “a name for the cultic effect” basic application of the powers of civil rights law”, says Christopher Caldwell, which allowed “government censorship […] through a civil court system that had seen its scope and its power of punishment strengthened by civil rights law” and threatened lawsuits that, out of fear, led employers to “privatize the suppression of dissent.” In

Inventing Equal Opportunity

, Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin writes that the “continuing ambiguity of

compliance have led authors writing about management to recommend permanent anti-discrimination offices to track legal changes.” This legal enforcement mechanism explains much of corporate behavior, as the scientist notes politician Richard Hanania: from the HR departments that police opinions in the office, to the corporations that suddenly declare their support for the causes of the moment when the perspective is raised. effective government intervention.

Rigorous thesis with a lot of explanatory power, the legalistic explanation, however, seems to leave some things unresolved. First, men and organizations cornered by an intrusive government apparatus could be expected to cooperate with the program only begrudgingly, doing the least to stay in compliance. But countless examples show sealing companies going far beyond the compulsory, doing and saying things that not even the vague and expansionist civil rights regime requires. Second: the legal structures that would be the matrix of corporate sealing have been in place for decades — yet the intensity of the culture war has only skyrocketed in recent years.

To the rescue comes a sociological modification of the legalistic explanation. The concept of institutional isomorphism explains the maddening tendency for organizations to update their operations to new sealing norms, whether it’s the sudden expansion of the acronym LGBTQ+ or the need to publish increasingly blatant claims about racism being endemic in US life. Sociologist Gabriel Rossman describes in City Journal how “organizations go beyond their core competencies to imitate market leaders and meet the demands of your business partners, regulatory state and key employees.” Institutions become militants not only because of coercion, but also because peer institutions are doing so. Meanwhile, as Charles Fain Lehman explains, the late 20th century effort to remain in compliance

) with civil rights laws soon paved the way for a “business case” that diversity , in itself, would bring benefits to the entire corporation. “The transition from compliance to diversity marks the moment when a corporate policy of racial awareness became detached from rational purpose and turned into a myth”, writes Lehman, noting that the evidence underlying the business case

was never strong. And once such racially conscious police officers became a myth, they were free to accumulate new principles, as myths sound.

Every explanation for the rise of sealing has gaps that invite correction or modification. Having at hand a series of theories that do not seem to work alone, but that complement each other well, one could embrace a synthesis: the vision of a perfect storm, in which all these different phenomena occur at once. Thus, a certain kind of overprotective upbringing made a generation of children susceptible, in an era of declining religiosity, to ideologies filled with moral urgency. The academy, drenched in theory, was happy to provide such an ideology, which these kids guzzled with gusto upon arriving at the campi[woke] , despite its obvious flaws. When they graduated and entered the workforce, the process-averse corporations—already experienced in adjusting their behavior to comply with civil rights laws—will gladly respond to the political demands of this socially engaged working class. And, thanks to the immense cultural power of well-educated Americans and the economic power of megacorporations, ideology has become increasingly visible and, ultimately, inescapable.

This multi-factor explanation may seem excessive or extravagant. But a complex explanation, involving many different direct causes, is adequate for this very nebulous, and yet expensive, phenomenon of current progressivism. Skeptics as to its existence tend to point out the difficulty of defining and explaining its causes, but such imprecision would be expected if it is a question of a number of different but related phenomena, and each with its series of causes.

Copyright City Journal 2022. Published with permission. Original in English.2022

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