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Why Progressives Can't Accept Progress
Dissatisfaction is built into their worldview, but they also consume too much media and often profit from change.
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“Intellectuals hate progress,” writes cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.”
Indeed. From covid to climate change, from capitalism to the criminal justice system, it has become fashionable among many on the Left to reject good news, a mark of sophistication to deny that improvements have been made in the human condition.1 Today’s prophets of doom and sermonizing pessimists are near-universally of the progressive persuasion, and they walk in the footsteps of many past luminaries, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Michel Foucault. As the sociologist Robert Nisbet said in History of the Idea of Progress, “The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”
It’s one of the many paradoxes of modern psychology that while people tend to view their own lives through rose-colored glasses, confident that they’ll never be impacted by crime or an illness or a layoff or what have you, as soon as they shift focus to society itself, they’re confident that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Public opinion researchers sometimes refer to this peculiar empirical phenomenon as the Optimism Gap.
According to one study over the course of two decades, when Europeans were asked by pollsters whether their own economic situation would get better or worse in the coming year, more of them said it would either stay the same or get better, but when they were asked about their country’s economy, more of them predicted it would get worse. A Pew Research survey from April of this year found that Americans are decidedly pessimistic about the country’s future prospects, with sizable majorities predicting that the economy will be weaker, the U.S. will be less important in the world, political divisions will be wider, and there will be a larger gap between the rich and the poor. Even when reflecting on the nation’s past, six-in-ten (58%) say that the present looks worse by comparison.
To understand why people might think such a thing, look no further than the mainstream media. What they call “news” is almost always focused on stories about war, climate change, poverty, and of course all manner of things Extremely Dangerous to Our Democracy™, including the possible second coming of the Bad Orange Man w/Mean Tweets. It’s not just headlines, either. Articles and essays are often little more than panic porn nowadays. The New York Times and Washington Post are notorious for this, of course, but The Atlantic is in a class all its own, constantly churning out doom and gloom pieces. Here are some of the most popular stories listed on the publication’s page right now:
The best way to capture attention is to incite strong emotions, and the strongest emotions are fear and anxiety. The mainstream media is fully aware of how fragile the national psyche is nowadays, and the nature of human cognition plays right into their hands. Moreover, the advent of the smart phone has turned many folks into amateur reporters, ensuring that there’s always plenty of negative incidents that can be used to advance specific narratives.
The contemporary news machine is like an endless conveyor belt ladened exclusively with discrete events happening in real-time so that coverage has the feel of play-by-play sports commentary. While good things are rarely built in a day, bad things tend to unfold quickly, making the latter valuable fodder during an era in which news cycles evolve faster than ever. The Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper were published once every half a century, it wouldn’t report on the kind of crap that your standard New York Times reader dines out on every day, but on far-reaching, consequential developments like the increase in life expectancy.
It’s been established that liberals consume much more media than conservatives. This matters a great deal, as the more news someone consumes, the more distorted their worldview, if only because of the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut that leads people to estimate the frequency, probability, or prevalence of an event or thing based on how easily it comes to mind. The more readily someone is able to recall something, the more likely they are to overestimate its preponderance.
Availability errors abound in everyday life. People are known to stay out of the water after watching Jaws or reading about a shark attack. Plane crashes occur far less often than car crashes, but the former are always covered in the news, which is a big reason why more people are afraid of flying than driving. When asked in a survey, folks consistently rank tornadoes as a more common cause of death than asthma, even though asthma kills 70x more people.
Small wonder how the availability heuristic and the mainstream media’s end-is-nigh coverage could be misleading, and why people who regularly consume the news walk around with a distorted sense of reality that contributes to a more pessimistic outlook. One recent literature review found that a steady news diet led to misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, and desensitization.
The negativity bias makes certain people even more prone to catastrophizing. This is a psychological principle that’s often distilled to the axiom “Bad is stronger than good,” and which Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky highlighted in a series of thought experiments that can best be summarized by inviting you to imagine how much better you could feel than you’re feeling right now versus how much worse. When answering the first hypothetical, most people imagine themselves with maybe a little more pep in their step, a few more reasons to smile. But when considering the second hypothetical, the answer is unfathomable. We tend to think misery can be bottomless.
Steven Pinker notes that this asymmetry in mood can be explained by an asymmetry in personal welfare:
How many things could happen to you today that would leave you much better off? How many things could happen that would leave you much worse off? Once again, to answer the first question, we can all come up with the odd windfall or stroke of good luck, but the answer to the second one is: it’s endless.
There is ample psychological literature confirming that it hurts more to lose something than it feels good to win something,2 that setbacks have a greater psychological impact than good fortune, and that criticism bites more than praise heartens. In fact, there are actually far more words in the English language for negative emotions than for positive ones.
It's Always Gloomy in Progressiveland
But while there are many reasons why folks might be prone to seeing the world through a more negative lens, the new progressive religion of the Left is an entirely different matter. Adherents know nothing but dissatisfaction, and they often engage in a game of one-upmanship in which pessimism is equated with moral seriousness.
The refusal to entertain the possibility that things have improved is literally built into their worldview, which is predicated on the notion that the present must always be compared to unrealized and often unattainable standards (“End racism!”) that are kept intentionally vague and rarely delineated so as to always have a reason to be dissatisfied with the status quo. It’s profoundly ironic that for all their talk about striving for progress, they’re incapable of acknowledging it because they see it as a threat to future progress.
If you think America is more sexist and homophobic and racist than ever before, you have what Bill Maher calls “progressophobia.” It’s like situational blindness, only what you can’t see is that contemporary America is better than the South before the Civil War. This is one of the many problems with wokeness and progressivism more broadly. People are rewarded for living in a bubble where delusion is a source of pride. You can spew nonsense that’s not based on any facts and you won’t even be challenged, lest the challenge itself be conflated with racism or sexism or whatever. Having a warped view of reality leads to policies that are warped, like all-black dorm rooms, along with the propagation of other idiocies such as the notion that “whiteness” is a malady and white people are irredeemable.
The postmodernist attack on rationality by progressive flagellants, whose common denominator is the magnificent interstellar void of their craniums, is born of a cynicism that has lost all sense of proportion. Progressives are inherently hostile to moderation because they see progress as an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it, which means compromising is never an option. Because progress in this paradigm is framed as a consummate good, intolerance of opponents — anyone who’s not on board with “the movement” — is warranted. On all things trans-rights and whether or not it’s appropriate to teach minors about gender fluidity, for example, there’s only one acceptable position: Full approval, or else. If Becky Sue down the street doesn’t want her daughter sharing a locker room with a biological male, that’s because she’s a Literal Fascist™, an atavistic troglodyte who must either submit to the Good Side™ or run the risk of ostracization, loss of employment, and public pillorying at the hands of the digital mob.
The theory seems to be that the best way to make change in America is by coercion and threat and impugning the motives of anyone who questions the Left’s goals or tactics. The idea is that people will realize they’ll pay a high social price for opposing the latest agenda, shut up about whatever issues they may have, and just get with the program.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that America has become increasingly polarized since progressivism became the new face of the Left, and that politics has turned into a zero-sum game in which absolute truth supersedes the rights of those who fail to get in line. Progressives have ascertained the perfect wisdom of what is noble and good; anything else is, a priori, immoral, while nuance, critique, and skepticism are no less than blasphemous. An ideology as repressive as this, one with an allergy to acknowledging societal advantages, is self-defeating.
But there’s another angle to this that’s worth touching on before we close, and which goes a long way in explaining how our current era has come to feel so relentlessly unstable.
Today’s elite class — often referred to as the “managerial elite,” the “creative class,” or the “laptop class” — is predominantly comprised of well-educated, usually urban and coastal progressives. Occupying the most prestigious and influential upper layer of society, these people, rather than working with the material world, instead work with ideas, narratives, or organizational/interpersonal relationships.
And many of them cannot produce anything without change. Indeed, N.S. Lyons has referred to them as “change merchants” because they’re incentivized to push for it, as “the faster the times are a-changin’ in their field, or in society, the more market opportunity exists for their products and services.” Now that more and more young people are being encouraged to take up postsecondary education, we’re having to accommodate an ever increasing surplus of “knowledge elites” who depend on selling unique theoretical products in disruptive new ways in order to establish their economic and social value. These people are suppliers of social change. And as Lyons points out, that supply creates its own demand for continual disruptive change.
In this way, activism is incentivized, as it maximizes opportunities for remunerative social disruption. That’s why activism is the inevitable strategic business innovation for many sectors of the postindustrial economy that depend on “fast culture”—the trends, fads, and influences that have meaning in the market right now, and which are currently promoting a long list of values that not only encourage sustained and faster change but are chipping away at America’s foundational commonalities by imposing fashionable new moral norms and crusades that compel conformity. It’s an assault on the ties that bind, and it’s creating new demand for services that otherwise wouldn’t exist. “Progress” is profitable. And for those who financially benefit from it, there can never be too much.
But the “progress” that the Left has spent the past decade trying to jam down our throats is not an unalloyed good. Far from it. Some things are worth conserving. Moreover, a limit exists to how much change and instability most people can tolerate in a short span of time. And we’re long overdue for a change recession. The sooner people stop buying what the change merchants are selling, the better.
Studies have found a startling well-being gap between liberals and conservatives that can only be explained through politics, and there’s evidence that the pessimistic progressive worldview is contributing to the adolescent mental health crisis.
The value function proposed by Kahneman and Tversky illustrates that people would prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire equivalent gains. In other words, it’s better not to lose $5 than to find $5.