Hey, Progressives, It’s OK To Declare Victory Sometimes

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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As a child of the 1950s, I was born into an America of Jim Crow, back-alley abortions, rivers that caught fire, and air unfit to breathe. It was an America recovering from a brutal depression followed by global war. Yes, it was an America full of faults. But its people were imbued with enough vigor and idealism to overcome these shortcomings along with a shared faith that our future would always be better than our past.

We had reason to be optimistic. After saving the world from the onslaught of militant fascism, Americans shook off the bridle of central economic planning and rediscovered the essential strengths of free enterprise, building the largest middle class with the highest standard of living the world has ever known.

To their credit, Progressives led many battles that made our country better. Civil Rights were finally delivered to all Americans, guaranteeing genuine equality before the law despite deeply embedded racism. Women today have choices that would have been unimaginable in just about any society that has come before. And our air and water are cleaner now than they have been since the start of the industrial revolution.

Mission accomplished? Alas, no.

As American progressivism enters its second century, its adherents have become so addicted to struggle and so oblivious to the real problems facing contemporary society that they are endangering the very victories their forebears fought so hard to win. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environmental field.

I thought about this recently, when I was surrounded at a cocktail party by some eco-socialists shocked at my skepticism of “alternative energy” technologies. It didn’t seem to matter to them how many taxpayer-subsidized, government-mandated, not-ready-for-prime-time science experiments blow up on the launch pad. They are sure, they told me, that these technologies can be made to work simply because they must be made to work, and because without them we’ll soon be facing the end of the world.

I felt a bit like a heathen surrounded by Pentecostal missionaries demanding I renounce Satan. Attempts to engage in factual debate generally ended quickly when they confessed that, well, they weren’t scientists or engineers themselves so they don’t really understand the details.

I wish I could say my night was atypical, but that hardly seems to be the case.

Not satisfied with a string of successes that truly made America a cleaner and healthier place, environmentalists are now chasing phantom climate calamities that may or may not affect us decades or even centuries in the future, while insisting on remedies that would unleash real economic catastrophe today. And even by their own reckoning, the remedies they demand would do little or nothing to solve the very problem they are meant to address.

Climate zealots claim to have science on their side, yet the fervor with which they try to stamp out questioning, skepticism, and dissent can only be described as religious. Relying on climate models that have yet to successfully predict the future or even explain the past, they declare the science “settled” and demonize skeptics with comparisons to Holocaust deniers. Meanwhile, they have blinded themselves to the depredations of crony capitalists who are looting the public treasury while paying lip service to green causes.

How did progressives go from dreaming about a better future to shouting jeremiads about impending doom? The answer, I believe, is because they refuse to declare victory, preferring the self-affirming righteousness of unremitting struggle.

Yes, struggle can be invigorating as it harnesses the idealism of youth into positive change. But we are no longer a young country. Our economy has essentially stopped growing, producing few excess resources that could be applied to society’s problems. We are wallowing in debt and have been set to fighting over a steadily shrinking pie. Stagnation is shattering our shared faith that the future will always be better.

Worst of all, our vigor has been sapped by economic shackles crafted by a regulatory state run by “experts” who warn that they must control every aspect of our lives or else any who escape the rising oceans will be killed by corporate poisoners intent on enslaving our children.

The end may well be near — for the progressive narrative. As for America, we face enormous struggles and daunting problems. But, I do believe, we shall overcome.

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the host of RealClear Radio Hour.

Bill Frezza