From Progressives Against Progress by Fred Siegel:
For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, American liberals distinguished themselves from conservatives by what Lionel Trilling called “a spiritual orthodoxy of belief in progress.” Liberalism placed its hopes in human perfectibility. Regarding human nature as essentially both beneficent and malleable, liberals, like their socialist cousins, argued that with the aid of science and given the proper social and economic conditions, humanity could free itself from its cramped carapace of greed and distrust and enter a realm of true freedom and happiness. Conservatives, by contrast, clung to a tragic sense of man’s inherent limitations. While acknowledging the benefits of science, they argued that it could never fundamentally reform, let alone transcend, the human condition. Most problems don’t have a solution, the conservatives maintained; rather than attempting Promethean feats, man would do best to find a balanced place in the world.
In that opening passage to his great essay Siegel is talking about the first two-thirds of the 20th century. In the late 1960s liberalism began to transform itself in something quite different from what it had been before. In the two decades after World War II and leading well into the 1960s tremendous progress was made that brought unprecdented freedom and prosperity to all Ameridans, both white and black.
Then something happened.
Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism’s path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.
If one were to pick a point at which liberalism’s extraordinary reversal began, it might be the celebration of the first Earth Day, in April 1970. Some 20 million Americans at 2,000 college campuses and 10,000 elementary and secondary schools took part in what was the largest nationwide demonstration ever held in the United States. The event brought together disparate conservationist, antinuclear, and back-to-the-land groups into what became the church of environmentalism, complete with warnings of hellfire and damnation. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, invoked “responsible scientists” to warn that “accelerating rates of air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors. It has also been predicted that in 20 years man will live in domed cities.”
That was when American liberals began to preach not progress and a better life for all, but mass hysteria ranging from over population, environmental destruction, global cooling and nuclear winter. When the earth failed to cooperate with global cooling predictions liberals quickly moved to global warming. When the earth failed to warm as predicted they just changed the name again, this time to climate change.
Did liberals discover something the rest of us missed? Something about human psychology and chcken little? I think so. They discovered that the way to keep us in line and themselves in power was to keep up a national hysteria over the danger du jour and offer themselves as our saviors. Eric Hoffer had recognized this tendency years earlier in his 1950s book The True Believer when he said “True Believers want to infect society with a malady and then offer themselves as the remedy.”
Fred Siegel’s conclusion:
Neither the failure of the environmental apocalypse to arrive nor the steady improvement in environmental conditions over the last 40 years has dampened the ardor of those eager to make hair shirts for others to wear. The call for political coercion as a path back to Ruskin’s and Mishan’s small-is-beautiful world is still with us. Radical environmentalists’ Tory disdain for democracy and for the habits of their inferiors remains undiminished. True to its late-1960s origins, political environmentalism in America gravitates toward both bureaucrats and hippies: toward a global, big-brother government that will keep the middle classes in line and toward a back-to-the-earth, peasantlike localism, imposed on others but presenting no threat to the elites’ comfortable lives. How ironic that these gentry liberals—progressives against progress—turn out to resemble nothing so much as nineteenth-century conservatives.
I’ll end these thoughts with a quote from H.L. Mencken:
“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” — H.L. Mencken