This evening, President Bill Clinton tweeted support for his wife’s nomination. The language he used tells us a good deal about progressive thought.
Change is, in itself, value neutral. It can be good or bad, in the right direction or the wrong direction. “Changemaker” is also value neutral. The term signifies that one has had an impact, but not that the impact has been positive. It’s the difference between absolute value and direction
And yet, the American idiom often conflates change with progress. College students say they aim to “make a difference.” Consulting firms promise client “impact.” The slogan of a Presidential candidate was “change we can believe in.”
This conflation reflects a widespread view of human progress. Termed “Whig history,” it understands the past as an inevitable movement towards greater liberty, wealth, and enlightenment. It also rationalizes present changes as part of this movement, framing each liberal policy as another step in the dialectic.
But, as David Hume argues, the dogmatic character of Whig history can be pernicious. It encourages complacency—the belief that our institutions are safe from harm or decay. It also makes us haughty: Somehow, the phrase “It’s 2016” has become an argument for social reform.
Worst of all, Whig history gives us an unhealthy view of the past. It suggests that our traditional institutions are irreparably flawed and must be replaced. This is true in some cases, of course. But not for the nuclear family, republican government, the rule of law, or the Bill of Rights.
I’m reminded of recent conversation. An older gentleman argued that young people have the best judgment in politics; they are always at the forefront of social progress. He cited, powerfully, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the gay rights movement.
I granted these cases, but added others. Young people led the rise of communism in Europe and encouraged its spread to the United States. They also enabled the rise of fascism in Italy, which many saw as a means to wealth and social capital.
What to make of young people? My interlocutor believed that young people are prone to justice and inclined to progress. I responded that young people are prone to support new ideas over old ones. They support change, but that change can be for better or worse. All too often, they fall into the trap of Whig history.
I don’t raise these points to disparage Bill Clinton. He’s celebrating, as he should, in the standard American idiom.
But our language informs our thinking. When we conflate change and progress linguistically, we risk conflating them practically and politically.
Donald Trump—as much as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Ted Cruz—would change the United States. We just might not like it.