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The Need for Progressive and Conservative Politics

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The Need for Progressive and Conservative Politics

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Q: Would we really need two if one of them is actually better?

On a fine morning in 18th century, few folks decided to try a new seating arrangement in the National Assembly of France. Little did they realise that this seemingly simple act would forever divide the world into two distinct halves: the Left (Progressive) and the Right (Conservative).

While there's a multitude of more nuanced isms in between these two broader ideologies — such as communism, fascism, social conservatism, socialism, or more traditional progressivism — we can agree that they all fall under the two commons umbrellas in a one-dimensional political spectrum.

The demarcation may be blurry when you are looking closely, but the categories are distinct when you zoom out.

In many countries, political groups have embraced these two “words” as distinct identities to differentiate themselves from their opponents. “We're progressive. They are conservative.”

This distinction often stems from the differences in some of the agendas and policies of the group. For example, the Left is in favour of protecting immigrants, while the Right is in favour of protecting borders. So, to be a Leftist, you must support immigration and, to be a Rightist, you must be against it.

This is extremely reductive, because these are just current agendas, not political ideologies. And, agendas change with time; ideologies often don't.

Hence, it's important to realise that these two terms possess “definitions,” and we should an effort to understand their true meanings, as they offer insight into two entirely unique and separate approaches to addressing an issue.

Here we go.

Progressivism aims to move society forward by making positive changes to how things are currently done. This could involve fixing problems in the country's systems or culture, or enhancing its strengths even more. If the country is a car, progressives are in charge of its accelerator.

It's easy to see why progressivism is important. No country is perfect, and you can't become a better country without making changes. Progressivism drives that change.

But conservatism is just as important.

Conservatism focuses on preserving the positive aspects of society. This could involve preventing the decline of the country's strong ideals or resisting well-meaning efforts that might actually lead to negative changes. Conservatives handle the brakes in the country car.

There are usually some aspects of a country that are already working well — and in these cases, the conservative impulse to resist change is wise.

Progressivism involves generating numerous new ideas, although most of them are untested and quite a few might turn out to be not-so-good. The conservatives' reluctance to embrace these ideas serves as a crucial filtering mechanism.

One important thing to note is that these aren't binary positions. It's rather a spectrum that generates a rich ecosystem of disagreement on any given decision.

Much of the discourse takes place the range of mainstream ideas (moderate and centrist), but the extreme ends of the spectrum (the far right and the far left) are also important pieces of the political puzzle.

Because, individuals holding radical progressive perspectives are the ones challenge norms and conventions, bringing innovative ideas that break the mould. Nothing is sacred to them and they question even the most deeply ingrained traditions in their pursuit of change.

On the other hand, those with a far-right conservative mindset are steadfast protectors of a nation's fundamental principles. They persistently strive to resurrect a bygone era.

These more extreme groups are also prone to believe conspiracy theories, and they're wrong more than they're right — but that's their job, because sometimes the mainstream might really be wrong about something big. These extreme ideas force them to reevaluate their mainstream positions.

In the big picture, each side acts as a counterforce against the other and helps keep each other in check.

If the conservatives get worked up, they can drift too far into “Our country is perfect just as it is” territory when kept unchecked. Similarly, when the progressives get out of hand, they can fall too far down the “Our country is and always has been awful” hole. The presence of a rival faction restrains each group from becoming a caricature of itself.

That's why most political debates aren't always about whether to change one thing to another, but about having a spectrum of possibilities, and where exactly on the spectrum the country's policies should lie.

, these spectrum battles don't always map very well onto “progressive” or “conservative” thinking, and the Left and Right often flip-flop on the same issues in different eras.

India had mostly been under the rule of the Congress Party since its independence in 1947. It was a socialistic and centrally planned government, primarily inspired from the Soviet Union and China. However, things changed in 1991.

Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh liberalised the economy and invited foreign in India. They did away with the Licence Raj, which was a system of strict government control and regulation of economy. Today, the Congress is associated more with centre-left ideals — a far cry from Nehruvian Socialism.

Similarly, the Democratic Party in the US, which is associated with progressive ideals today, had a different stance historically. In the past, the Democrats were linked to the southern and more conservative regions of the United States.

The Democrats even supported segregation of racial groups, while it was Abraham Lincoln (a Republican) who had abolished slavery. This changed during the time of John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, after which the party underwent a significant transformation.

Flip-flopping on stances is completely acceptable as long as the factions have a higher goal in mind, such as: “Let's work together and find the best course of action,” as opposed to: “I don't care if I'm right, but my goal is to prove you wrong!”

This sane and reasonable way of doing politics enables the marketplace of ideas to converge on a “middle ground” that reflects a sensible balance of ideas. As discussions continue and public viewpoints change, this middle ground shifts accordingly.

In day India, the Left usually makes the case for social welfare programs and reservations, while the Right stresses on entrepreneurship and economic -reliance. The Left stays wary of unchecked capitalism while the Right is wary of over-reaching government. The Right advocates for protecting and promoting the interests of religious communities while the Left emphasises the separation of religion and .

In each case, the blind spots of one side are seen clearly by the other side, allowing the whole system to function more wisely than either side could on its own.

Without the burden of rigid attachment to any one ideology, people can combine ideas from across the spectrum to form a political superbrain that can respond in nuanced ways to changing times.

It would be great if this was how politics always worked. But when you put real human beings into the equation, the whole system goes haywire. You see, us humans have agendas, and sometimes they aren't rational.

The problem though is that, despite societies talking ad nauseam about it, political discourse is limited to one thing and one thing only: What We Think. It's only about the “horizontal distinction” of ideologies along the political spectrum.

Even though we're experts at identifying “what” people think and grouping them according to that, we're awful at talking about the vertical distinction: How We Think.

Without really understanding the vertical aspect of our political thinking it's impossible to explain why the politics we see around us is less about working together to build a perfect system and more about us v them political and ideological warfare.

More on that later.

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Abhishek Chakraborty

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