The answer came to me while watching “O Brother, Where Art Thou” for the zillionth time. At the end of the movie Everett (George Clooney) and his crew are saved from a lynching by a torrential flooding of the valley by a dam project. Surveying the wreckage from a floating desk he intones, “It’s the New South. Ignorance and superstition are being swept away by industry and progress.”
The question is not an obvious one, nor is the connection. I’ve been wondering for a long time how our politics became so twisted between the strange labels “conservative” and “progressive”. The last Depression became a forge for a new progressive vision that everyone has been more or less responding to since. The connection comes in an understanding of Earth Day and the conservation movement that swept the left.
Before I go any further, though, I have to warn everyone that I’m about to use words that are often rather loaded in very blank terms. I consider this my right as a Toaist.
The old alliance of New Deal Democrats that made our world more or less what it is included the Solid South. The region’s antebellum (“after the war”) system was being left further behind and grip of the last Depression was ravaging what was left. Progress, which is to say development and industry, was seen as the only salvation by many. Dams to provide electricity through the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Project were welcome government “interference” that swept away the old ways.
By 1970, “progress” itself started to be questioned not as much in the New South but in the coalition that started it all. By 1970 Earth Day solidified a movement among the left that questioned the old ideas of progress and, without a word to it, Progressivism itself. Environmentalism is inherently conservative, based on preservation and protection. The left became substantially less interested in the progress that once defined it.
Through the years this movement has consistently hardened into one that more or less aged with the Baby Boom generation. Al Gore, as a leader from the New South, traces the development well. Moving from “Earth in Balance”, an attempt to define a caretaker role for our planet that included some development and industry to the more harsh “An Inconvenient Truth” is a stark illustration. The old Progressive ideas have moved on to a deep desire to preserve what we have left.
It’s easy to wonder about so-called “conservatives” who march in the streets for change, but the way they have been met with demands for preservation of the system in the left, to the extent they have been met at all, is much more puzzling. The opening, however, comes from an understanding of how “progress” slowly drained from the Democratic Party to the point where it hardly registers at all.
Progressives now stand for preserving things as they are while Conservatives are for change. The language of our politics describes nothing important. Is there any wonder we cannot have a good conversation about our common goals and dreams?
That’s not to say there aren’t rumblings on the left, particularly from the new generation. Unemployment and despair ravage them much as they once did the old South. It is not hard to find people, particularly the young, who see little difference between the two political parties and their corporatist ways. That often seems like a recent phenomenon, but it has roots that go back 80 years or more. It is inherent in the system that others on the left feel compelled to preserve as a social safety net.
Those who are not intimately involved in either movement, probably a majority of the nation, are left to wonder.
For the moment, the feeling of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” will stay with me. A Depression is a time for change as everyone claws through their own journey back to a home they never knew. Everett, as Odysseus, is reaching out for the fundamentally conservative comfort of home almost in spite of his own adventurous nature. The movie doesn’t always make a lot of sense and lacks a clear moral, but it has some great music and a lot of funny stories along the way.
If that doesn’t sound like the start of a political movement, I understand. At least it’s a common frame that we can all talk about. That’s more than what usually happens in our politics these days.