Sunday, October 16, 2016

Which is a greater threat to freedom -- conservatism or progressivism? Paul Ryan gives the wrong answer

Paul Ryan attempts to create a divisive rewrite of history in order to score political points for the GOP

House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech in Madison last week in which he chastised the “failures of liberal progressivism,” according to reporting done by the Cap Times’ Jessie Opoien.

“Beneath all the ugliness” of this recent campaign, Ryan said, “lies a long running debate between two governing philosophies: one that is in keeping with our nation’s founding principles -- like freedom and equality -- and another that seeks to replace them.”

Ryan equated the latter philosophy with progressivism. But he is wrong to do so. Indeed, the identity of being American itself is rooted in progressive changes in our nation’s history. And conversely, much of the resistance to that identity has come from conservative voices, especially in recent years.

We can look to specific instances of our history to see how progressive ideals have shaped our country, all the way back to the Mayflower. The pilgrims came over from Europe to start a life in the New World in part because they wanted to practice their religion freely. Though they themselves became quite restrictive in their beliefs, their initial exodus signaled a strong commitment to a freedom that would become celebrated in our nation. Immigrants from every generation since have followed suit for similar reasons, leaving oppression for freedom of worship in America.

Our belief in a society where freedom of conscience should be respected is embodied in our Constitution in the First Amendment, which states that “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” shall be passed.

That amendment has been challenged and thwarted many times in our nation’s history; but it has survived to this day to mean that you and I may believe what we want, without fear of persecution from the government, in regards to religious doctrine.

Yet today that same amendment is being threatened by the Republican Party’s presidential nominee Donald Trump, who insists that immigration policies and other laws should restrict law-abiding Muslims from enjoying the same freedoms that other Americans have (he even once suggested he would back policies requiring Muslims to have identifiers on them at all times).

Trump isn’t alone in this regard: several municipalities across the nation have attempted to ban mosques from being built altogether, using zoning codes as their rationale, when Christian churches might otherwise be given the authority to do so in those same communities. Progressivism respects the beliefs of everyone, even if they aren’t in the majority; it seems that conservatives across the country, however, are looking to restrict some citizens’ beliefs.

Beyond freedom of religion, it was also a progressive ideal to expand the right to vote many times through our nation’s past. Yet each time that expansion was introduced -- whether it was to non-land owning white men, to freed black slaves, to women, and so on -- it was challenged by conservative interests seeking to restrict it instead.

The suffrage movement for women, for instance, took generations to realize, and was often lambasted by misogynistic characterizations that falsely considered women unable to handle the responsibility to make a choice on their own on whom to vote for, without their husband’s input.

Even today we see attempts by conservative interests to make unnecessary restrictions on voting rights. Voter ID laws have been demonstrably restrictive to the elderly, to students, and to minority voters. In Wisconsin the voter ID law has been catastrophic -- eligible voters who have voted for decades in state elections here have been unduly denied access to the ballot, with officials dispensing errant information about what documents are needed to obtain the simple right to vote.

Additionally in Paul Ryan’s speech, he also tried to label Democratic candidate for president Hillary Clinton as a statist. “You see,” Ryan said, “when Hillary Clinton says we are ‘stronger together,’ what she means is we are stronger if we are all subject to the state. What she means is we are stronger if we give up our ties of responsibility to one another and hand all of that over to government.”

That’s presumptuous on Ryan’s part. Yes, liberals due tend to call for ambitious government programs -- especially when the need for them is real. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was an attempt to stave off the effects of the Great Depression, for example.

However, the type of statist government that Ryan is describing, where “cold and unfeeling bureaucracy” limits the rights and responsiveness of local decision making, is more evident from the conservative side of politics as of late, in our state especially. Conservative Republicans have passed 128 laws since 2011 in Wisconsin restricting the ability of local governments to act in the way they desire. That Ryan ignores this fact, and implies that progressivism is to blame, underscores how little he understands about the political philosophy.

To be sure, progressivism isn’t perfect. The movement was responsible for some reforms that were indeed overly restrictive -- the abolition of alcohol and the 18th Amendment comes to mind specifically -- but it isn’t the restrictive nanny-state that Ryan and other conservatives try to cast it as. And conservatism isn’t necessarily restrictive either. There are plenty of people on the right who are upset with what Trump, Ryan and others have done to their movement.

In reality, neither of these ideologies is inherently restrictive against freedom and equality. And neither is inherently against the founding principles of the United States. The founders themselves were often at odds with one another, with some factions taking a leftist approach and others a more conservative one. The truth is, there isn’t a single ideal that our founders espoused; they themselves were burdened with separate ideologies between themselves.

Paul Ryan disregards the historical record and instead tries to create a divisive rewrite of American history. He specifically labels progressivism as against the principles of our nation, when in fact progressive programs similar in scope (and in some ways more so) to Social Security were proposed by some of the founders themselves. There were many liberals and conservatives among the founding signatories of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Americans aren’t looking for division. And the record shows, in spite of what Paul Ryan suggests, that progressivism has expanded freedom and equality over the course of our nation’s history.

That doesn’t mean it carries all of the answers -- nor does it mean conservatism is always wrong. Still, to characterize progressivism the way Ryan did is a disservice to his constituents, and a false representation of what has made our nation the envy of the world.

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