It’s the last day of the year. It’s a time when everyone in the world reflects on the previous three hundred sixty-five days, what their triumphs were, and what their pitfalls were. But it’s also a day when we peer into the possibilities that the next year may bring. Commonly, this comes with a mentality of change. Many of us that are brave enough to see ourselves as imperfect think about what we could do differently next year so that we may improve and evolve as people. Why can’t we have the same mentality as a society? Why can’t we think this way when it comes to our government and the people that government serves?
I think if you were to ask Americans about our place in the world as a society and as a country, the majority would stick to the old propaganda-borne belief that this is the greatest country/society in the world. And there is some basis for that claim, but it is a holdover belief from a time when it may have been true that we were at the forefront in comparison to the rest of the world. I don’t believe we have simply maintained that position. Rather, like other societies we might be compared to, we have occupied that status in waves, followed by time periods where we grew comfortable, socially and economically.
Here’s an example. The Revolution and ideas that helped us to construct our new government were radical—extremely radical. The ideas behind the social contract and unalienable rights were from the minds of Enlightenment writers who were seen as so radical and dangerous to the status quo that they were often censored and/or imprisoned. Guys like Voltaire lived much of their lives in exile from their own countries. Paired with the audacity to challenge the most powerful imperial force in the world and its monarchy, that made the new United States of America a cutting edge example of what governments should be for a brave new world. It directly inspired the French Revolution, which inspired governmental and social changes all over Europe, and eventually the rest of the world. But we didn’t remain a world leader in that way. We lulled throughout the nineteenth century and clung to our past status of greatness. We were among the last in the western world to end slavery, and even that came with an actually war in which some still wanted to cling to the archaic institution. Even beyond that, our practices of discrimination persisted for another century and more. We sunk into a deep attitude of isolationism and materialism. The only other time that we regained a true status of global “greatness” was in the change enacted in response to the Great Depression and during our fight against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. But once again, in years to come, we still clung to the ideals and achievements of yesteryear, claiming to be the greatest country in the world, but with no evidence to back such a claim.
What made us great in those times that we could legitimately claim global leadership? Many of you will not like this truth, but the answer is progressivism. Those revolutionary ideas were radical because they were progressive. They challenged the status quo. They challenged those whose power stemmed from doing things the way they always have been done. Franklin and Jefferson challenged the power of King George. Abolitionists challenged the power of wealthy slave owners and their greedy ideals. Civil Rights leaders challenged the power and dominance of white Americans, and that struggle still persists. These events are significant in our history. This, paired with economic and technological innovations over the years has been the source of what makes us great. And this, my friends, is what one would call progressivism. To many conservatives this is a dirty word. But why? That same conservative may hold Jefferson or Lincoln in high esteem and examples of what made the US great, but he or she forgets that these people were progressive, and that’s why they were great. Great and innovative people think outside the social and cultural norm. They invent things that have never been. They are not content or complacent with what has always been. They seek to improve.
There is nothing wrong with being conservative. I think a lot of conservative ideals are great—ideals that center around morality and certain values. But often times, politically, officials and policies use this as a way of convincing people to make sure that those in power stay in power both in terms of elected office and in control of wealth, just as did slave owners and monarchs past. This is the status quo. This is the voice that seeks to ensure that nothing changes for the betterment of everyone in our society. This is King George asserting his own personal supremacy over the people of the North American colonies. This is David Koch ensuring that he and his brother can buy a government that makes policies that support their own greed. And this isn’t necessarily good for all of us in our society. The greatest moments in US history saw men and women challenge this stagnation. Change is what makes us great. And it’s what is helping our contemporary nations to surpass us as being world leaders. Progressivism is not a dirty word. But not progressing—becoming too comfortable in the way things have always been—ensures that everyone else surpasses us. We become regressive. We hold ourselves to our own ideals, regardless of global consensus. We gladly isolate ourselves from an increasingly integrated world that tries new things and boldly solves problems with new solutions. And we become socially, morally, culturally, and economically archaic. And if you want to know that that looks like, just visit Saudi Arabia or Yemen.