Progressivism, Then and Now: An Undergraduate Forum

Cover image Rust

By guest contributor Caroline Engelmayer

Beyond Agreeing to Disagree: Communicating Across Political Divides with William James

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election—an outcome that shocked many commentators—experts and Democratic voters alike have puzzled over how and why he won. As prominent Democrats have explored this question and tried to determine how to avoid a similar defeat in 2020, they have focused on what they see as an apparent gulf—evocatively captured by the New York Times map of “The Two Americas of 2016”—between inhabitants of major cities on both coasts and predominantly rural voters, especially in the Rust Belt, a region that defied several major polls and went to Trump. Pundits, reporters, and organizers from those urban, Democratic areas, some have contended, did not make enough of an effort to bridge the daunting cultural and, often, socioeconomic gap between themselves and the predominantly white, working-class voters in Trump-voting regions.

At the center of this conversation were a set of questions about what it might take to foster productive dialogue with people whose views diverge drastically from one’s own. How could people hope to understand voters whose radically different cultural and social backgrounds impose a set of barriers between them and others? To what extent is it worth it for Democrats to try to engage in reasoned debate with die-hard Trump supporters? Can such exchange yield tangible progress and encouraging results? Can voters who flipped from Obama to Trump be won over again, or should they be treated as lost causes —“deplorables”? How far should we go in seeking common ground — or compromises?

In 2019, several authors penned articles and opinion pieces that grappled with these questions. In an op-ed that appeared on the website “First Things,” the New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari outlined one of the more provocative arguments against seeking a middle ground. Ahmari, who describes himself as a Christian conservative, argues in his piece “Against David French-ism” that religious right-wing thinkers should not compromise at all when facing disagreement both from the left and from more moderate Republicans. In particular, he aims his criticism at the conservative author David French: Ahmari argues that thinkers who adhere to what he terms “David French-ism” irreparably abandon their commitment to the conservative values and positions that they claim to uphold.

In Ahmari’s view, French believes that conservatives should engage in a robust debate with liberals in the “institutions of a technocratic market society” that serve as “neutral zones.” That notion, for Ahmari, is absurd and dangerous: the problem isn’t just that conservatives shouldn’t compromise, it’s the idea that a productive exchange of ideas would even be possible. If you believe that something is right, and the alternative is damning and destructive, he holds, you can’t also think that compromise is worthwhile. Because French fails to understand this point, Ahmari contends, he has betrayed conservative ideology so much that he has become a “conservative liberal.” Addressing an audience of mainly other conservative Catholics, Ahmari implores them to refrain from such delusional forays into political compromise.

Unsurprisingly, other commentators have adopted an opposing position, arguing that communication is not only possible but desirable. In 2019, Tom Whyman, a British philosopher penned an essay in The Baffler entitled Critique of Pure Niceness.” Praising the focused dialogue that forms the basis of philosophical inquiry, Whyman contends, invoking philosophers including Immanuel Kant and Jürgen Habermas, that disagreement can help us productively refine our own views; unlike Ahmari, Whyman maintains that this does not have to entail abandoning fundamental beliefs. At the same time, though, he cautions against viewing respectful dialogue as an end in itself: commentators who aim for “civility,” he argues, sometimes opt for self-congratulatory, but ultimately hollow, exchanges across political divides.

For Whyman, however, even robust debate has its limits. While he argues that dialogue can push us to refine our ideas, and to challenge our interlocutors’ beliefs, he concludes that some people aren’t worthy of the privilege of respectful debate: whenever their beliefs “simply do place them beyond the moral pale, a place from which no direct argument can draw them back,” we should not engage seriously with them or their ideas. Although Whyman’s essay helps us to reconceptualize and dismiss some of the points raised by Ahmari’s argument against respectful dialogue, this small carve-out represents a moment of overlap between their positions.

Where does this leave us? Is Whyman right to argue that we should debate most people of opposing views, but are justified in tuning a few of them out? Maybe William James can help. Writing in 1898, the Harvard psychologist William James (1842–1910) argued in “On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings” that differences in identity and background can prompt us not only to learn about others but to engage in illuminating introspection. He explained that, when he saw a barren landscape in North Carolina, he initially perceived it as a sign of the desolation of the local community. After he spoke to the settlers who had cut down the trees in the area to create space for their farm, however, he reassessed his initial perception. Instead, he writes, he came to value the landscape as evidence of the farmers’ hard work and determination. Such an experience, in turn, prompted him to reevaluate how he goes about forming opinions of others. James writes near the end of his essay: “Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.”

James’s observation calls into question Ahmari’s approach and also suggests a possible flaw in Whyman’s argument — Ahmari’s rigid, dogmatic defense of what he calls conservative values, and his suggestion that even the smallest compromise would corrupt the purity of those beliefs, fails to account for the possibility that engaging in respectful dialogue with people of opposing views can prompt us to examine more closely and reconsider our own convictions. Like James with the North Carolina settlers, Ahmari and his fellow Catholic conservatives might be forced to grapple with their own ideological commitments after learning more about how others have come to disagree. That reflection could prompt more nuanced positions and also a fuller understanding of why he and his fellow religious conservatives believe what they do. That is, even if conversations with people of different political persuasions might not actually change Ahmari’s mind (and indeed, he shows no sign that anything could make him budge), they could still prove valuable by prompting greater self-awareness about where his opinions come from.

Likewise, reading James alongside these twenty-first-century articles exposes a potential weakness in Whyman’s argument. While Whyman’s defense of rational discourse is on the whole much more compelling than Ahmari’s dismissal of it, Whyman’s assertion that “no direct argument” can draw back people whose beliefs “place them beyond the moral pale” raises the question of how we should engage with such individuals. Should we ignore them altogether, forcefully and publicly criticize them, or adopt a different approach? Reading James’s essay with this question in mind suggests that while we might not be able to persuade them, the enterprise of engaging them in conversation might help us learn more about their perspective; in the process, we might in turn come to a greater understanding of our own biases and values. Perhaps the stark difference Whyman identifies between the opinions those people hold and our own beliefs still offers a kind of opportunity, not just a barrier: the possibility of a more nuanced understanding of our own beliefs, even if we cannot change theirs.

While James suggests that vigorous dialogue offers the possibility of probing self-exploration, however, his position requires some qualification. The twenty-first century abounds with cases in which democratic discourse failed to bridge ideological divides, instead resulting in increasingly entrenched opposite views. Brexit might be considered one of these examples. It is difficult to make sense of the months of debate over the controversy — which ended with the country polarized and a clear consensus lacking — with James’s theory that introspection spurs mutual understanding. As the philosopher Raymond Geuss has argued, rather than developing an interest in having a meaningful, nuanced discussion with the other side, participants in the Brexit debate dug in, becoming more stubborn (and, in some cases, more extreme) in their own positions. In the U.S., too, introspection seems unlikely to bridge significant political divides, and the phenomenon of the “two Americas” endures: responses to the question how to respond to coronavirus and when and how to reopen the economy have exposed the breakdown of communication across political lines and the polarization of popular opinion.

While James’s argument about self-examination and communication is not universal, three cases offer some hope. In recent years, Americans have drastically shifted in their views on LBGTQ+ rights, climate change, and the existence of systemic racism in policing; today, a new moral consensus is emerging that would have been completely alien to many Americans ten or twenty years ago. As these people have re-evaluated their own opinions through self-reflection and pivoted, they have also demonstrated how the rich possibilities embedded in James’s exchange with the North Carolina farmers are still possible today.


Caroline Engelmayer recently graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Classics. In the fall, she will attend the University of Cambridge as the Lionel de Jersey Harvard Scholar at Emmanuel College.

Featured image: Bob Jagendorf. Rust Belt Reflection. Flickr.

by guest contributor Emily Axelsen

Success Through Unification: A Book Review of Code Red

How do the movements, organizations, and groups of people we identify with shape our political identities and associations? In Code Red by E.J. Dionne, moderates and progressives are called to form a cohesive identity to overcome Trump. This intended change stems from a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Similarly, in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist utopia novel published in 1915, women also form a united identity to create a superior society. For Gilman, writing Herland allowed her to establish purpose in her life and revolt against gender expectations. Both Code Red and Herland exemplify the negotiation between impactful political action and allegiance to political or social groups. We can therefore view the ideas of unity to achieve a shared goal of political change outlined in Code Red as an extension of Gilman’s hundred-year old argument with real life implications. Considering Dionne’s argument through the lens of Gilman’s utopia as a homogeneous society that challenges traditional gender roles allows us to evaluate the challenges and benefits of building a society unified through shared moral principles. Dionne does not explicitly challenge Herland but instead challenges Gilman’s vision for political identity and action through the suppression of individual identities to achieve a common goal. 

In Code Red, E.J. Dionne urges that moderates and progressives form a coalition with the goal of defeating Trump. Dionne encourages moderates and progressives to “realize that they are allies who have more in common than they sometimes wish to admit”(1). For Dionne, the recognition of commonalities by Moderates and Progressives is the foundation of a cohesive identity. Although identities are often seen as unchangeable, Dionne encourages his readers to recognize that values can, and perhaps should, change to achieve political goals. Unity among moderates and progressives, according to Dionne, is especially necessary due to the current political environment. Therefore, to avoid the suppression of equal citizenship, Dionne explains that “an overtly racist president should remind us of the urgency of the quest for a beloved community” (179). A shared dislike for Trump and a desire to defend against the threats to equality and justice posed by his presidency would allow for unprecedented unification. In order for a union among moderates and progressives to be successful, “a solidarity built around our willingness to uphold each other’s rights—partly to protect our own rights but also to fashion a more just social order” is necessary (158). Therefore, Dionne calls for individuals to reconcile their own political movement alliances (Progressive, Moderate, Socialist, etc.) with a broader shared identity by realizing common goals in response to the current political environment. 

In order to unify and build an improved society, Dionne explains that we must employ empathy on an individual level. Although challenging, Dionne explains that “solidarity across our lines of division is an irreducible requirement of democracy, and empathy toward those unlike us is an essential virtue” (173). Therefore, it is important to consider the elements of unification as well as understand the perspective of the other. Yet, despite individuals subscribing to shared goals, identities will likely always differ in regard to beliefs that are essential to an individual. The utopia imagined by Gilman likewise implies that building values that transcend personal identities requires empathy. In Herland, three men, Terry, Jeff, and Vandyck, explore a highly productive and peaceful society of women that is based on shared goals and a common set of beliefs. Yet, when narrators and reader surrogates Terry, Jeff, and Vandyck meet the women, Vandyck explains that “they were bent on understanding our kind of civilization” which therefore demonstrates a significant consideration of the other (46). Even when the men’s explanations directly challenge Herland values and an understanding of another civilization seems unnecessary, the women remain respectful and interested in their way of life. As the novel progresses, Jeff adapts his identity to fit into the society of Herland. Indeed, Vandyck states that “I never saw an alien become naturalized more quickly than that man in Herland” (124). While the women in Herland were able to build a society based on a common identity of womanhood that inspires goals based on motherhood, Dionne encourages moderates and progressives to first identify common goals by empathizing with the other to form a shared identity. By focusing first on negotiating shared ideals, the cohesive identity created by moderates and progressives is therefore flexible and subject to change as priorities shift. 

Gilman and Dionne both seek a unity that uses a foundation of shared goals to move in a progressive direction. Instead of a shared political goal of defeating Trump, the women in the novel Herland wanted to create a more just, productive, and equal society. With a goal “to make the best kind of people,” the women thrived under their unified intentions (54). Similar to the shared threat of Trump explained by E.J. Dionne in Code Red, the imagined women in Herland also shared their objectives in opposition to a threat, in this case men. Despite Terry’s insistence that the men are “gentlemen,” Moadine—one of their guides—questions whether “Gentlemen” implies safety (51). 

The goals outlined by both Gilman and Dionne are thus designed to create a better society, whether one without a problematic president or an imagined society that is generally more equal and just. As a result of their efforts, the women in Herland were successful and created a fictional society where “they had no wars. They had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracy” (54). A general feeling of peace and friendship also emanated from the society in Herland where the women “had no enemies; they themselves were all sisters and friends” (53). Yet, while the fictional women in Herland were able to successfully create the society they desired, the large-scale goal of unification among moderates and progressives outlined by E.J. Dionne in Code Red has not yet been achieved. 

One reason why moderates and progressives have not yet been able to unify relates to the suppression of identities in the process of joining together. When individuals work together to form a cohesive identity, it is important to consider what elements of individual identities are suppressed. This question is perhaps less salient in the homogenous society of Herland as a result of the women’s satisfaction with their society. Beyond simple fulfillment, the women in Herland thrived in their society. Since Gilman wrote Herland as a piece of fiction, she could imagine a society without individual differences. Gilman explains that “they were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united action” (54). Dionne complicates this argument by explaining that the identities of marginalized groups “have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt” (171). Therefore, politics is a vehicle for expressing individual identities and resolving change through revolt against a suppression of identity. This presents a challenge for achieving political unification because politics itself is a catalyst for the expression of individual identities. Although the imagined women in Herland were able to create a collective society, the novels also explore the challenges associated with the diverse identities of marginalized groups. 

Consequently, in both Herland and Code Red, a shared identity is a way to gain power yet is challenged by other identities. In Code Red, Trump’s strategy for election was making “the vilest forms of racism and nativism central to seeking and maintaining power” (157). Therefore, Trump gained political power by creating a shared identity among his supporters based on anger and hatred. In the process of creating security for one group Trump and his politics exclude individuals who challenge the dominant identity. Gilman likewise explains that “their little country was quite safe” as a result of a cohesive identity (54). This suggests that cohesive identity can inspire both hateful isolation of certain groups and peaceful security. The arrival of outsiders Terry, Jeff, and Vandyck threaten to disrupt the cohesive identity and unified society of Herland through the introduction of new ideas. Indeed, when one of the women named Ellador is asked to leave Herland with the men, “she was keen for coming” (121). While Gilman’s utopia is built on the exclusion of individuals who challenge the dominant identity in society, Dionne encourages Moderates and Progressives to maintain their individual identities while temporarily overcoming their differences to achieve the larger goal of removing Trump from office.  

While there are numerous similarities between Herland and Code Red, Gilman’s utopia is firmly rooted in fiction while Dionne’s commentary has real world implications. Thus, the practices of identity building in Herland may not function in a present-day society that holds individual identity as a core value. Although a utopian society may be impossible in reality, the idea of constantly questioning the status quo and creating new policies that improve upon the existing measures is essential to achieve a more equal and just society. And, according to Dionne, the first step is the unification of moderates and progressives.


Emily Axelsen is an undergraduate student in History and Economics at Harvard College. She is a research fellow at the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard Kennedy School and is interested in themes of resistance and conformity throughout history.

Featured image: Portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilmn, London England, ca 1896 (The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University).

By guest contributor John Lim

Hyphenated Citizenship

In a 1915 speech to the Knights of Columbus in New York City, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt warned his audience about the “hyphenated American”: a person who did not identify solely as an American, but as a Polish-American, a Chinese-American, a something-hyphen-American. These hyphenated Americans, Roosevelt claimed, posed a threat to democracy. They voted with the interests of their country of origin in mind, an act that effectively amounted to treason. As Roosevelt unequivocally stated: “a hyphenated American is not an American at all” (648).

People often consider Roosevelt to be one of the first icons of progressivism. Known for his trust-busting and environmentalist policies during his 1900-1908 presidency, Roosevelt ran for president again in 1912 as the candidate for the short-lived Progressive Party. However, progressives today would likely distance themselves from Roosevelt, especially in terms of whether an individual’s national heritage affects one’s “American-ness.” In the hundred-plus years between Roosevelt’s era and the present day, the ethos of progressivism has come to validate the multiplicity of individual identity. Modern-day progressives have created a politics that incorporates hyphenated-ness as a central tenet, not only in terms of national heritage, but also gender, sexuality, and other identity-marking categories.

Mark Lilla, however, believes that today’s identity-focused progressivism is politically hazardous. In his 2017 book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Lilla argues that contemporary progressivism has been splintered by identity politics. “Identity liberalism,” as Lilla calls the Democratic strategy of identity politics, focuses too much on the insurmountable differences between identity groups like the LGBT population, women, the black community, etc. Catering to the disparate demands of individual identity groups, the American Left lacks a coherent vision to win over voters according to Lilla. His recommendation: the Democratic Party should move away from identity politics – a political mode that emphasizes difference  – and instead establish its politics on a unifying notion of citizenship. Focusing on the civic responsibilities implicit in citizenship—but ignoring questions around legal status and the process by which people gain formal citizenship—Lilla writes that progressives should foreground citizenship because it is a common denominator among American citizens of different life experiences: “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on our shared political status, not on our manifest differences” (100). A shared political status like citizenship, Lilla argues, will give Americans a sense of duty to protect the rights of fellow citizens. In his mind, this re-centering of citizenship would give the Democratic Party its best chance of winning elections and securing political rights for as many Americans as possible.

In general, Lilla makes a convincing argument that progressives must rally around political unity, as foregrounding citizenship would provide a clear guiding principle for the Democratic Party. But where Lilla falters is in his inadequate recognition of the reality of difference, be it in terms of gender, race, sexuality, etc. Initially, Lilla concedes the importance of identity-based social movements for racial justice, feminism, and gay rights. However, the political remedy he ultimately suggests overlooks the magnitude of difference in American society. Solidarity through citizenship is a powerful concept, but citizenship cannot, as Lilla suggests, fully overcome difference along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, and other identity-marking categories. Lilla does not fully recognize the difficulty of solidarity through citizenship in a reality where a black American often lives a very different life from a white American, or a queer person from a straight person. An argument for political unity ought to account for the inherent identity-based differences among a populace, rather than brush them off and deride them as secondary.

Lilla’s oversight of the experience of difference is perhaps most evident in how he discusses questions of identity in the Progressive Era. First, Lilla succinctly identifies the complexities in Progressive Era debates about difference and national identity. Against the backdrop of rising immigration rates, progressive thinkers wondered whether new Americans should practice “dual identification”: that is, identifying with both America and their ancestral homelands. Some argued that immigrants would never renounce their former loyalties and should be barred from entering the country. Others argued that immigrants should only enter if they fully assimilated to Anglo-Protestant cultural values. Others still argued that all Americans, whether immigrant or not, should enter the country’s “melting pot” and form a “new American” type. Lilla writes that ultimately, a mixture of the second and third paths occurred: “a little assimilating and a little melting had both taken place” (52).

Lilla then identifies Roosevelt as a singularly representative thinker of this Progressive Era in debates about identity and difference, and explicitly names him as a proponent of the third camp of “melting” (51-52). However, it is debatable whether Roosevelt favored the “melting” approach over assimilation, given his comments about the treasonous “hyphenated American” in his Knights of Columbus speech. Further, Roosevelt remains the only Progressive Era figure whom Lilla explicitly names as an example, and who indeed later makes another fleeting but revealing appearance in a footnote about economic radicalism and modern progressivism. Here, Lilla writes that modern-day progressives have adopted too much of their ideology from Marxist thought and not enough from the original progressivism of turn-of-the-century America. To aspiring progressives, Lilla thus suggests: “Teddy Roosevelt should be required reading for all Bernie Sanders voters today (though they will have to skip over the jingoistic bits)” (132).

But to what extent are the “jingoistic bits” not part and parcel of Roosevelt’s progressive ideology? Lilla’s comment dismisses the idea that Roosevelt’s progressivism was coherent in and of itself. Roosevelt’s political philosophy of “Americanism” enforced an “America first” mentality in domestic and foreign policy. Within the country’s borders, Roosevelt’s virile Americanism drove his conservationism and trust-busting, as well as his antipathy for “disloyal” hyphenated Americans. Abroad, the spirit of Americanism fueled the jingoism of his “big stick” diplomacy in Latin America. This is not to say that we should forget about Roosevelt. However, we should recognize that Roosevelt was only one of many progressives: his progressivism was not the only progressivism, and by foregrounding him, Lilla overlooks other Progressive Era thinkers who more adequately reckon with difference in a multicultural America.

Indeed, another Progressive Era candidate who is perhaps better suited for today’s progressivism is Horace Kallen, who was a philosophy professor at several universities including Harvard, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the New School. Often credited with coining the term “cultural pluralism,” Kallen wrote extensively about multiculturalism and the promise of an American society built upon ethnic and national diversity. In 1915, while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kallen published a prominent essay in The Nation titled “Democracy versus the Melting Pot.” In this essay, Kallen argues that in an increasingly multicultural America, democracy depends on the voluntary cooperation of different ethnic and national groups (though Kallen interestingly draws no clear distinction between “ethnicity” and “nationality”). In his vivid conclusion, he compares this coalition of nationalities to an orchestra, where each group joins in to create the “symphony of civilization” (116). Thus, American society, as the multicultural paragon of “civilization,” derived strength from its diversity, creating a unique and harmonious richness.

At the heart of Kallen’s argument is the assertion that democracy depends on respecting ethnic diversity and giving space for occasional disharmony. This core component of Kallen’s argument is absent from Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. Whereas Lilla tends to overlook the social reality of difference in order to promote unity, Kallen’s essay foregrounds difference as the very basis of unity. To be clear, there is a limit in the applicability of Kallen’s writing: it only concerns one strain of difference (difference in ethnic/national heritage), whereas Lilla addresses differences of all kinds, including other identity-marking categories like gender, sexuality, and ability. Between 1915 and 2017, there have been sea changes in attitudes toward these categories, and multiculturalism based on national heritage is not the only type of diversity in America today. However, the idea of unity because of difference still rings true in these other categories, and Kallen provides an ideological springboard that Lilla could reasonably expand to encompass other kinds of difference.

Kallen’s image of the “symphony of civilization” also offers another way of thinking about an ambiguity in Lilla’s book: the difference between the “margins” and “the middle” of society. Among Lilla’s critiques of identity politics is his condemnation of identity-focused educational agendas, and how these agendas have set our political priorities off-kilter. The trend of studying questions of identity in the university, Lilla argues, “has encouraged an obsessive fascination with the margins of society” at a time when students ought to “learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country” (69).  But this idea begs the question: what metrics does Lilla use to determine the middle and the margins in the social sense? How does one delineate extremes on this spectrum of American society? And what group sits at the middle, thus meriting the most academic focus? Kallen’s “symphony of civilization” offers a different way of visualization in this regard: in a symphony, every group has their own section, and no one section controls the melody. In this image, there is neither middle nor margin, but rather the recognition of difference and an equal admission of respect and importance to every group.

On the whole, Lilla’s argument about the divisiveness of identity politics is well-grounded, and there is promise in his idea that an empathetic vision of citizenship will mobilize progress. However, Lilla skates over the fact that Americans are still hyphenated by virtue of their existence. Difference can be a cause of disunity, but we should not pretend it does not exist. Incorporating the philosophies of progressive thinkers other than Roosevelt would have strengthened Lilla’s argument by emphasizing that Americans are bound to other Americans because of their differences, and not in spite of them. Kallen’s writing, for example, recognizes difference as a foundation for unity, a line of thinking which is missing from Lilla’s argument. People make sense of their lived experiences by understanding themselves through the lens of identity, and although identity may not be the best way to build a universal political movement, it is still inextricable from our day-to-day movements. A political conception of citizenship ought to consciously encompass the fact that every citizen has a unique position in society, and that people owe each other empathy despite their differences. For if progressivism is a politics of societal advancement, then it should begin by recognizing the complexity of the individuals who make up the fabric of our multicultural society.


John Lim graduated from Harvard College in 2020 with a degree in History and Literature. He is an incoming student at the University of Cambridge’s MPhil in American History, where he will be studying American energy history, urban history, and democracy.

Featured image: Immigrants walking across pier from bridge. Ellis Island, New York. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.