View Electronic Edition

Storm Warning: Are Left and Right Obsolete?

Charles Siegel is director of the Preservation Institute ( His most recent book is What's Wrong with Day Care, forthcoming from Teachers College Press.

Political parties were first arrayed from conservative to progressive during the French Revolution. Through the nineteenth century, progressive radicals wanted to free people from traditional forms of authority?the aristocracy, the church, the family?and they believed history was on their side, because a new age of reason, science, and technology was sweeping away these older social forms.

During the twentieth century, this faith in progress led to "modernism," symbolized by the glass, steel, and concrete designs of architects such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Modernists believed in "rational" planning and top-down management by specialized experts; in economic growth; in centralization, with housing projects replacing small-scale neighborhoods and bureaucracies providing services; and, above all, in the inevitability of technological progress.

Today, some progressives?the old left, ranging from Communists through socialists to old-line liberals?still believe in this modernist ideal. But most people who still call themselves progressives oppose this vision of "progress." During the 1930s, for example, American progressives backed Roosevelt's plans to promote economic growth by building highways and dams; progressives today are more likely to sue to stop highways and dams. Stalin collectivized and industrialized agriculture; progressives today want to save small farms and stop industrial agriculture.

Today's most important new political movements oppose modernization, but their ideas will not come together unless we think about politics in a new way. We are still using terms that made sense a hundred years ago, but now are obsolete. We need to replace the old political spectrum, which ranged from "conservatives" who were against change to "progressives" who favored change, with a new political spectrum, ranging from modernists, who uncritically support the technocratic progress, to preservationists, who want to limit modernization.

Ideologically orthodox Communists were extreme modernists who believed in a centrally planned, technological society. The American journalist Lincoln Steffens summed it up when he came back from revolutionary Russia in 1919 and said, "I have seen the future, and it works." The collapse of communism shows, first, that central planning did not work as Steffens and others expected; and second, that the ideal of a planned technological society, which seemed liberating eighty years ago, seems oppressive today.

Orthodox American liberals are moderate modernists. From Roosevelt's New Deal through Johnson's Great Society, liberals believed the federal government should stimulate economic growth in the private sector and should build more roads, power plants, mass housing projects, hospitals, schools, and day-care centers. Their ideal was top-down modernization carried out by both the corporate economy and the federal government.

Most American conservatives are in the middle of the modernist-preservationist spectrum?and they are trying to move in both directions. They want to stop progress when it comes to social issues, but are rabidly in favor of economic progress. They lament the decline of old-fashioned neighborhoods and families. But they support the shopping malls and superstore developments that destroy old neighborhoods. And they support the consumerist ideal?oversized suburban homes with two SUVs in every garage?that is so expensive that it forces even middle-class parents to put their children in day-care centers and work two full-time jobs.

Conventional political ideologies, from communist to conservative, range from the modernist extreme to the center of this new political spectrum. The preservationist end of the spectrum does not have any fully developed ideology yet, but it does have all the most interesting new political ideas of the past few decades. The environmental movement, the movement to preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods, the movements against freeways, suburban sprawl, genetic engineering, globalization, economic growth?all these are attempts to limit modernization.

At the furthest extreme of the preservationist end of the spectrum is what used to be called the appropriate technology movement and now is sometimes called the neo-Luddite movement. Its ideal is to grow your own: to subsist on a homestead and to home-birth and home-school your own children?exactly the opposite of the old progressive ideal that the modern economy should provide jobs, health care, education, and child care. This movement is important because it shows that radical criticism is turning in a new direction that has nothing to do with old-line progressivism; but it is so extreme that it has not had any practical effect.

We need practical policies that move in this new direction but are moderate enough to be taken seriously. Most Americans obviously are not going to drop out of the modern economy and produce everything for themselves on homesteads, but most Americans would like to work shorter hours and have more time to do things for themselves and their families. Americans would be better off if we consumed less and had more time to raise our own children, rather than putting them full-time in day-care centers and after-school programs, and more time to maintain our health by exercising and cooking healthy foods, rather than waiting until we get sick and then relying on the health care system.

Liberals have not developed these new policies, because they are still focusing on the progressive agenda of the last century, demanding that the government spend more to provide education, health care, housing, child care, and jobs. To survive the next century, we need both individual and political changes. Individuals must change their attitudes toward consumption, and we also must change laws and policies that create "compulsory consumption" (such as health insurance that emphasizes treatment rather than prevention and zoning codes that discourage walkable neighborhoods).

At the Preservation Institute, we support a series of reforms, from vouchers to support locally controlled schools, to health insurance reforms that reduce waste, to zoning laws that allow traditional neighborhood development, to fair child-care funding for people who stay home to care for their own children, to policies that encourage part-time work. They add up to a more reasonable standard of living that lets people spend less and work less in the formal economy, so they have more time to do for themselves.

We need to reject progressivism before we can shift to preservationism.