A number of thinkers, Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson among them, have commented on the tendency of all societies to divide themselves between what today are called conservatives and progressives. In Emerson’s case it was a party of memory and a party of hope. And in Jefferson’s case it was a strong tendency on the part of some to hold on to traditional institutions and practices and an equally strong tendency on the part of others to seek to adapt to changing times and realities.
What struck him most about the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “was the difficulty of shaking the majority in an opinion once conceived.” And, of course, Niccolo Machiavelli observed that “the reformer [progressive] has enemies in all those who could profit by the older order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order; this luke-warmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries…and partly from the incredulity of mankind who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”
Things do change, and the late historian Arthur Schlesinger concluded: “What counts in the end is the subversion of old ideas by the changing environment.” Thus the axiom: Adapt or die.
When young and possibly more idealistic, it is easier to believe in the inevitability of American progress, that society must improve by adapting to new realities. A deep national depression taught us that children and the elderly deserve nutrition, shelter, and health care, that workers deserve to be employed, that we are a society of shared beliefs, values, and principles, if nothing else principles of basic humanity.
But change is not always positive and progress can erode. Resources can shrink–whether through tax cuts, unnecessary wars, or unwise deregulation of markets–and policies once conceived as benchmarks of civility and humanity are surrendered to greed, tradition, the old order, faded memory, and old ideas.
What seems especially unjust–and this is a matter of justice–is the surrender of national progress to the forces whose old ideas brought on the conditions now deemed to require retrenchment to a more primitive past. Resistance to paying for the national and social policies of a great, good, and progressive society by those most able to do so, by those who have benefitted most handsomely from American society, by those most protected by the pillars of American strength, is not only aggravating, it is unjust, unfair, and immoral.
However one views history and divine providence, nations are judged and unjust ones are found wanting. Etched on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial are these words of Bibilical implications: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”