In Silicon Valley, a small but influential group of businessmen and writers has begun to challenge the assumptions of the center left and the Democratic Party. Mainstream pundits have denounced these figures as “conservative” or “reactionary.” But as the political analyst N.S. Lyons has observed, they are better characterized as right-wing progressives. Their outlook, as Lyons points out, is grounded in relentless hostility to traditions and inherited practices, and in the elevation of scientific and technological advance into a kind of societal categorical imperative. Rather than looking for models of social organization in the past, they strive impatiently to inaugurate the utopia that, they believe, modern technological achievements have only recently brought into view. 

Nevertheless, Lyons notes, if conservative isn’t a fit appellation for this strand of thought, right-wing remains apt, for they retain three features that seem staples of the right (if not always those who call themselves conservatives): a deep inegalitarian streak, suspicion of democratic excess, and an emphasis on public order.

Lyons assumes, probably accurately, that this outlook and his classification of it as “right-wing progressivism” will strike many readers as eccentric. Yet it is better understood, I believe, as a recent installment in a long-standing and powerful strain of thought—one that challenges our too-ready modern equation of progressivism with democratic or egalitarian attitudes. Throughout modernity, many of those who have opposed democracy have done so in the name of progress. It is a fundamental, if widespread, misunderstanding of the character of ideological cleavages as they have played out across the centuries not to see this. Silicon Valley’s hyper-progressive contempt for popular input and instincts, while consisting of many new features reflecting today’s economic and social environment, is in its basic structure an old story.

Take Francis Bacon. The inventor of the “scientific method” and archetypal cheerleader of the systematic conquest of nature as the means toward human flourishing, the great early-modern thinker was not only not a democrat (that wasn’t an option on the table), he was hardly much of a parliamentarian, leaning instead toward an expansive conception of the royal prerogative against the incursions of common-law judges and members of Parliament.

This Baconian mix of affection for royal authority and for scientific advance reached a new apogee in the Enlightenment. While that great heterogenous movement encompassed a range of political voices, including those with more democratic inclinations, the norm was for the champions of science (and especially for the wonders that could emerge from its application to social problems) to uphold a robust skepticism of popular wisdom; after all, this was the age that birthed the term “enlightened despotism.” Neither Voltaire nor the physiocrats nor most other enlightened reformers of the Continent were proponents of democracy, and many embraced a model of change that involved further empowering a monarch—presumed to be swayable by the advanced literati—who could install a cadre of progressive-minded officials to carry out an effective program of modernization against the patchwork of privileges and customs and vested interests that stood in the way of the scientific organization of society. 

“Enlightenment France’s most democratic thinker was also its most devoted anti-modernist.”

Even the young Marquis de Condorcet—who was late-18th-century France’s most eager scientific progressive and who would go on to pen perhaps the most democratic constitution of all time at the height of the French Revolution—stopped well short of universal suffrage in his pre-revolutionary prescriptions for what ailed the ancien régime. These were radicals in their politics, but not democrats, and they acted in the name of unleashing discovery and invention. It is a pregnant fact that Enlightenment France’s most democratic thinker was also its most devoted anti-modernist and most strident skeptic of progress: Rousseau.

Alongside this strain there was, additionally, a kind of enlightened conservatism: a way of thinking that could also be described as “right-wing progressive.” In Britain, figures like Edmund Burke (at least before the French Revolution) or William Paley—the latter is less famous today but was immensely influential in his day—opposed the radical-democratic movements of their time not out of an instinctual mistrust of progress, but because, as one scholar puts it, they thought the permeable but deeply inegalitarian institutions of their time and country helped foster and protect “the true vanguard of the scientific revolution.” One way of understanding this important school of thought is as having been both conservative and progressive depending on the vantage point from which one examines it—or rather, it was because it was progressive in cultural or intellectual dimensions that it was also politically conservative. These thinkers opposed constitutional change in a popular direction because they thought that, relative to the then-present aristocratic dispensation, it would set back science, progress, and the increase of human well-being.

In the setting of the apogee of liberalism, Victorian Britain, similar ideological dynamics played out. For one thing, there is the fact that the empire was upheld by many progressives; alien rule was justified as preferable to popularly responsive native institutions on the grounds that the latter were—at least for the time being—inconsistent with economic development and the onward march of mind and morals. Naturally, not all imperialists were progressive, nor were all progressives imperialists; yet this is perhaps the most glaring, and best known, case of how progressivist commitments of a particular flavor could collide with the ideal of popular self-rule. 

From the moment that liberalism took off as a self-conscious political identity a few decades into the 19th century, there were those who presented liberalism as the home of all shades of progressives. As the foremost defender of this viewpoint, John Stuart Mill, put it, unlike a Conservative party, which he depicted (implausibly) as naturally univocal since it was grounded in the simple desire to keep things as they were, liberalism was “a broad church” that contained myriad differences within it, for “the bond which holds us together is not a political confession of faith, but a common allegiance to the spirit of improvement, which is a greater thing than the particular opinions of any politician or set of politicians.” And such a broad panoply of progressives had—uneasily and imperfectly, of course—managed to hang together as the main party of government from the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 that signaled the onset of political modernity in Britain into the last quarter of the century. 

Much of Mill’s own writing, especially in his early adulthood, was devoted to showing that middle-class and professional interests on the one hand and working-class interests on the other could be advanced in harmony under this “liberal” or “radical” umbrella. In ideological rather than sociological terms, writers like Mill sought to keep the peace between technocratic and populist or democratizing conceptions of progress. For much of the century, technocrats and populists could stand together against a common enemy: the remnants of the “Old Corruption,” as they called it, of aristocracy and privilege. But with further expansions of the parliamentary franchise and extension of other rights, the cleavage between these two visions of progress became more acute, and liberalism ultimately split and entered more than a generation spent mostly in the wilderness. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back here was the Liberal Party’s commitment to Home Rule for Ireland, a policy which (in addition to drawing on racial animus) was seen as embodying the worst vagaries of the democratic ethos. This controversy led institutional liberalism officially to divide, with much of the British intelligentsia defecting from the more populist elements of the Liberal Party of which they had become increasingly suspicious and which were embodied by Prime Minister William Gladstone (“the People’s William”). Reconstituted now as “Liberal Unionists,” this largely elite faction allied itself henceforth with the Tories.

Analysis of this latter camp of “dissentient liberals”—which included such luminaries as England’s greatest constitutional lawyer, Albert Venn Dicey, and a founding father of analytic moral philosophy, Henry Sidgwick—has posed problems similar to those which Silicon Valley intellectuals pose today. They are often said to have made a “conservative” turn, and yet they insisted that they remained faithful to the principles of true or authentic liberalism in which they had been raised. Both perspectives contain truth. These writers did move to the right or become conservative in an important political respect: They opposed most of the further installments of “organic” or “constitutional” change advocated by self-proclaimed progressives. But they did so on the grounds that these political changes would imperil the cultural, industrial, and intellectual progress of which the currently ascendant elite had proven itself a reliable steward. 

Constitutional conservatism and a more overarching progressivism thus went hand-in-hand. As I have mentioned in these pages before, this attitude of the last few decades of the 19th century, whereby political equality was rebuffed out of desperate fidelity to a progressive vision, was more or less incarnated in the jurist, historian, and imperial administrator Henry Maine. An impeccable liberal for most of his life, in his last decade, the 1880s, he parted company decisively with his former allies who wished for greater measures of “popular government” by delivering some of the most searingly elitist lines in all of political thought, identifying political egalitarianism as the enemy of all the great achievements of modernity:

If for four centuries there had been a very widely extended franchise and a very large electoral body in this country, there would have been no reformation of religion, no change of dynasty, no toleration of Dissent, not even an accurate Calendar. The threshing-machine, the power-loom, the spinning-jenny, and possibly the steam-engine, would have been prohibited. Even in our day vaccination is in the utmost danger; and we may say generally that the gradual establishment of the masses in power is of the blackest omen for all legislation founded on scientific opinion, which requires tension of mind to understand it, and self-denial to submit to it. 

One might call this the definitive statement of “right-wing progressivism” in all of political literature. After a lifetime more or less at home as a liberal, Maine decided he needed to leave institutional liberalism in the name of a truer account of progress that could come to terms with all of that value’s inegalitarian implications.

“The chief adversary is the forces of stasis.”

Indeed, the resemblances between late-Victorian anti-democratic progressivism and the Silicon Valley political mindset run deep. For both, the chief adversary is the forces of stasis. Maine saw the advent of democracy as portending the return of “traditional society,” because the demos, which was so in thrall to customs and prejudices that it couldn’t appreciate “improvement,” would stymy creativity and bring to a halt “new ideas, scientific invention, and scientific discovery.” All society would thereby be reduced to “unchangeableness” and “immobility.” 

Similarly, today’s right-wing progressives declare their opposition to stagnation and the valorization of tradition. Second, both tie this disposition, which would bind down merit, exploration, and ambition to the dead level of the masses’ present comforts and habits, to a kind of sentimentalist acquiescence to popular fears and desires that would inevitably bring with it “collectivism” and “socialism.” Finally, both have as little patience with a false, parasitic elite as they do with popular ignorance and irrationalism: Late-Victorian liberals-turned-right consisted largely of figures who, in their younger years, had waged war against the vestiges of the aforementioned “Old Corruption”: the nepotism, sinecures, patronage, and perks that they believed had characterized a sclerotic older regime in church and state. Likewise today, Silicon Valley rightists place among their antagonists the mediocre, insular apparatchiks of public bureaucracy and the world of NGOs and universities, who have lost a sincere appreciation for “merit” and “striving.” 

The progressive anti-democrat or anti-egalitarian is a distinct and enduring archetype. It’s always been hard to categorize such people, but they are a leading and recurrent character in the story of especially Anglophone political philosophy. Today’s right-wing progressives sound much like an older kind of disaffected liberal afflicted with an Übermensch complex; they are the latest iteration of a familiar type: the intellectual convinced that the greatest threats to a better future are the forces of leveling, sclerosis, and complacency that weigh down the dynamic few—just now convinced, as well, that they can reverse aging or digitize the soul.

From putting Lyons’s category of right-wing progressivism in a longer historical perspective, we can draw a few general lessons—perhaps obvious, when you reflect on them, but too often overlooked. First, “progress” as a value no more belongs to the left than to the right. There have been progressives who deplored the advance of political equality just as those who celebrate it, progressives who have bristled at many of the ideals the political left has historically championed—fraternity, solidarity, democratization, a redistributive state. There are as many images of an improved future as there are ends or combinations of ends that human beings might pursue, and as there are perceptions of appropriate means to achieve those ends. 

Just as there are visions of progress that don’t belong to the left, there are also versions of left-wing thought that aren’t, in any obvious way, progressive in their character. Marx’s stridently modernist version of socialism was, as he knew, hardly the only option on offer, which was why the Communist Manifesto devotes a section to denouncing “reactionary socialists”; and many of the great left utopians, such as the creators of the main testament of communist thought to come out of the French Revolution, saw republican equality as requiring the rigid enforcement of moral and economic stasis. 

Conversely, late-19th-century quondam liberals like Maine were convinced that their own commitments to laissez-faire were progressive, while socialists, on the contrary, were anti-progressive in their thought: The former believed that the latter derived their “communal” ideas about property relations anachronistically from the past and that the latter’s attempts to socialize property or equalize wealth by government fiat would bring industrial advance to a halt. And this was a self-conception that carried on into figures of the 20th-century right like Hayek, who, despite the persistent but misleading application of the term “conservative” to him, fundamentally objected to socialism for what he perceived to be its historically regressive character: It was “counterrevolutionary” and “atavistic,” in his words.

Second, situating right-wing progressivism within a broader historical frame helps us to see how misleading the tropes about America being a “conservative” country are. It’s all well and good for conservative intellectuals and think-tankers to invoke Russell Kirk and the like, but this outlook has had little real impact on the course of American policy and society. Much more accurate remains the old assessment of the economist Gunnar Myrdal, that if in some sense America was “conservative,” “the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical”—a liberal radicalism that in the American form has meant deference toward the claims of the “novel” and the “innovative” in everything from consumer products to conceptions of wellness (categories that increasingly merge). 

The growing aggressiveness of the cultural left around issues of identity has, certainly, prompted a concerted blowback from conservatives in the past few years. But our party system, and our political culture more broadly, remain largely a contest between competing accounts of “innovation” and “dynamism,” with different intellectual and partisan coalitions fighting over whose system of (de)regulation is most likely to bring forth the most untold marvels. The American civil religion—embracing both Republicans and Democrats, though they give it different emphases—has long been the Cult of the New.

“The US suffers greatly from the lack of any powerful and principled conservative force.”

Far from being a conservative country, the United States suffers greatly from the lack of any powerful and principled conservative force in its mainstream. We can see this in the utterly meek response of the Republican Party and the assorted “conservative” think tanks to the social and cultural ravages that Big Tech has wrought. The best that most self-proclaimed conservatives can do in response to its rise has been to complain that it wields its powers in a partisan way (as in the censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop exposé), or that it poses contingent national security risks (in the case of TikTok). But surely a principled conservatism would have had deeper concerns about, and offered more sustained resistance to, the rise of an industry whose model of growth—as we could have seen from an early stage—relied on enlisting the population, including children, as “unwitting volunteers in the largest social-engineering experiment in human history,” as the cultural critic Ted Gioia has written

It would not have blanched at trying to halt, or at least moderate, the rapid effectuation of such a massive change just because this originated from private capital rather than a public bureaucracy. It would have had some reservations about the deployment at scale of highly addictive technologies that fundamentally revolutionize our interaction with the social world; that involve a level of surveillance inconsistent with traditional understandings of privacy; that have hastened the hollowing out of our civil-society associations; that have led to severe mental-health pathologies (including in children and young adults); that have encouraged mobbing; and that have rapidly diminished our ability to concentrate and to appreciate the great art and literature of our civilization—precisely those goods one would think it was of the essence of conservatism to protect. 

Conservatives are rightly alarmed by the way in which elite-imposed moral novelties can undermine the possibility for genuine self-government. But the arrival of powerful technologies has an even greater upending effect. As the political scientist Kevin Munger has written:

It seems wrong for a colonizer or imperialist to impose their values, to deny a community the ability to define, organize, and conduct itself in the way they want. New technology can have the same destabilizing effect as the destruction of local icons or the disruption of the local environment…. [The pace and nature of technological change in 2023 is such that it] threatens the foundation of literate/liberal culture, the bedrock of Western society for the past few centuries…. Without a stable media-technological environment, the mechanisms of deliberation, regulation and education cannot function.

Exercising some discrimination between technologies that serve the values deeply embedded in and dear to our society and those that don’t should be a primary aim of conservatives; TikTok is not equivalent to penicillin, and just because “dynamism” and “innovation” can produce both should hardly mean we need to tolerate the former just because the latter has done us much good.

To see the measure of the toothlessness of American conservatism in the face of the real forces of change in our modern world, take the specific case of dating apps and the digitalization of sex and romance. Conservatives claim to care centrally about family formation, about the vital role of stable relationships in providing the bedrock for a prosperous society and flourishing lives. And yet the rise of these technologies has rapidly altered our mores and expectations precisely on these issues—with some positives, to be sure, but in the end to the detriment, it seems, of birth rates, marriage rates, and the happiness of men and women. This drastic shift in one of the most foundational domains of social life occurred without any democratic deliberation, without any collective desire for such changes to occur, and has left conservatives simply to bemoan, after the fact, the damage done. In a country with a real conservative movement—that is, with an organized force in political life dedicated to arresting massive alterations to traditional social understandings—such a proceeding might not have occurred.

In a democracy, the role of a conservative movement should be to ensure that major alterations of the social fabric, from whatever source they proceed, shouldn’t take place in the absence of widespread societal consensus, just as the role of a progressive movement should be to ensure that when such changes are desired, they not be obstructed by veto-players and incumbents in government and the economy. Sometimes the conservatives will be wrong, and their objections to a major change will turn out simply to be shielding entrenched interests that should be subjected to reform or upheaval; but then equally, sometimes the new rights or new practices pushed by progressives will prove misguided fads. Instead of deliberation oriented around this axis, what we have long gotten in American politics is simply a choice between contending images of how to “unleash more innovation,” whether we want it or not, with those who object to the rate and type of change often called, even by those who professedly represent “conservatism,” mere impractical dreamers whom the future is passing by.

Greg Conti, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, is Compact’s editor-at-large.

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