Progressives vs conservatives: This is why we can't just all get along

Since 2016 and the Brexit and Trump breakthroughs it is often said that the biggest divide in politics is between the 'somewheres' and the 'anywheres', the nationalists and the globalists. This is true, but it is also only one symptom of the deeper divide that exists on a number of fronts between conservatives and progressives.

This is the divide between those who believe the world has a given order that ought to be respected because it makes things go best in the long run, and those who do not believe this and think invoking such order is little more than a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful against those they exploit.

This social order which conservatives endorse and progressives renounce consists mainly of two fundamental principles: respect for the nation state with its associated national cultures and people groups, and respect for the family including the sanctity of marriage and the sacred bond between parents and children. Religious conservatives take this order to be God-ordained, a created order, whereas secular conservatives are content just to accept it as given and objective but not in need of supernatural explanation (though many secular conservatives remain respectful of the role of religion in culture).

Either way, this conservative respect for natural and social order contrasts sharply with the progressive outlook which is typically hostile to claims of inherent order in nature and society. Progressives tend to follow Marx in regarding such ideas as devices created by the powerful (in Marx's case, the owners of capital, these days, more likely straight white men) to perpetuate inequalities and restrict people's freedom of action.

Progressives and conservatives both say they want people to be happy, but they understand very differently what this involves. Whereas conservatives see happiness as emerging from respect for the natural and social order, for progressives almost the opposite is the case: the individual's pursuit of happiness must as far as possible be achieved by not conforming to the social order. This is because to do so is to become complicit in oppression and to succumb to the 'false consciousness' of being happy when enslaved.

The progressive renunciation of social order is why progressives are typically unmoved by evidence of the social benefits of conservative policies. Regardless of the benefits they can be shown to bring, such policies have already been dismissed on grounds of being intolerant, discriminatory, hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and so on. This is why it doesn't matter that studies consistently demonstrate the benefits of marriage for both children and adults, very few progressives will make a policy of promoting it. Instead they will point to the disadvantages suffered by those in unmarried families, and call for more state resources and interventions to support them and for the removal of any 'unfair' special benefits for married couples.

Likewise, it doesn't matter that many social ills (such as pressure on public services and housing, on pay and jobs, and on trust and cohesion) are shown to proceed from lax border control and too many immigrants arriving too quickly. Few progressives will endorse restricting entry. They will instead call for more state funds and programmes to support immigrant families and smooth social relations.

Conservatives and progressives differ also in their visions of freedom. Conservatives seek the freedom that comes from respecting the boundaries inherent in the created order. Progressives, on the other hand, aim for freedom from the created order – from biology, from the family, from the nation, from God. As a consequence, progressive freedom has a strong authoritarian bent. This might seem paradoxical, but in fact it follows directly from the progressives' need to oppose by force the outworking of the order of nature, and to silence those who attempt to point out the problems with this. This is the root of the widely observed antipathy to free speech among the postmodern Left, and of the bullying culture that frequently accompanies the imposition of progressive dogmas on people and organisations.

The conservative vision seeks to be earthed in well-proven truths about human nature and God's guidance regarding social structures. It should be obvious that this has much more to commend it than the progressive vision. It doesn't allow people's subjective feelings or desires, or utopian visions founded on unreal ideas of how the world works, to take priority over a broader view of what people and society need to thrive. It welcomes rational debate about what this requires rather than closing it down.

The tragedy of the West today is that all its major institutions, from the state to universities to churches to the media, have been hijacked over the past century or so by progressives disparaging these fundamentals and fixated on an agenda of overthrowing imagined oppressors and ushering in a brave new world without boundaries or borders. The consequences have been catastrophic, leading to, among other things, rock bottom birth rates, a fast-changing culture and demographics that leaves many feeling alienated, and a society rife with family breakdown, violence and addiction. Time is quickly running out to turn things around.

Perhaps the biggest question, though, is whether Western civilisation really wants to be saved. Many of the people do, it seems, if the rise of so-called populism is anything to go by. But do the elites? All indications are they do not, as they push forward with their progressive, postmodern agendas regardless of how unpopular or destructive they are, apparently because they believe it is the right thing to do. But if such ideas are wholly detached from the way the world is made and what people are really like, can they really be right? It hardly seems likely.

Dr Will Jones is a Birmingham-based writer, a mathematics graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and a diploma in biblical and theological studies. He blogs at and is author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017). He can be found on Twitter @faithnpolitic