Why Progressives Undermine Civilization

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER - Michael Shellenberger - SEP 12, 2022

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck; President Joe Biden; Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (Getty Images)

From electricity and psychiatry to criminal justice and meritocracy, center-Left political leaders are dismantling the institutions our forefathers created. Why is that?

For much of the last 150 years, progressivism was defined by efforts to create the institutions that sustain modern life. In the mid-19th Century, progressives created modern police departments with professionally-trained employees that were controlled by local governments. A quarter century later, Dorothea Dix and her allies rescued mentally ill people from the barns and basements where they were shackled and started treating them in hospitals. And nearly a century ago, progressives led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority to build hydro-electric dams to make electricity and fertilizer to modernize farming, power factories, and lift millions out of poverty.

Today, progressives are undermining the institutions our forefathers created. Following the lead of California and New York, Illinois is undermining the criminal justice system by eliminating cash bail for most crimes, including second degree murder, kidnapping, and robbery. Green Parties in Germany and Belgium are moving forward with plans to shut down nuclear power plants, despite electricity shortages. And President Joe Biden is blocking the production of natural gas and oil for domestic consumption and for export to desperate allies in Europe and Asia while pushing subsidies for unreliable energy sources that make electricity more expensive.

I’m not suggesting that progressives always undermine institutions, nor that conservatives never do. The progressive Mayor of Boston earlier this year shut down a dangerous open drug scene over the objections of the ACLU; progressive policymakers in California recently re-imposed cash bail after crime surged; and in Illinois, courts will still be able to hold alleged offenders deemed dangerous.

Germany will keep open two of the country’s last three nuclear reactors past December 31, as will Belgium. And oil and gas production and exports have been increasing since Biden took office and are set to grow even more in coming years.

But it is progressives far more than conservatives who are today demanding that institutions and services essential to the functioning of society be dismantled. They propose the wholesale elimination of cash bail, not its reform. While Germany will keep open two of its last three reactors, Economy Minister Robert Habeck has said they will only operate as a last resort and will be permanently shut down in April.

And while the production of oil and natural gas is rising modestly, progressive activists, courts, and policymakers, including Biden, have successfully slowed and prevented production, pipelines, and export terminals from rising to levels sufficient to prevent energy scarcity from ravaging Europe, fertilizer and thus food shortages, and domestic price increases.

The cumulative result of these policies and actions is the undermining of civilization. In Chicago in 2022 alone, 33 people awaiting trial for felony charges were released from jail and went on to shoot 67 people and kill 15 of them. When asked about skyrocketing electricity prices, Germany’s Habeck said, "I can imagine that certain industries will simply stop producing for the time being," and indeed, many German businesses, including the world’s second largest steel factory, are already closing. And many U.S. oil and gas executives, particularly publicly-traded firms, have decided not to invest in expanded production, despite high prices, because of the repeated promises by Biden and his officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last week, to end the use fossil fuels, upon which civilization depends for 82% of our energy.

Progressives defend their policies as protecting, not weakening, civilization, but the harm they create is striking. Progressives say sweeping criminal justice reforms in Illinois will prevent racial disparities, but of the Chicago homicides in 2022, 358 were of African Americans, 75 of Latinos, 21 of whites, and 2 of Asians. Habeck says closing nuclear plants will protect the public from danger, but nuclear plants remain the safest way to produce electricity and one study found that German nuclear plant closures to date resulted in enough air pollution from coal-burning to shorten the lives of 1,100 Europeans. And while the Biden administration and Democrats say moving away from oil and gas is essential to preventing catastrophic climate change, the energy crisis will kill many more people than climate change, and it was the expansion of natural gas production that allowed emissions to decline 22% in the U.S. from 2005 to 2020, while the repression of natural gas production has caused coal use to rise to an all-time high.

And it’s not just the institutions of criminal justice, energy, and electricity that progressives are attacking. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy and the ACLU led efforts to de-fund psychiatric hospitals and eliminate all forms of involuntary care for the dangerously mentally ill, resulting in tens of thousands of mentally ill people becoming homeless, psychotic, and incarcerated in conditions far worse than psychiatric hospitals. Since the 1980s, progressive advocates and Democrats led efforts to divert funding from homeless shelters to housing, leaving cities without adequate shelter space. And today, progressives demand that public schools eliminate meritocratic methods for determining admission, like standardized tests, and that schools delay the teaching of algebra, in the name of racial equality.

What, exactly, is going on? How did progressives go from creating the institutions responsible for modern civilization to undermining them? And what, if anything, can be done about it?



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