The Young Democrat Theory of History

I was struck in the CR/YD Debate last week by the number of times members of the YD team would say things like “Democrats are on the right side of history” or “Republicans are again on the wrong side of history.”  Mr. Jeff DeLuca was especially fond of this refrain regarding gay marriage (and would Democrats concede they were on the “wrong side of history” about communism?).

But hang on one second.  What does that even mean, “on the wrong side of history”?  That presupposes first that there is a defined trajectory in history and second that this trajectory is on the side of the good (or “progressive,” as our friends on the left would say)- although it’s debatable whether gay marriage is “progressive.”

Presumably, the YDs subscribe to some variant of the Whig Theory of History, where history has been shown to march forever towards greater enlightenment.  Of course, this denies free-will because our actions must be predetermined to fall in line with history’s trajectory in that direction. Instead of free agents making our own decisions, our will is subsumed into some greater will.

Of course, this is all nonsense.  I’m not sure how you can argue the world is getting more “progressive”- the genocides in the 20th century were far worse than anything we saw in all previous history of mankind. Women have achieved equality (in the West).  But the family is being torn apart by sky-rocketing divorce rates, teenage pregnancies, and the decline of the nuclear family.

We’ve seen huge advances in technology, but that’s coupled with increases in feelings of isolation and a decrease in the number of people we consider friends (true friends, not just those on Facebook).

So the idea of historical inevitability is absurd.  Instead of some kind of inexorable march of progress, history is volatile. We see gains, but we also have new challenges that we must face and overcome.  And we see losses along the way. Characterizing history as progressive is not only far too simplistic, but simply false.

3 comments

  1. It's perhaps more than a bit telling that you omit any mention of progress in civil rights, labor rights and universal healthcare (for those first world citizens outside of the US, at least). History is volatile, yes, but in general the trend since Enlightenment has been towards greater freedom for people who have recently been second-class citizens — women, minorities, the poor and disabled, etc. Genocide is terrible, yes, but it's hardly a counterexample that supports your argument.

    Presumably, the YDs subscribe to some variant of the Whig Theory of History, where history has been shown to march forever towards greater enlightenment. Of course, this denies free-will because our actions must be predetermined to fall in line with history’s trajectory in that direction. Instead of free agents making our own decisions, our will is subsumed into some greater will.

    This doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. Describing an observed trend has nothing to do with denying free will.

    1. I agree that building an argument on a foundation of "historical inevitability" is a little weak — but your claim that it's a bad argument because it denies free will is pedantic and whiny and makes you sound like you're more interested in talking about semantics than debating policy.

      I think you're missing the point here: "That presupposes first that there is a defined trajectory in history and second that this trajectory is on the side of the good" — yes, exactly, because the YD argument is doing just that: defining a trajectory in history, with liberals on the side of freedom and progress, and conservatives on the side of fear, regression and reaction.

      1. But they are not denying free will — and the fact that you would try to make it into an argument about that suggests that you are tone-deaf and that you have no other argument.

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