Conservatives vs. Progressives

Conservatives (people who prefer to have no significant changes or even want to return to glorified past settings) and progressives (people who want to introduce new ideas to the society or institution) are in a seemingly eternal struggle.

The Western democracies show how the pendulum of power swings between conservatives and progressives, usually not getting stuck in any one place for long. To understand these dynamics is useful. Both conservatives and progressives have a point - and have important functions.

A long reign of conservatism usually leads to backwardness as quickly as in about two decades.

A long (or especially dramatic) reign of progressives leads to instability and at times reactionary collapse (as observed in Iran and Afghanistan where secularization failed spectacularly). They can also ask too much of the society.

Societies are divided, and ignoring that fact doesn't help the longevity of progressive reforms. Nor does it help the ability of conservatives to sustain their model.

The society's forces pull stronger towards the other extreme the more one extreme advances in its plans.

We can conceive great plans of modernization for corporations, armies, states or whole societies, but the forces of conservatism will eventually break every such effort that isn't in step with the change of opinion.

Conservatives likewise can draw great plans of conserving the status quo or even go back to the society of their childhood, but such plans will eventually fail as too many people will at some point dismiss their ideas as backward and increasingly inappropriate.

Conservatives always fail in the long run; all they can do in the long run is to limit the speed of progress to the speed of change of opinions. Conservatives become moderates and moderates become progressives in regard to specific issues over time. The progressives usually have a point, and their arguments usually convince moderates over time - or moderates simply become accustomed to examples of progressiveness (like women in trousers) over time.
This is the key to progress; shape the opinions and provide examples. Grand plans don't work nearly as well as planned, but a steady erosion of conservative positions does.

That's why education, communication, media and the protection of progressive examples is so important.

* conservative education examples; teaching conservative nonsense like creationism, separating schools into boy and girl schools and last war types teaching about warfare in an army
* poor communication of progressive ideas examples; no charismatic and rhetorically brilliant leaders, poor use of communication top-down and bottom-up
* conservative media examples; media that flips out at every swearword or nipple, generally leans to conservatives or serves directly as propaganda tool of clerics, insistence on old field manuals
* attack on progressives examples; killing emancipated minority members, burning down schools, harassing women in short skirts, destroying homosexual politician's careers, sabotage of experiments by assigning substandard resources and restricting participating officer's careers.

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The rate of progress must not be sustained in excess of the societies', corporation's, army's or institution's ability to adapt. The key to a rapid modernization is therefore to create the insight that progress is a good thing - to help the conservatives to adapt.

Communication, examples and compelling ideas are the key to rapid sustained modernization, while highly visible projects like buying shiny new big-ticket hardware or enacting a revolutionary bill against majority opinion appears to be much less promising.

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Let's look at examples:

(a) The 60+ generation lack of understanding for youth culture and new technologies (a never-ending story, because today's youth becomes tomorrow's old generation).
It's a good idea to block the conservatives' attempts of breaking youth culture, but the key to success is probably to let them participate. In other words; develop software that makes 60+ year olds use a computer. Mission accomplished in that regard.
It's less simple in regard to clothing fashions (I don't want to see retirees in teen fashion, really!) and in regard to music. There's still the expectation that they'll eventually get used to it.

(b) Army modernisation.
Army modernisation doesn't work by simply buying new vehicles, tools and weapons. The ideas for their purpose and right employment need to be created and distributed. The communication tools (professional journals, films), education/training efforts (training courses, university studies), charismatic innovator leaders, successful examples (also to be found in other countries and especially in conflicts) and well-supported innovative projects and experiments are much more promising than modernization efforts based on procuring high-tech hardware and mere training.

An army that's modernised in its thinking will be superior ceteris paribus to an army modernized only in its hardware. The (mis-)use of tanks in early WW2 provides rich examples for this.

We could emphasize the modernisation of thought over hardware modernisation if we could considerably shorten procurement (and development) processes for innovative hardware. Right now it looks as if in regard to many modernizations there's no choice but to develop the inventory of ideas and hardware in parallel.

Nevertheless, it's extremely important to keep in mind that it's not just about hardware, it's about the people.

Luckily, we're able to propel army modernisation by retiring too conservative leaders. An armed service that allows its officers to serve into very high age and that doesn't retire excessively conservative leaders fails. It fails to keep up with modernity and becomes obsolete, waiting for disaster in the next great war - and thereby failing in its mission.

That leads to example
(c) The West fails grossly in Afghanistan.
We cannot properly communicate progressive ideas due to cultural and language barriers. We cannot dominate the media because the country has different media structures than we're used to and important opinion multipliers in that country (mullahs) are conservative.
We introduce tools and rules of modernity without convincing the people in general.
We set up examples of modernity that we cannot protect against attacks and harassment.

Nation-building is one thing. To add 250 years of society advances to a country in a few years in parallel to a civil war is so utterly insane and stupid that it casts strong doubts on the mental qualities of those who were and are responsible for it.


I begin to fear that I'm turning into a conservative as well. My emphasis on historical best practice examples (WW2) and a good deal of contempt for some "stupid" youth culture stuff are distressing indicators.

Well, maybe I'm just moving towards moderate and won't step into conservative territory.


  1. Love your articles ; cant see anything wrong with discussing the past if successes and mistakes are spotted and built on /learned from .
    Problem with progressives is their flaunted superiority when they invent .. the wheel .

  2. The Problem of doing evrything in parallel instead of successive order is in my eyes one of the most annoying, be it in military developement or building/repairing roads. But Developement is nowadays so complex that we only have one company available for such a project and a short developement phase with more engineers for a shorter time is simply not achieveable because we don't have enough engineers and the market can't give them jobs after the project is finished.


    (p.s. there was no field to enter a name besides the google account option, don't think it will show a name as i used name/url)

  3. You should be able to choose among "Google Account", "OpenID", "Name/URL" and "Anonymous".

    "Name/URL" offers the ability to tell your name and your website's URL.

    - - - - -

    The reason for long developments are manifold and I'm convinced that halving the time is easily possible in most cases - and a reduction to 1/10th or 1/25th is possible in some cases.
    There are disadvantages in such accelerated development projects, though.

  4. So is it progressive or conservative for Britain to allow sharia courts for Muslims?

    Accelerated development of social and economic programs can be a very bad idea, as the real effects of such work cannot be evaluated in the short term.

    It seems you're using the term progressive to mean innovator and conservative to mean traditionalist. Though those are accurate uses, the terms as they apply in politics do not match up quite so well.

    Even appealing to tradition is not per se an error. Some things are traditional because they have stood the test of time and continue to work well. The trick is to figure out where tradition and conservatism are creating problems and choosing good solutions. Those solutions may be innovative or progressive, or they may simply be an existing strategy applied in a different context.

  5. "So is it progressive or conservative for Britain to allow sharia courts for Muslims?"

    That's about as progressive or conservative as painting faces yellow-grey. Completely off topic, extremely unlikely and entirely unrelated to the terms.

    The Brits have arbitration tribunals, some of which orient their decisions on the civil code of the Sharia. An arbitration institution is something very different than a real court because nobody gets involved involuntarily.

    Please choose your words wisely; there are too many folks in the internet who are ready to believe the most stupid stories about Muslims in Europe.

  6. I like your articles ;and this is almost off topic,and entirely unrelated to the terms.
    You said "conservative education examples ,separating schools into boy and girl schools " but some progressives now are looking for the separation of boys and girls in America.I am only making a comment and not trying to make a debate,but some times We the Humans reinvent the wheel over and over again

  7. Did you know that the average Democrat would be a far right wing politician in Germany?