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Standing Athwart History

05/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the health care debate finally comes to an end, both sides are amping up their rhetoric, rallying their supporters and making their closing arguments. The White House is arm twisting. Nancy Pelosi is vote counting. Republican Congressional leaders are steadying their troops. All of this is predictable, ahead of such a momentous vote.

Then, there is the video of the health care reform protester (carrying an Americans for Prosperity sign) throwing money at, and verbally abusing another man who is so ill from Parkinson's he can only sit helplessly, holding his pro-health care reform sign. This video has gotten a lot of play in the left-leaning media. I'm going to assume they're not cuing it up much on the more conservative outlets. But the image crystallizes what's at stake in this debate, and it goes to the heart of what it means to be progressive or conservative.

My conservative friends and family members will tell me this image does not reflect the reality of their movement. This is one mean-spirited man taking things too far. But looking back at the scrapbook of history, there are many images, like this one, that capture the forces of progressivism pitted against the forces of conservatism.

Whether the image is of child laborers standing mournfully on top of industrial machinery, or of suffragettes determinedly facing police intimidation and public ridicule. Whether the image conveys the impact of the Little Rock Nine bravely marching into school amidst a sea of angry white faces, or evokes compassion for those enduring the Great Depression. These images, and others like them, illustrate the tension between progressive and conservative forces more poignantly, and more succinctly, than any of the arguments currently raging around the country.

They should also provide perspective and fortitude to wavering Democrats, and to those fearful of imminent change. Because when Americans consider the critical social movements of generations past -- from anti-slavery societies to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, from the Seneca Falls Convention to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment -- they almost always identify themselves with the progressive side of the argument.

William F. Buckley is famous for noting that conservatism "stands athwart history, yelling Stop, when no one is inclined to do so." I would argue that most people, initially, are inclined to do exactly that. But attitudes evolve over time, and people's sense of what is right, what is just and what is possible changes with each passing year. Reforms that were once unthinkable now seem not only just, but inevitable.

I encourage conservatives to continue to argue vehemently against progressivism. It is noble to defend your principles. In critical moments such as this, conservatism slams on the brakes and forces robust debate. That's a good thing.

More selfishly, I encourage conservatives to embrace Glenn Beck's advice and demand the repeal of all Progressive Era reforms. It would be an incredibly refreshing burst of intellectual consistency to see conservative candidates run on the platform of repealing women's suffrage, abolishing public education, eliminating the eight hour work day, and putting young children back into sweatshops. Not to mention ending the hugely popular Social Security and Medicare programs.

Of course, that won't happen. But I think the health care bill may actually pass, after all of this. And while conservatives may be initially giddy at the prospect of picking off weak Democrats who vote for the bill, I feel confident this progressive measure, like those that have come before it, will ultimately be vindicated by its own success. If history teaches us anything, other progressive reforms will inevitably follow.

Each effort will engender its own battle, once again pitting progressives against conservatives. Fifty years from now, we will be able to look back on the images captured today, and history will distill for us what each picture means in the larger context. I feel far more comfortable helping the man with Parkinson's than hurling wadded up cash at him. I would rather stand in solidarity with my neighbors, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants, than shout at them to go home. I want to champion the civil rights of my gay friends, rather than carry a sign condemning them and their families. In the end, I think William F. Buckley, smart as he was, got it backwards. It's much harder to fight for and achieve transformational change than it is to stand in opposition. But looking back at the political battles that have shaped this country, it's clear that progress is more photogenic.