03/04/2011 11:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressives and the 'Good Child' DIlemma

How many progressives does it take to install a new society? Forget it -- there's no punch line. Progressives are the wrong ones to ask. They are too eager to be constructive -- critical to a point, open and honest to a fault, but they want to be trusted with the company car, even with the company.

Progressives, you see, are good children. They work hard to gain respect and responsibility, not by pandering or supplicating, rather by demonstrating competence and effort. But they will cause no wrinkles on their permissive parents' moral brow, because they act on the highest and best impulses. To be sure, many have had their fling with adolescent rebellion, but after seeing the pain this caused they vowed henceforth to be the party of light.

In the culture wars of our time, critics of the right like John Dean have pointed to the authoritarian character predominant among conservatives. In the wake of the present Tea-Party takeover of state governments to impose Draconian legislation, the claim is unassailable.

One writer, George Lakoff, has emphasized the rigid family structure that nurtures the rageful and power-hungry tenor of the new right. But Lakoff, like everyone else, remains mystified by the complicity -- or at least, passivity -- of liberals and progressives. Having escaped early tyranny in the family, so the argument runs, they should presumably be leading the charge for social justice, and certainly to resist the resurgence of a pre-New Deal, John Birchite right. Guess again...

So, to be consistent, we have to ask the same questions about their upbringing. What we find is less readily apparent, but no less troubling. Progressives and liberals were raised in families that encouraged outspokenness, critical thinking and tolerance of diversity. In fact, such behavior was the path to praise, honors' programs, good colleges, sparkling careers.

What wasn't encouraged, what threatened to shut off the rewards, was challenging the system. If you talk to a progressive, try to inch the conversation toward the present collapse of democratic society -- not all at once for that will trigger panic -- but gradually, and see what happens. Watch the conversation begin to strain, to lag, to cloud over, as if some invisible but palpable trip wire was being approached.

That line is the 'good child' boundary. It is hard to see because it is not the Mexican border fence of strict families. It is the reaction to parents who have never considered any system but the one they live in -- and are made anxious by the question. But the discomfort is not overtly expressed, because the progressive parent is loving and supportive, and so the strictures are conveyed in body language, facial expression, tone of voice.

How well does the message get across? When you're a young child, infallibly. A. S. Neill, the great radical educator who founded Summerhill School and advocated for the rights of the young, warned of the permissive and "suggesting leader." "Where there is a boss," Neill wrote, "there is no real freedom. This applies even more to the benevolent boss than to the disciplinarian." Children with "spirit" will be able to "rebel against the hard boss, but the soft boss merely makes the child impotently soft and unsure of his real feelings."

A chilling feature of the gentle tie-lines the permissive family spins around the hearts and minds of progressive children is that they cannot recognize their chains. In this time of national crisis, they do not want to hear that sweeping changes are needed, because there is nothing they can do about it. The psychological benefits of being a good child, reinforced by the social privileges awarded to system-sustaining conduct, are impossible to forego. They have, in other words, become their parents.

This pattern of permissive child socialization, which I trace in a forthcoming book, The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society, has a long history in the U.S. Once Americans in the early 19th century recognized that traditional discipline produced children too fearful to excel in a mobile, dynamic liberal society, they developed innovative families and schools. The goal was to create active and self-motivated children who were at the same time compliant.

The strategy was to persuade the child that compliance was its own agenda. By inducing children to believe that the decisions they were making were their own, they would have nothing to rebel against. Since this strategy precluded the use of force, parents and teachers were taught how to facilitate the child's embrace of standards of proper conduct without its feeling its own will had been coerced or even pressured. Bribery and flattery were only the least subtle of many such techniques.

The result? The good progressive child. Not the bad child of conservative families, always told it was doing wrong until it stopped doing anything but what it was told. No -- a good child who makes his or her own decisions and charts his or her own course, but always good decisions and the right course.

And while these techniques worked, they provided a seamless meshing of individualism and social adaptability, individuals who experienced their own freedom and yet conformed to social norms. But it no longer works, and the good child is paralyzed to resist the erosion of liberal society, unable to challenge the usurpers with a courageous vision of reform.

How many good children does it take? The prospects are not encouraging.