Monday, October 10, 2005

A Progressive Insurrection?

There have been a flurry of posts and articles over the weekend calling for a new Progressive Movement in America.

When I say "progressive" I don't mean it in the way that the word is being used now, namely, to refer to ideas and groups on the far left. I am referring to the originally meaning, those group of reformers who came of age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were people who wanted a government that was effiencent and professional. They wanted capitalism to flourish, but they also wanted it to treat workers with respect and get rid of such abominations like child labor. This form of progressivism presented itself in the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

If this is the meaning of progressive, then I am one. I think we have to go beyond the small government v. big government argument. I don't think government should be big, but it has to be efficient. I believe in our capitalist system, but I also think government has to provide some checks against the excesses of the system. Writer Joel Kotkin explains what progressivism is:

As many owned property themselves, they naturally advocated not the redistribution of wealth but such middle-class measures as antitrust legislation and federal loans for farmer and homeowner mortgages. The Progressives were politically pragmatic rationalists who helped make this nation the most powerful and successful large society in world history. They fostered the creation of our great national and state parks, pushed the development of water and power systems, promoted agricultural conservation and state-supported education.

If anything can be said to define the Progressives, it was their commitment to governmental efficiency. They embraced neither the contemporary conservative notion that government could do no right, nor the current liberal conceit that governmental ineptitude is acceptable as long as it's in service of well-intentioned ideological causes or aggrieved minorities.

Their ideal, formed in reaction to the political corruption and corporate dominance of the era, was government operated in a businesslike and rational manner. The pro-labor New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served from 1934 to 1945, didn't hesitate to make exacting demands on public employees, leading some to liken him to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. As he famously proclaimed: "There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets."

The Progressive legacy provides an excellent framework for responding to the challenges facing 21st-century America. As we do today, the early 20th-century Progressives confronted a society beset by a widening chasm between classes and fearful of growing foreign competition. They addressed these challenges by fostering education and science, and also by modernizing basic infrastructure -- roads, bridges, public transit, water, ports and power systems. Many great construction projects of the 20th century were the result of their peculiar political vision.

New York Times writer David Brooks (Oh, how I miss him) describes his version of Progressivism:

"After a while, you get sick of the DeLays of the right and the Deans of the left. After a while, you tire of the current Republicans, who lack a coherent governing philosophy, and the current Democrats, who are completely bereft of ideas. After a while you begin to wonder: Did I really get engaged in politics so I could spend months arguing about the confirmation of Harriet Miers, the John Major of American jurisprudence?

"And when you begin thinking this way, you find yourself emotionally disengaging from the exhausted clans that dominate the present. You find yourself going back to basics and considering the fundamental questions: What visions originally excited me about politics and government? If it were completely up to me, where would I plant my flag?

"Here's where I would plant mine.

"I believe in the lost tradition of American politics, the tradition of Hamilton, Lincoln and the Bull Moose. In other words, I believe that social mobility is the core of the American experience. I believe that society should be structured so that as many boys and girls as possible can work, and rise the way young Hamilton and Lincoln did...

"I know, having learned it from Lincoln and Roosevelt, that individual initiative should always be tied to national union. I know we need a national service program to bind our segmented youth through citizenship. I know we need to protect the natural heritage that defines us. I know America has to persevere in its exceptional mission to promote freedom, and the effort to promote democracy in the Arab world is one of the most difficult and noble endeavors any great power has undertaken.

"When I cut myself loose from the push and shove of today's weary political titans, and go back to basics, I find myself strangely invigorated.

"It's time for an insurrection."

Bull Moose adds:

Buckle up, fellow Mooseketeers, we are headed for some turbulence - and that is a good thing. As the Bushies implode, who willl take their place? Will it be a reformed Republican Party? Will the Democrats get their act together and convince the mighty middle that the party is not beholden to its liberal interest groups?

Will a force emerge within or outside the major parties that puts the national interest first? A faction which comes forth that argues that we must have a strong national defense, reform entitlements, requires national service and promotes progressive, pro-capitalist economics? Independent voters have largely given up on this Administration, but do they have anywhere to go?

I think it is time for a new progressive movement that might work with both parties but isn't tied to either party. They are more concerned with putting the nation first instead of the parties.

My own party has done me wrong with its business cronyism and far right hate filled politics, but I'm not ready to support the Democrats with it's interest group liberalism. We need something that is new, that doesn't look to the past (the Dems look back to the 1960s and 70s and the GOP to the 50s and 80s), but is interested in what America can become.

I'm ready to join that fight.


At 9:55 AM, Blogger Shay said...

It is intellectually dishonest to describe the Progressive Era and not also note the rabid racism of "progressive" reformers. Their "progressivism" did not extend to blacks as equals. E.g., they were silent as lynchings occurred, and sought to keep blacks out of public life. They argued that suffrage for (white) women would strengthen white supremacy. Blacks were shut out of the "progressive" promotion of federal loans for farmer and homeowner mortgages. Their promotion of state-funded education used black taxpayer dollars to fund segregation. And yes, these were the folks who did advocate abortion of all "undesirable" groups (and blacks were in this group) and eugenics that served as an influence upon Adolf Hitler's later activities. What I want to know: what lessons have today's "progressive" reformers learned from this period?

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Murphy's Lawyer said...

Why is caring about working people, the poor, kids or other usually voiceless people by means of working with labor, consumer groups, and the like "interest group liberalism?" Couldn't agree with you more on the "business cronyism" and "far right hate filled politics," but isn't there a point where Republicans in the mainstream recognize that their leadership has deserted principle after principle and really only care about winning (as opposed to governing) - no matter what group they have to trample to get there?

At 2:17 PM, Blogger GreenSmile said...

Dennis and Bullmoose:
Thanks for the longish Brooks quote here. My reading, and my writing, are too often confined to the Progressive Blogging Alliance and most of them are marching into oncoming traffic up the white line dividing the lane and the shoulder. [image meant to convey the idea of being far enough left to mostly become roadkill: brave and lovely people!] I am glad someone remembers that the label progressive once had a meaning. I would have to say that the recent decades of sound byte journalism have split the body politic into the active minded who read whole articles or even books of political analysis [and read blogs like yours] and the inactive minded who are very much at the mercy of a PR wizard like Rove. While I converse in this medium, I am usually talking to the active minded. I should make that "politically active minded" so as not to imply the non participants are dumb in all aspects...they may only be more burnt out than Brooks complains of being.

There are problems with trying to resurrect interest and understanding of "Progressive" as you and Brooks present it. A small problem would be the turf issue: Socialists who like the Progressive label ["progress" means rational improvements in an unsatisfactory political or social scheme] will say you are stealing their best ideas and their label. Or it could go the other way and oligarchy-conservatives could easily smear a "progressive party" start up of the sort I think you mean with a campaign of "its just a euphemism for the L word". That points to the bigger problem: its just a label. Two labels is all this country has been able to handle. The inactive minded voters will need 4 or 5 Katrina's, a few more Bin Ladens, unemployment of 10% all topped of by 2 or 3 more Enrons and the appointment of Bush's bookie to run the FBI in order to snap them out of the two-party trance. Election reform removing the winner-take-all process that shapes the evolution of two-party politics could only be rammed through legislatures over the dead bodies of the two major parties. McCain has a wiff of the progressive about him when he earnestly trys to pry the grip of corporate money off of party politics...but he has not succeeded.

I am socially liberal, I don't mind paying taxes, I expect my country to be as careful
with its checkbook as laws and banks require me to be with mine. For somewhat different reasons, I pine for a Progressive movement as much as Mr. Brooks.

Different reasons? I am with him all the way down to this paragraph:

"I know, having learned it from Lincoln and Roosevelt,
that individual initiative should always be tied
to national union. I know we need a national
service program to bind our segmented youth through
citizenship. I know we need to protect the natural
heritage that defines us. I know America has to
persevere in its exceptional mission to promote
freedom, and the effort to promote democracy in the
Arab world is one of the most difficult and noble
endeavors any great power has undertaken."

Suddenly the very articulate Mr. Brooks goes all vague. What DO these mean:
1. national service program [how long did Mr Brooks serve in the armed forces?]
2. protect our national heritage? In the Boston area that would mean stopping
development of Hanscom AFB so that Minuteman National Park would not shudder
under the glidepath of jetliners.
3. America's exceptional mission: excuse me? The constitution sets forth our mission
and the first, and by most accounts the most revered steward of that document
urged us in strongest terms to avoid foriegn entanglements...and THAT George W meant avoiding
political and military interventions and adventures, not trade, which as a
colonist he knew damn well we needed desperately. The next "mission" that turned up
in American politics was "manifest destiny" , an election slogan of Jackson Democrats
prior to the Civil War. Shouldn't we finish up one mission before going onto liberate
the entire world? I say annex Canada! [and we'd recoup all those draft
dodgers!...yes, I am having a hard time taking his suggestion seriously]

The comparison by commenters of these vague solutions to political devices of the Nazis does not surprise me. I do not recognize those 3 programs as the "Lost tradition of American politics". I wish he could get back to the topic. At that paragraph, I conclude Brooks only meant to raise the issue of the absence of a progressive choice on ballots and then drop it for another topic. I too write good like that much they pay Mr. Brooks?

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I would not characterize modern progressivism as the domain of the far left. For example, I would consider you somewhat progressive. I would consider MoveOn to be not progressive at all. Progressivism is exactly what you describe. Progressivism is a positive goal while many on the far left are simply negative, they are simply against this that and the other thing and therefore are not progressive.

At 11:51 PM, Blogger Centrist said...

Perhaps this guy isn't everything we would want in a candidate, but he is running in Delay's district as a moderate Republican (without local party blessing--see Delay hacks) and from what I've heard is getting audiences with voters that aren't traditionally Republican...African American church groups etc. Check him out Maybe he's one of the up and coming "progressives" we're all hoping for. Either that or he's crazy to be running as a moderate in Delay's district.


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