During the 1970s and '80s, I was privileged to be a participant in what Daniel T. Rodgers called "the search for progressivism"--an ongoing dialogue that "helped attract more historical talent to the first two decades of the twentieth century than to any other period of modern America." The summary that best expressed the results of our labors was provided by Rodgers himself, in a 1982 American Quarterly article titled "The Search for Progressivism": "those who called themselves progressives did not share a common creed or a string of common values, however ingeniously or vaguely defined." At most, they "drew upon three distinct clusters of ideas--three distinct social languages--to articulate their discontents and their social visions: the rhetoric of anti-monopolism, an emphasis upon social bonds and the social nature of human beings, and a language of social efficiency." After more than a decade of critiquing each other's interpretations, most of us "agreed to disagree," and moved on to investigate other historical problems.
In truth, we had come full-circle to the interpretation proffered by contemporary reformer Benjamin Parke De Witt in his 1915 The Progressive Movement: A Non-Partisan Comprehensive Discussion of Current Tendencies in American Politics. In his summation, those "tendencies" were three: 1. All special, minority, and corrupt influences in government---national, state, and city--must be removed. 2. The structure or machinery of government, which has been heretofore been admirably adapted to control by the few, be so changed and modified that it will be more difficult for the few, and easier for the many, to control. 3. The rapidly growing conviction that the functions of government are too restricted and that they must be increased and extended to relieve social and economic distress."
Combining De Witt's contemporary definition with Rodgers' modern day analysis has provided me with a set of principles that I believe best capture the essence of today's "progressivism." First and foremost, to quote "Fighting Bob" La Follette, "the supreme issue involving all others is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many." He elaborated upon that conviction in 1912: If it can be shown that Wisconsin <or anywhere else> is a happier state , that its institutions are more democratic, that the opportunities of its people are more nearly equal, that social justice more nearly prevails, that human life is safer and sweeter, then I shall rest content in the feeling that the Progressive movement has been successful. Applying those goals to the entire United States in the early 21st century should be the primary task of today's " progressives."
Of almost equal importance is the conviction that government at all levels should be a positive force "to promote the general welfare." It is clearly the "sine qua non" of all "reform" proposals, the best litmus test for distinguishing progressives from "reactionaries"--- those who want to "shrink government to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub." Convincing so many people that "government is the problem" has been the reactionaries' most significant achievement. <Tell the government to keep its hands off our Social Security and Medicare.>The indisputable reality, as DeWitt argued in 1915, is that government does too little, not too much. Our "social security net" is the weakest among all "civilized countries"; most of our regulatory agencies have been "captured" by the very interests they were designed to regulate. And today's reactionaries want even more of the same!
To be a progressive is to understand that it is impossible to separate taxation from the provision of public services. If you want to cut taxes, you also have to decide which government functions should be eliminated or severely curtailed. Of course, reactionaries want to cut their taxes and do away with government programs upon which other people rely for their livelihood and well-being. As economist and philosopher J.K.Galbraith brilliantly predicted more than a half-century ago, their goal is to create "private affluence and public poverty."
The progressive position on taxes was clearly outlined in the Sixteenth Amendment and the Revenue Act of 1913. Both were based upon two bedrock principles: the tax should be apportioned according to "the ability to pay" and "from whatever source derived." <See my The Income Tax and the Progressive Era, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985> Believe it or not, more advanced progressives, such "Fighting Bob" La Follette and the Republican Insurgents, actually advocated higher tax brackets on the wealthiest "three percent," as well as taxing income from stocks and bonds more heavily than that from wages and salaries.
It hardly needs mention that a "progressive" believes that all of the rights, responsibilities, and privileges enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should apply to every single American, regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, social class, location, or age. We are well aware that much of our nation's history can be summed up in the conflict between those who have had an inclusive view of America and Americans, and those who have wanted to exclude "them" or "the other," because "they" were "unfit" to evolve into "us." My favorite summation of the meaning of American history is that of historian Darrett Rutman in The Morning of America:
In the years beyond 1789, governments drawn from but one of America's peoples --the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant and propertied--would claim that being of the people, and elected by the people they ruled for the people. One after another of America's peoples --the propertyless, laboring man, the immigrant, the Catholic, the Jew, the non-white, the impoverished--would rise to claim it was not so. < For whatever reason, Rutman failed to include "women" in his panoply of
fighters against the status quo, but I, most emphatically, put them at the top of the list.>
Like most progressives of my generation, I regarded the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1864 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the end product of all those struggles; of the United States of America--at long last--living up to those ideals first proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. In the euphoria of those times, these achievements were quickly followed by Medicare, Medicaid, Affirmative Action, the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, the proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Environmental Protection Act. History seemed to me to be moving in an inevitably "progressive trajectory." In his provocative Land Of Promise, Michael Lind characterizes the period from 1946 to 1975 as "The Glorious Thirty Years" and of the emergence of "The Third American Republic": an amalgam of the ideas and institutions of the New Nationalism and the New Freedom. Along with the western European democracies, the United States "experienced similar combinations of high growth and rapid expansion of mass middle classes, underpinned by high labor-union membership, middle -class welfare states, and highly regulated economies." The developing "mixed economy" sought to "blend private enterprise with public regulation, redistribution, and in some cases public ownership." A widely shared prosperity gave the white majority " the confidence and security to examine, and begin to eliminate, the racial-caste system that had long made a mockery of their purported ideals."
But even at its zenith, the Third American Republic was being surreptiously undermined in what Lind calls "The Great Dismantling" and Paul Krugman "The Great Unraveling." Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, Congress systematically dismantled industrial and financial systems that had operated from the New Deal through most of the 1960s. Managerial capitalism gave way to financial-market capitalism. Under lobbying by Wall Street, vertically integrated corporations were dismantled and dispersed. Former brand-name businesses became "brands," whose products were increasingly made in Asia and Latin America. Corporations sought to raise their profit margins by ending the postwar truce with organized labor and smashing unions.( By 2000, private-sector union membership declined to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.) Ironically, the influx of immigrants---skilled and unskilled, legal and undocumented--- accelerated the downward pressure on wages. A new army of "working poor" sprang up--full-time workers who could not subsist on a minimum wage that inflation turned into near starvation income. The dismantling of large corporations led to the demise of the always-inadequate employee-based benefit systems that had been devised to supplement earned benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and other government insurance programs. Corporate pension programs were either eliminated or replaced by 401 Ks and similar employee-contribution systems. Utility deregulation spawned the return of the very problems that had prompted their enactment in the first place. The drastic cutbacks in infrastructure spending resulted in the crumbling of highways, bridges, and canal systems, while traffic congestion escalated almost exponentially. Stock market "bubbles,' like the savings and loan meltdown of the 1980s and the subprime mortgage disaster of the 2000s, decimated millions. Bankruptcies, hostile takeovers, and the proliferation of conglomerates constricted the depth and breadth of our industrial and financial systems.
I have elaborated on various aspects of this onslaught in previous posts. Most of you are all-too-familiar with them, from personal experience. Sad to say, much of being "progressive" in the past four decades has involved defending the achievements that we once assumed were permanent fixtures of our way of life. "Playing defense" so much of our time has hindered our ability to build upon the accomplishments of 1945-1975. In one sense, we have become the "real conservatives":those who are seeking to "conserve" the gains of "the Glorious Thirty Years." In any case, it is hard to see what is "conservative" about Tea Partiers, Neo-Cons, Neo-Libs, and Climate Catastrophe Deniers.
What is it that they are pretending to "conserve?
Perhaps the best recent description of what I understand by "progressive" (or liberal as they prefer) is that of Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson in The Cause: It means standing firm on the belief of the foundational freedoms of thought, expression, and the necessity of individuals to take hold of their collective fates and shape them according to the values of liberty and equality, while being fully aware that the two must always coexist in tension with each other. Like the "guiding spirit" of those who founded the United States of America, progressives "must have courage to use your own understanding--that is the motto of ENLIGHTENMENT