The Case for a Civic Progressive Resurgence, in 2018 and Beyond
Who were the progressives, and what does it mean to be progressive today?
What policies do progressives advocate, and how do these differ from liberal ideas?
A century ago, a generation of progressive men and women balked at the narrow self-interest and rapacious greed that had characterized the Gilded Age. Disgusted by the outright corruption that pervaded late-nineteenth-century politics, progressives organized to miminize the pernicious influence of money in politics and to wrest control of the government from the powerful corporate "Trusts." They set up new political systems and institutions to regulate Big Capital and to make government more responsive to the will of the people. Recognizing for the first time the importance of the social environment in individual development, they struggled to improve living and working conditions for all Americans, and began to reemphasize the civic fabric that binds us -- farmer and worker, rich and poor, laborer and capitalist, black and white, native and immigrant -- all together.
While allowing (and correcting for) for both certain lacunae, such as the tragic persistence of Jim Crow during their time, and certain excesses in their philosophy, such as their failed attempt at Prohibition, the progressive struggle at the start of the 20th century speaks clearly and directly to our current condition, here in the first decade of the 21st. In short, the progressive generation -- a generation of lions like Jane Addams, Theodore Roosevelt, Florence Kelly, W.E.B. DuBois, Herbert Croly, William Borah, Robert La Follette, and countless others -- can serve as an important and forgotten model for how to take back our government from monied corporate interests, restore the promise of American citizenship, encourage true individuality to flourish, and achieve lasting and positive social change in our own time.
Small-R Republic, which currently draws from material at Kevin C. Murphy.com and entries at Ghost in the Machine, aims to act as a central clearing-house for information about progressivism -- both the historical movement and the political philosophy -- I've written in the past. In short, I believe today's Left has much to learn from the progressives of a century ago, and that civic progressivism affords tremendous opportunities not only for those of us on the American left but for the nation as a whole.
"Progressivism was the last, full-blown articulation of that optimistic, republican, tolerant, and liberal Protestant view of the individual and society that had informed America for one hundred years and that found its most eloquent statement in Ralph Waldo Emerson's call for the reformation of man. That tradition saw the individual as possessing enormous potential for good, which could only be realized by a properly structured society. Such was the agenda of Progressivism: to pass the laws and create the institutions that would release the individual's potential both as a person and as a citizen. The Progressive's task was to liberate the individual from enslaving ignorance, debasing labor, soulless pastimes, corrupt authority, and concentrated power. Once these multiple and interlocking tyrannies were destroyed, the hitherto 'hidden treasures' of the self would be freed for social expression; 'every resource of body, mind, and heart' would find vent in elevating fellowship and individual excellence." - Elizabeth Anne Payne, Reform, Labor, and Feminism : Margaret Dreier Robins and the Women's Trade Union League
"Beyond specific political prescriptions, the progressive impulse at its best had a trust in the people, a respect for small-scale solutions, and a healthy moral imperative that many today find difficult to kindle in their political souls. If we seek the civic vision necessary for the deepening of democracy -- a common goal, even if we can never agree exactly on what democracy is -- then perhaps the past is our best resource for viewing the inevitably messy and imperfect, but still inspiring, ways that ordinary citizens are capable of engaging in the high drama of self-government. And in the end, few ages rival the Progressive Era in offering such opportunities to celebrate ourselves experimenting in democratic forms. - Robert D. Johnston, Re-Democratizing the Progressive Era
civic engagement to the heart of our republic counts among the most tantalizing. Now, with just a quick click of the mouse, we can contact our representatives, Senators, or even the President, thereby improving the responsiveness and accountability of our political system at the national level (and below.) We can also much more easily obtain the information and analyses necessary to arrive at a critical, informed, and multifaceted perspective on current events.
And it is imperative that we do so. For freedom is more than just the maximizing of choice, and more than just the "don't tread on me" isolation of contemporary liberalism and libertarianism - it is also the ability to take part in the governance of one's local, state, and national communities, and the assurance that we can each achieve the economic and educational independence necessary to be vital and informed citizens of the polity. Amid the cynicism, weariness, and economic violence of this new millennium, we are losing our faith in the potential of the democratic process and the possibilities for leadership within each citizen.
To my mind, several courses of reform would help to recapture this faith and to rekindle enthusiasm in the American experiment. Perhaps most crucially, campaign finance reform -- including more free or reduced-rate air time for political candidates -- is a prerequisite for dissolving the corporate cruft that has grown around our institutions for government. The American creed is "one person, one vote", but our current system runs more along the lines of dollars-per-vote. Secondly, an increased attention to civics and community service education, including teaching the techniques and habits of democratic citizenship to all (voting, critical thinking, debating without personal invective), is vitally important in fostering both a more responsive government and a more perfect union. Most politicians on the Left and Right speak of what government can do "for us" or "to us"...they often neglect to note that we are the government.
If your interest is piqued, you may want to read below, and then surf around the Library and the weblog. My notes on several books should be of interest, particularly Barber, Brinkley,de Tocqueville,Madison, Mill, Sandel, and West. Any comments? I encourage you to contact me.
III. Corporate Power and Progressivism (vs. Liberalism.)(Excerpted (with edits and revisions) from Ghost in the Machine, October 12, 2000.)
Where I do definitively side with Nader - and progressives in general, is in staunchly defending citizens from Corporate Power. And this is where I have my big philosophical break with the don't tread on me anti-government Right. When it comes to live and let live social issues I'm all for libertarianism. But history has shown us that the absence of strong government does not create an edenic utopia where individuals flourish, as some right-wingers would have you believe. Rather, as we saw in the Gilded Age, corporate interests soon occupy the power vacuum left by a weak federal government.
Indeed, it was a Republican president -- Teddy Roosevelt -- who first popularized the solution put forth by Herbert Croly and others that a strong federal government had to be the necessary corrective to corporate power, and thus he molded the "New Nationalism" movement of his day. Basically, he realized that government had to be as big or bigger than the corporations to effectively protect the average American citizen from undue harm. (The other major Progressive solution of the time, the decentralizing anti-monopolism of Louis Brandeis, argued the converse: it asserted that businesses should be broken up and made small enough that they could be counterbalanced by a small federal government.)
One of the biggest problems with Roosevelt's approach, unfortunately, is that over the last century corporations have seen the ball game for what it is and fused themselves inexorably to our institutions of government, vis a vis lobbyists, donations, etc. etc. (There's not necessarily a conspiracy here: Corporations, like other groups, were following their interest. Indeed, this process could have started innocently enough as a necessary move to coordinate industry behind the WWI and WWII war efforts, growing to become what Dwight Eisenhower famously deemed the "military-industrial complex.")
At any rate, my feeling is - big or small government - the system is currently busted. Perhaps the technologies of the Information Age can be used effectively to decentralize power in Washington and still retain an efficient and sufficiently strong federal government. But it will matter little if the overpowering influence of corporate money isn't significantly decreased, if not eliminated, from the political process.
Now, let me emphasize here: I don't think business is necessarily bad, nor do I think that corporations and government are always necessarily opposed. But there are enough times when a narrow corporate interest is at odds with the public interest that our government should be strong and independent enough to advocate the concerns of the people first.
In sum, corporations appeal to our wants and desires as consumers. Government should appeal to our needs and hopes as citizens. And, in the final analysis, the latter should always trump the former.
Which brings me to my final point: why I consider myself a progressive rather than a liberal. First off, I don't make the distinction to defend myself against the ridiculous right-wingers who have, in a feat of true Orwellian linguistics, somehow made the word "liberal" synonomous with "pinko unAmerican tax and spend communist." Better a liberal than a conservative anyday, in my book.
But anyway, on to my point. To borrow from Michael Sandel and Alan Brinkley, modern liberalism (not classical "don't tread on me" liberalism, which we now call libertarianism) is rooted in the experience of the government-business partnership of WWII and is primarily concerned with a value-neutral federal government ensuring the equal distribution of rights. Meaning that Washington doesn't take much of a stake in fostering any particular value in the people as a whole. Instead, it is committed to ensuring equal justice to each segment of American society, be they by gender, race, ethnicity, or occupation. In other words, the concept of the public interest is subsumed by variety of competing interests, and it's the government's job to act as a honest "broker state" ensuring fairness for all. Modern liberalism's greatest success, of course, was the great and still unfinished civil rights revolutions of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's.
Progressivism, on the other hand, is rooted in the Progressive Era of TR and Woodrow Wilson, and is primarily concerned with fostering some kind of virtue in the electorate and in preserving the prerequisites of citizenship. What's the difference? When liberals talk of competing interests, progressives speak of the public interest. When liberals talk about the rights of individuals and the concerns of groups, progressives talk about the obligations of citizens and the needs of communities. While liberalism as a philosophy is value-neutral with respect to corporate power (they serve the needs of consumer-Americans), progressives want to know how this corporate power adversely affects citizenship. In the liberal view, government mediates betwen groups of people, while, in the progressive view, the people are the government. In the progressive view, carmakers, farmers, breadbakers, and gun owners; Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, we are all citizens.
TR and Woodrow Wilson were progressives. JFK and LBJ were liberals. FDR, crazy, wonderful experimentalist that he was, was both and neither. When faced with the Great Depression, that sucker would - and did - try anything.
These two strands of public philosophy - liberalism and progressivism - aren't mutually exclusive by any means, nor are they only represented in one party (although the Republicans' guiding philosophy in everything but social matters, since Goldwater in '64, has primarily been "classical liberalism," a.k.a. just leave me alone.)
Now, there is one major problem with progressivism as I've rendered it so far. Due to its concern with fostering some specific virtue in citizens, progressivism can be a coercive philosophy (in which people are "forced to be free," in the words of Rousseau) if misapplied. As y'all know from reading this weblog, I'm not much in favor of pious virtuecrats deriding sex, violence, and 50 Cent for our nation's ills, nor of the government abridging individual freedoms to save individuals from themselves. But, as John Stuart Mill noted in On Liberty, one virtue that government can get behind and thus sidestep this coercive trap is independence and self-cultivation.
In other words, in my view of progressivism, the government has two main virtues it should try to cultivate in each citizen:
One should be the necessary education to think independently and creatively for oneself. To ensure that each person in America has the tools and the space to follow their own path and arrive at their own destination (I could go into a whole nother digression here involving the transcendentalists, the Beat, and the peculiarly Zen nature of American life (see Robert Thurman, Stanley Cavell), but I get a sense I've been going on for way too long here anyway.)
The second virtue that government should foster in its citizens should be the habits and techniques of deliberation, a.k.a. the skills of democracy. We should teach our children (once they reach an appropriate age) not only how to think for themselves, but how to engage each other in thoughtful discourse. How to challenge each other's opinions and statements in a non-personal way. Basically, how to debate each other about the public good as citizens of a functioning republic must.
I know it all sounds a bit academic and removed from reality, but, what can I say? This is where my idealism (or what vestiges of it that survive this election cycle) lies. Fortunately, neoprogressivism is a nascent but full-fledged movement in our country and in the Democratic party these days, thanks to communitarian writers like Sandel, Benjamin Barber, and Amitai Etzioni, historians like Brinkley...and politicians like Bill Bradley.
My, I've rambled on today, haven't I? Now back to your regularly scheduled weblog.
All content copyright Kevin C. Murphy 1997-2018 unless otherwise noted.