Wayne O'Leary

Distorting Progressive Legacy

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a progressive and identify with the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century; it's the suddenly fashionable label in American politics.

Most of the leading Democrats in the country refer to themselves as progressives, a way in their case of avoiding the dreaded "liberal" tag. The progressive designation suggests that the designee is politically enlightened, open-minded and forward-looking without being dangerously radical; it has become a way of appearing slightly left of center and at the same time not being of the left in any fundamental philosophical sense.

What's interesting about all this is that few of those tossing the term "progressive" around seem to be quite clear on its actual historical meaning. Sen. John McCain, for instance, because he admires Theodore Roosevelt, is thought (despite a conservative voting record) to be a progressive. Such confusion is understandable insofar as the Progressive Movement, which politically dominated the years 1900 to 1920, came to an end nearly a century ago; memories of it are hazy at best and necessarily reside in grainy silent-film images or in the pages of seldom-read books. Unlike, say, the New Deal, almost none of the participants or witnesses to that long-ago political phenomenon remain alive to describe it firsthand.

This has allowed for very subjective interpretations of progressivism. Like the preceding Populist Movement, its meaning has been distorted to suit modern-day users. Historical populism was a movement of the left, dedicated to challenging the corporate hegemony of its time with a well-thought-out and precise economic program. Nevertheless, today's political commentators have redefined populism as an emotionally overwrought, narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and racist movement of the right. George Wallace, not the crusading reformer Tom Watson, is who most Americans consequently think of as the personification of populism. A comparable distortion is presently taking place with respect to progressivism.

The latest attempt at this revisionist redefinition appeared recently in the Washington Post under the byline of Joel Kotkin, a fellow at the New America Foundation. A self-described independent, nonpartisan think tank, the NAF was established in 1999 to develop third-way public-policy ideas; it seeks ways to accommodate, rather than resist, such forces as economic globalization and rapid technological change.

While rejecting traditional party ties, the NAF has nevertheless evolved a distinct middle-of-the-road ideological hue that bridges the rather miniscule gap between neoliberal and New Democrat on the one hand and compassionate conservative and moderate Republican on the other; its implied message to the political system is that maverick moderates of neither left nor right represent the wave of the future.

The contribution of Joel Kotkin to the NAF vision is to redefine the Progressive Movement and cast it in the anti-politics mold of an antiseptic centrism -- as the historical model for a pristine, non-ideological approach to today's problems. Kotkin sees glimpses of the politics he wants, the politics he claims progressivism represented, in the disparate campaigns of John McCain, Bill Bradley, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger. These harbingers of a new progressivism, he believes, represent the beginnings of an emerging alternative to the twin evils of "failed conservatism" and "interest group liberalism," the latter being a particularly loathsome mutation of the progressive inheritance that emerged from the New Deal.

Kotkin interprets the progressivism of the early 20th century as something totally alien to the confrontational politics of our time. It was, he argues, nonpartisan, class-neutral, propertied, entrepreneurial, businesslike, efficiency-oriented, moral, pragmatically rational and patriotic; what it was not, he insists, was left-wing or liberal in any sense.

William Allen White, famed turn-of-the-century editor, would have begged to differ. The Progressive Movement, in his view, was radical populism that had "shaved its whiskers, washed its shirt, put on a derby, and moved up into the middle class."

White overstated progressivism's similarity to populism, but not by much. What both movements had in common -- and what differentiated them from Kotkin's politics of soulless moderation -- was a distrust of markets, an antipathy toward big business and a willingness to use public-sector solutions to combat entrenched and abusive private power. Recall, for example, progressive Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson's celebrated fight for municipal ownership of public utilities decades before another Cleveland mayor, Dennis Kucinich, fought the same fight. Such activism is firmly in keeping with movements of the political left.

So is progressivism's unsparing critique of laissez-faire capitalism (highlighted by Ida Tarbell's famous muckraking assault on Standard Oil) and its accompanying belief in "big government" as a counterbalancing force at the national level. Any list of progressive accomplishments would include the following governmental intrusions into American economic life: the estate tax and the graduated income tax (both vehicles of wealth redistribution), pure food and drug inspection, the Federal Reserve system, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Clayton Antitrust Act, federal farm loan banks, maritime labor safety regulations, restrictions on child labor and mandatory reductions in the work day. By any measure, these constitute a political program of "the left," as that term is commonly understood.

To some extent, the dispute here is one of semantics. Joel Kotkin, no doubt accurately reflecting the biases of the NAF, whose board of directors is heavily corporate, obviously dislikes the current Dean-led Democratic party; his centrist screed is much harder on the liberal left than the conservative right. Yet, he admires many of the achievements of progressivism, so progressivism must have been moderate, or nonpartisan, or apolitical.

The problem for Kotkin and his NAF colleagues is that progressivism is squarely in the middle of the American liberal tradition; it borrowed from historical populism, built on it, and paved the way for the New Deal that followed.

It should not be forgotten that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the father of modem liberalism, proudly called himself a Wilsonian progressive -- and went on to preside over the most unapologetically left-of-center administration in US history. Among FDR's most fervent supporters and allies were a host of former progressives: Fiorello LaGuardia, George Norris, Hiram Johnson, Harold Ickes and Lincoln Steffens -- to name just a few. They knew what progressivism was, even if scholars at the New America Foundation do not.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, Dec. 15, 2005

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