Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Making Progress?

Three weeks ago I made the observation that in the 1980s, when conservatives succeeded to a large extent in making the word “liberal” a pejorative, a lot of modern liberals began referring to themselves as progressives.

That’s how I remember it anyway. I don’t really remember people I actually knew referring to themselves as progressives before that. But maybe that was because I never spent any time in Wisconsin. Anyway, I had certainly heard the word progressive before, but mainly from history books dealing with the early 20th century.

If you talk to a progressive, she might well tell you that progressives have always been among us and that there is a straight historical line from the progressives of the late 19th century to those of today—and that “progressive” is not merely a synonym for “liberal.”

Somewhat ironically, the two men most often cited as founders of the progressive movement in America were both Republicans. Many identify the movement’s founder as Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who represented Wisconsin in both houses of Congress and who was also the state’s governor. He left the Republican Party because he thought it had gotten away from its anti-slavery roots and was mainly in the service of corporate interests. Something of an isolationist, he was opposed to the U.S.’s entry into World War I as well as to its joining the League of Nations.

The formal Progressive Party, which came to be known as the Bull Moose Party, was founded by former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 after he lost the Republican presidential nomination to William Howard Taft. His platform was mainly one of anti-corruption—in both government and business. In the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt carried six states (with 27 percent of the popular vote), Taft carried only two and Woodrow Wilson was elected with the support of 40 states.

La Follette did not support Roosevelt as the Progressive candidate. He later formed a new Progressive Party of which he was the presidential nominee in 1924. He carried only Wisconsin but did win 17 percent of the popular vote. Republican Calvin Coolidge was elected with 35 states versus 12 states for Democrat John W. Davis. La Follette’s national Progressive Party soon disbanded—although it did continue to be active in Wisconsin until 1946.

La Follette’s main legacy to the movement may have been his founding of a publication in 1909 called La Follette’s Weekly. Later the name changed to simply La Follette’s and then, in 1929, to The Progressive. It is still being published today as a monthly magazine, and its back issues may be the best way to track the evolution of the movement through the 20th and 21st centuries. As for the causes that it has promoted in recent times, it pretty much ticks the boxes of feminist, union, environmental and civil rights components of modern liberalism.

It is also pointedly anti-corporate, anti-military and pacifist—to an extent that arguably takes it out of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. For example, The Progressive was not only against the 2003 invasion of Iraq but also against the 1991 Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait. It has also been critical of President Obama for any number of actions, including continuing the war in Afghanistan and many domestic security policies inherited from the Bush administration and increased reliance on drone warfare.

It is not difficult to work out where the term “progressive” came from. The word “progress” suggests a journey in which the destination is better than the starting point. The notion of a journey with a promised destination is a very powerful one in the human mind—as far back as Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. It has a rhetorical appeal similar to the formulation that progressives and modern liberals often use when debating specific policies, i.e. that their opponents are “on the wrong side of history.” This implies that the history has already been written and the historical judgments have already made as to who was right or wrong. Therefore, if you are not on “our” side, you are on the losing side.

Part of the appeal of this formulation is the idea of participating in a cause that will accomplish something great and important. Unfortunately for the people using the “on the right side of history” formulation, it is a device that has also been used by everyone from the imperial Romans to proponents of Manifest Destiny and even by Communists and Fascists. In other words, it is designed to appeal more to the heart than to the head.

In American politics, progressives have a home in the Democratic Party, and the late progressive Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone famously declared, “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” But the fact is that true, principled progressives (like Wellstone, former Senator Russ Feingold and former Congressman Dennis Kucinich) are actually few and far between at the national level, and they never come anywhere near a presidential nomination.

Some pundits have described Barack Obama as the most progressive (or liberal or leftwing) president in U.S. history, but they tend to be his critics. True progressives—if The Progressive is any indicator—do not see it that way. His own supporters tend to see him as moderate and centrist.

With the current Democratic ascendancy at the federal level (in contrast with the trend at the local level) and in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement, are we now on the cusp of a new progressive era? To bet on that would really be, to coin a phrase, swimming against the tide of history. (I’m using the term history here in the sense of past experience rather than a prediction of the future, as described above.) While some social issues championed by progressives (notably same-sex marriage) have become more mainstream, there is no sign that the U.S. or other western countries are going to do anything serious about reining in corporations to the extent that progressives would want.

And that may be just as well. In terms of the economy, when progressive policies do get tried, people’s overall living standards usually suffer. Then the progressive narrative becomes a complaint of how corporate and wealthy interests have sabotaged the execution of their good intentions.

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