27 September 2010

Who Were (or Are) the Progressives?

The Nation magazine has yielded to the great modern temptation to fill space in a slow news week with a list. Its cover story for the October 4 issue promises to reveal "The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century" as ranked by academic Peter Dreier. Part of the point of the project, it seems, is to re-establish a positive definition for the word "progressive." While for most Americans the best known Progressive in the country is Flo the car-insurance saleswoman, in political circles the term has been hotly contested. Right wingers have tried to make it as much a pejorative as "liberal," while even self-styled progressives find the term problematic because of its historic associations.

Dreier implicitly defines progressives as "America's utopians, radicals and reformers," and notes that "Every generation needs to retell this story, reinterpret it and use it to help shape the present and future." In other words, he's not going to be bound by any definition based upon the people and the period that made "Progressive" a meaningful political term. Progressivism in 2010 isn't, or needn't be, the Progressivism of 1910. Dreier arguably rules out many of the original Progressives when he insists that "Progressive change happens from the bottom up." That's not what the original Progressives of 100 years ago believed. But many of them don't make Dreier's list. His bias in favor of grassroots excludes most politicians, which means his list doesn't include the man who did more to make the word meaningful than anyone else: Theodore Roosevelt, the ex-President and renegade Republican who ran as the "Bull Moose" Progressive candidate and outpolled an incumbent Republican in the 1912 presidential election. The Democratic winner, Woodrow Wilson, is considered a Progressive himself by some historians, but he doesn't make the cut either, while the fourth-place candidate in 1912, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, does. While Roosevelt and Wilson are out, frivolous figures like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Muhammad Ali are in. Franklin Roosevelt is out (a politician, remember) while Eleanor, predictably enough, makes the cut.

My guess is that Dreier wants to dodge one of the big charges against historical Progressivism: its unapologetic bias in favor of the state. Teddy Roosevelt was a big-government Republican and would probably have been a bigger-government Progressive President. He believed that government had to expand to meet the challenges of modern times and master the powers of finance, industry and labor that had grown alarmingly large by 1912. He is supposed to have said that a strong people has nothing to fear from a strong government, but if so, he said or wrote it before dystopian fantasies of totalitarian potential captured the American imagination and discredited the state as a concept. Even liberals most likely see the state as a necessary evil, and Dreier clearly sees it as something that must be pressured perpetually from below rather than something to be maintained by a conscientious unashamed political class of bureaucrats and regulators.

Classical Progressivism of the Roosevelt-Wilsonian stripe was technocratic. To the extent that it was an ideology, it exalted the expert over the machine boss who ruled by arbitrary will. To both "right" and "left," classical Progressivism has an odious heritage of condescending busybodyism. Par excellence, the Progressives of 100 years ago were the politicians who dared tell their fellow citizens, bosses and workers alike, how to live and how to run their lives. For some Progressives (including birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, who made Dreier's list), that imperative to govern people's lives extended to the now-toxic zone of eugenics, an enthusiasm for which Dreier has to apologize on Sanger's behalf. Eugenics is perhaps the ultimate instance of Progressive interference with personal freedom abhorred by right and left alike. But while Dreier wants to leave behind the statist, technocratic heritage of classical Progressivism, the ideas of Teddy Roosevelt, his peers and his followers might well be usefully re-examined today. We won't want to adopt all the trappings of classical Progressivism -- it shouldn't be a matter of Ivy League whites writing recommendations for the rest of us -- but the ideal of the state as the objective arbiter between capital and labor and the necessary regulator of finance and industry should not be thrown away in another existential outburst of freedom for its own sake. By that standard, Dreier's revised Progressive heritage is a disappointment, though it might have worth in the long run if it provokes a more thoughtful, less politically-correct consideration of the full heritage and potential of Progressivism.


Anonymous said...

The more I look around, the more I am convinced that the progressives have the right of it. Let's define "progressive" by it's root word: Progress. Maintaining the status quo is not progress. Progess is a moving forward, a betterment. If the average human is too stupid to realize what is good for them, then they must be told what to do and, like a child with behavioral problems, punished when they are obstinate. This planet is too small and the human race too large for small minded idiots with short sight to maintain "control". btw - let us define "stupid" as the inability or unwillingness to question. To learn. To seek understanding.
When I was born, the world population was about 3.5 billion people. Within the past 40 years it has double to about 7 billion. In another 20 years, projects say it will double again. There is already limited food and water to maintain the current population. If the human race insists on breeding beyond any control, like locusts, we will soon have stripped this planet of it's ability to sustain us. This is already leading to wars in third world countries over control of vanishing natural resources - many of them being (more or less) stolen by foreign corporations all in the name of profit. This is unconscionable in a sapient species. If the dirtclods are unwilling to listen to reason because they "don't want to be told how to live." then the alternative must be a weeding out of the dirtclods in favor of the human race having a future.

Samuel Wilson said...

The issue between Progressives and (as it sometimes seems) everybody else is exactly "what is good for them." Left and Right have their own set ideas, but many liberals would argue that there is no single definition of the term that has compelling authority over competing interpretations. They might think differently if they can be convinced that the survival of the planet was at stake, but under non-crisis circumstances, they see no reason why everyone would need to pull in one direction.

You also have the native skepticism about politicians to overcome. Americans seem to have lost track of the Founders' ideal of "disinterested benevolence," and assume now that anyone who seeks political power wants it to enrich himself or to gratify some personal whim.

Also, objectivity and logic leave people cold because they don't seem to fit with the prevailing idea of freedom. That idea has devolved over time. Orwell would have said that freedom meant being able to say "2+2=4" when someone's trying to force you to say otherwise. Today, I suspect, a lot of people feel freedom means being able to say "2+2=5."

Anonymous said...

No one likes being told how to live. But if how you live is not conducive to the welfare of those around you, you either accept what you are told or you suffer the consequences.

If you catch a child playing with matches, do you wait until he burns the house down before taking the matches away?

I think the idea of disinterested benevolence is a great idea. But did the founders actually act with benevolent indifference? After reading a number of Jefferson's writings concerning banks, corporations etc., I agree with what he has to say, but was it out of benevolent indifference or because he was a plantation owner whose status would suffer if money become the measuring stick of wealth, rather than land?