The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Has The Progressive Moment Returned?

(This is the second and final column on the Progressive Movement)

Few issues in the history of 20th and 21st century America have inspired more disagreement than the value of the Progressive movement to our society. Our high school texts taught that it was a movement by the people to curb the power of the special interests in our government:

COW Bosses

The Bosses of the Senate by Joseph Keppler, 1889

The 1890s Progressive Movement was a response to dislocations in American life. There had been rapid industrialization of the economy, but there had been no corresponding changes in social and political institutions. Economic power had moved to ever larger private businesses, while social and political life remained centered primarily in local communities, even within rapidly growing cities, with great variability in quality of life.

But early Progressives believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, better working conditions and an efficient workplace. The desire to regulate big business was mostly focused on creating a fair(er) deal for small businesses and workers. Others encouraged Americans to register to vote, fight political corruption, and let the voting public decide how issues should best be addressed (via direct election of senators, the initiative, and the referendum).

Essentially the struggle was a clash between the “public interest” and “corporate privilege.”

Daniel Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings (1998), shows how European reforms at the time influenced American progressives, suggesting that the movement was not just an American phenomenon, but had roots in a European process of change. He describes the international roots of social reforms such as city planning, workplace regulation, rural cooperatives, municipal transportation, and public housing that traveled across the ocean to our shores.

This is something we see today. Populist movements from the left and the right are roiling Europe, just as they are in America.

In the mid-1930s, the New Deal allowed the country to return to a pent-up agenda of its Progressive past. Once again, we had an economic crisis, once again, the power of business was outsized versus the power of the worker.

Another Roosevelt reformer stepped into the role of Progressive-in-Chief. But where Teddy was a Republican, FDR was a Democrat. Regardless, change again ensued.

We hear Progressivism referred to as synonymous with the American welfare state. But, the original Progressives did not believe that a ‘welfare state’ was an end goal. In fact, the term ‘welfare state’ did not come into currency until the end of the 1940s, as a new label in the Republican Party’s attack on Social Security and other programs of the New Deal.

As we wrote in the review of One Nation Under God (2015) by Kevin Kruse, James Fifield, a minister who worked to bring Corporate America and Christians together said in 1935:

Every Christian should oppose the totalitarian trends of the New Deal…

Overall, Kruse’s book is an excellent analysis of how Christian fundamentalism and capitalism were conflated in the 1950s to erode the divide between church and state, re-casting Progressive political philosophy as both “un-American”, and “anti-Christian” at the same time.

Progressives were called Reds or socialists. It was a charge that would follow Progressives throughout the 20th Century, whenever Progressives returned to the cause of economic equality.

In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2012), Michael Kazin shows that the US is unique among Western nations in that we never developed a viable, left-wing political movement. Unlike Europe, a progressive party has never succeeded in establishing more than a temporary foothold in American politics, despite the hysterical rhetoric of conservatives. We have had a Congressional Progressive Caucus only since 1991. It is comprised of one Senator and 75 Congress people, all Democrats.

Yet, Progressives still have had great success in shaping American society. During presidencies from LBJ to GW Bush, there was far more radical dissent in the US than at any time in the 1950s. Millions of Americans, perhaps a majority, came to reject racial and sexual discrimination, to question the need for and morality of military intervention abroad, and to worry that industrial growth might be destroying the climate.

Since Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party in 1912, Progressives have had little historic influence on electoral politics. In the earliest days of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, it was thought that his role was not to win the election, but to slip a few liberal planks into Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But on the campaign trail, Sanders started drawing crowds of thousands, his ratings surged, and his became a Progressive moment in electoral politics.

Today, Progressivism is a cause in search of a candidate.

Many have called our time a new Gilded Age.

If so, the question then becomes whether Progressivism can once again move back into the halls of government, and be a positive force for change.


1890s Progressivism: When the Movement Worked

Last week, Wrongo read “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon and Schuster, 2013). The book covers the birth of the Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform across the US, from the 1890s to 1920.

For context about the times, does any of this sound familiar?

The gap between rich and poor has never been wider…legislative stalemate paralyzes the country…corporations resist federal regulations…spectacular mergers produce giant companies…the influence of money in politics deepens…bombs explode in crowded streets…small wars proliferate far from our shores…a dizzying array of inventions speeds the pace of daily life.

That was the political landscape in the 1890s. This was the time of the Gilded Age, a time of income and wealth inequality. From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth, while the top 10% owned roughly three-fourths of it. The bottom 40% had no wealth at all.

The Bully Pulpit” tries to do three things simultaneously: It is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and a biography of William Howard Taft; third, it introduces us to McClure’s magazine and the rise of Muckraking journalism. The muckrakers were investigative reporters who exposed corrupt politicians and business leaders at all levels. Goodwin includes mini-bios of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William A. White, all of whom were titans of investigative journalism at the time. A key finding by Goodwin is how TR encouraged the Muckrakers. He offered them access and friendship, and received information about the problems they were investigating, a synergy that enabled both to influence policy and politics for 30 years.

Consider the times: Corporations were ascendant. Politicians were reluctant to involve the federal government too heavily in the private sector. In general, they accepted the concept of laissez-faire, opposing government interference in the economy except to maintain law and order. This attitude started to change during the depression of the 1890s when small businesses, farmers, and labor movements began asking the government to intercede on their behalf.

By the start of the 20th century, the middle class was leery of the emerging corporate giants called “Trusts”. The Trusts consolidated businesses, using horizontal (controlling competitors) or vertical integration (controlling supply and distribution), and thus, created monopolies. For example, John D. Rockefeller drove other oil companies out of business and created a giant oil company, Standard Oil.

The Progressives argued the need for government regulation of business practices to ensure competition and free enterprise. Under President Benjamin Harrison, Congress regulated railroads in 1887 (the Interstate Commerce Act), and in 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prevented large firms from controlling a single industry. But, these laws were not rigorously enforced until Teddy Roosevelt, vice president under McKinley, became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901.

Roosevelt and William Howard Taft became close friends when both were part of the Harrison administration in 1888. Taft became a key member of President Roosevelt’s cabinet, and later his handpicked successor, in the election of 1908. While TR thought Taft a “genuine Progressive”, Taft was not the politician that TR was, and he was by temperament, more conservative. In 1910, TR broke bitterly with Taft on a series of issues and when in the 1912 nomination process, Roosevelt failed to block Taft’s re-nomination, he launched the Bull Moose Party. This ultimately led to them both losing in 1912 to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who also ran as a Progressive.

This wave of reforms was continued by Wilson. The legacy of the Progressive Era includes the Pure Food and Drug act, the progressive income tax, direct election of senators and the women’s vote.

All of this makes “Bully Pulpit” a very long book at 928 pages. But, it is a very worthwhile read, particularly since many of the same issues we face today were in full flower back then. And it is remarkable how similar the political and ideological arguments of the time are nearly identical to the arguments today.

The book gives us some hope that, at one time, divided government could morph into a movement that won by embracing progressive values. That happened because interest groups, including farmers, small businesses and unions joined together with local governments, journalists like the Muckrakers, and sympathetic politicians of both parties to energize a movement that was directed at solving specific problems – the consequences of the Gilded Age.

Can it happen again? Can investigative journalism return, or is it dead?

Tomorrow, we will take a look at why Progressivism died and was then reborn under another Roosevelt.