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Commentary

What is a Progressive?


     
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When is the last time you heard a liberal describe himself as a “liberal”? It’s probably been a long time. These days, those on the left are more likely to call themselves “progressives.”

Writing in The New York Times, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs said there have been two progressive eras — one in the early 20th century and the second under Franklin Roosevelt. He called on modern liberals to usher in a third era.

But what exactly is “progressivism”? To many people, the term “Progressive Era” evokes fond caricatures of Teddy Roosevelt and such reforms as safe food, the elimination of child labor and the eight-hour work day. Yet real progressivism was far more sinister. Here is how Jonah Goldberg describes the World War I presidency of Woodrow Wilson:

The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn’t in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world’s first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten, spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous “poison” into the American bloodstream; [and] newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government[?]

It gets worse. According to Goldberg:

[N]early a hundred thousand government propaganda agents were sent out among the people to whip up support for the regime and its war; college professors imposed loyalty oaths on their colleagues; nearly a quarter-million goons were given legal authority to intimidate and beat “slackers” and dissenters; and leading artists and writers dedicated their crafts to proselytizing for the government.

At the time of the Wilson presidency, progressives did not view the exercise of state power and the violation of individual rights as a war-time exception to be set aside in times of peace. To the contrary, Herbert Croly (founding editor of The New Republic), John Dewey (father of progressive education), Walter Lippmann (perhaps the century’s most influential political writer), Richard Ely (founder of the American Economic Association) and many others saw war as an opportunity to rid the country of classical liberalism and the doctrine of laissez faire.

Wilson, our first Ph.D. in the White House, made clear his complete rejection of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and classical liberalism in his books and other writings. As Ronald Pestritto notes, liberty in Wilson’s view was “not found in freedom from state actions but instead in one’s obedience to the laws of the state.”

The primary domestic objective of progressives was to create in peacetime what Wilson had accomplished during war. They were able to do so a little more than a decade later. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy under Wilson, and when he led Democrats back to the White House in 1932 he brought with him an army of intellectuals and bureaucrats who shared the Progressive-Era vision. Indeed, most of the “alphabet soup” of agencies set up during the Great Depression were continuations of various boards and committees set up during World War I.

At that time it was commonplace for intellectuals on the left to be enamored of Lenin’s communist regime in Russia. And almost everyone who was enamored of Lenin was also an admirer of Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy. For example, General Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, who ran Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) kept a picture of Mussolini hanging on his wall. The admiration was often mutual. Some writers for publications in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy wrote of their fascination with Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Goldberg explains:

The reason so many progressives were intrigued by both Mussolini’s and Lenin’s “experiments” is simple: they saw their reflection in the European looking glass. Philosophically, organizationally, and politically the progressives were as close to authentic, homegrown fascists as any movement America has ever produced. [They were] militaristic, fanatically nationalist, imperialist, racist, deeply involved in the promotion of Darwinian eugenics, [and] enamored of the Bismarckian welfare state.

The progressives saw the state as properly involved in almost every aspect of social life. Herbert Croly envisioned a government that would even regulate who could marry and procreate. In this respect, he reflected the almost universal belief of progressives in eugenics. These days, there is a tendency to think that interest in racial purity began and ended in Hitler’s Germany. In fact, virtually all intellectuals on the left in the early 20th century believed in state involvement in promoting a better gene pool. These included H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (founders of Fabian Socialism), Harold Laski (the most respected British political scientist of the 20th century) and John Maynard Keynes (the most famous economist of the 20th century). Pro-eugenics articles routinely appeared in the left-wing New Statesman, The Manchester Guardian and in the United States in The New Republic.

One of the ugliest stains on American public policy during the 20th century was the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II by the Roosevelt Administration. Another stain is the resegregation of the White House under Wilson. Bruce Bartlett argues that these acts were consistent with the personal racial views of the presidents and that the Democratic party has a long history of racial bias it would like to forget.

The worst excesses on the right in the 20th century are usually associated with Senator Joe McCarthy; the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), including pressuring Hollywood actors to reveal their political activities and name the identities of their colleagues; and domestic surveillance of political enemies.

Yet all of these activities have roots in the Progressive Era as well. Joe McCarthy started his political life as a Democrat (and later switched to be a Republican) in Wisconsin — the most pro-progressive state in the union. As Goldberg observes, “Red baiting, witch hunts, censorship and the like were a tradition in good standing among Wisconsin progressives and populists.” The HUAC was founded by another progressive Democrat, Samuel Dickstein, to investigate German sympathizers. During the “Brown scare” of the 1940s, radio journalist Walter Winchell read the names of isolationists on the radio, calling them “Americans we can do without.”

Civilian surveillance under American presidents in the modern era (for example under Republicans Richard Nixon and George W. Bush and under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) are extensions of what went on earlier in the century. However, modern surveillance does not begin to compare in magnitude to what went on during the Wilson and Roosevelt presidencies.

Bottom line: the next time you hear someone call himself a “progressive,” ask him if he knows the historical meaning of that term.


John C. Goodman is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. The Wall Street Journal and the National Journal, among other media, have called him the “Father of Health Savings Accounts.”

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