Monday, October 10, 2005

A Progressive Insurrection?

Cross-posted on the Moderate Republican:

There have been a flurry of posts and articles over the weekend calling for a new Progressive Movement in America.

When I say "progressive" I don't mean it in the way that the word is being used now, namely, to refer to ideas and groups on the far left. I am referring to the originally meaning, those group of reformers who came of age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were people who wanted a government that was effiencent and professional. They wanted capitalism to flourish, but they also wanted it to treat workers with respect and get rid of such abominations like child labor. This form of progressivism presented itself in the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

If this is the meaning of progressive, then I am one. I think we have to go beyond the small government v. big government argument. I don't think government should be big, but it has to be efficient. I believe in our capitalist system, but I also think government has to provide some checks against the excesses of the system. Writer Joel Kotkin explains what progressivism is:

As many owned property themselves, they naturally advocated not the redistribution of wealth but such middle-class measures as antitrust legislation and federal loans for farmer and homeowner mortgages. The Progressives were politically pragmatic rationalists who helped make this nation the most powerful and successful large society in world history. They fostered the creation of our great national and state parks, pushed the development of water and power systems, promoted agricultural conservation and state-supported education.

If anything can be said to define the Progressives, it was their commitment to governmental efficiency. They embraced neither the contemporary conservative notion that government could do no right, nor the current liberal conceit that governmental ineptitude is acceptable as long as it's in service of well-intentioned ideological causes or aggrieved minorities.

Their ideal, formed in reaction to the political corruption and corporate dominance of the era, was government operated in a businesslike and rational manner. The pro-labor New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served from 1934 to 1945, didn't hesitate to make exacting demands on public employees, leading some to liken him to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. As he famously proclaimed: "There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets."

The Progressive legacy provides an excellent framework for responding to the challenges facing 21st-century America. As we do today, the early 20th-century Progressives confronted a society beset by a widening chasm between classes and fearful of growing foreign competition. They addressed these challenges by fostering education and science, and also by modernizing basic infrastructure -- roads, bridges, public transit, water, ports and power systems. Many great construction projects of the 20th century were the result of their peculiar political vision.

New York Times writer David Brooks (Oh, how I miss him) describes his version of Progressivism:

"After a while, you get sick of the DeLays of the right and the Deans of the left. After a while, you tire of the current Republicans, who lack a coherent governing philosophy, and the current Democrats, who are completely bereft of ideas. After a while you begin to wonder: Did I really get engaged in politics so I could spend months arguing about the confirmation of Harriet Miers, the John Major of American jurisprudence?

"And when you begin thinking this way, you find yourself emotionally disengaging from the exhausted clans that dominate the present. You find yourself going back to basics and considering the fundamental questions: What visions originally excited me about politics and government? If it were completely up to me, where would I plant my flag?

"Here's where I would plant mine.

"I believe in the lost tradition of American politics, the tradition of Hamilton, Lincoln and the Bull Moose. In other words, I believe that social mobility is the core of the American experience. I believe that society should be structured so that as many boys and girls as possible can work, and rise the way young Hamilton and Lincoln did...

"I know, having learned it from Lincoln and Roosevelt, that individual initiative should always be tied to national union. I know we need a national service program to bind our segmented youth through citizenship. I know we need to protect the natural heritage that defines us. I know America has to persevere in its exceptional mission to promote freedom, and the effort to promote democracy in the Arab world is one of the most difficult and noble endeavors any great power has undertaken.

"When I cut myself loose from the push and shove of today's weary political titans, and go back to basics, I find myself strangely invigorated.

"It's time for an insurrection."

Bull Moose adds:

Buckle up, fellow Mooseketeers, we are headed for some turbulence - and that is a good thing. As the Bushies implode, who willl take their place? Will it be a reformed Republican Party? Will the Democrats get their act together and convince the mighty middle that the party is not beholden to its liberal interest groups?

Will a force emerge within or outside the major parties that puts the national interest first? A faction which comes forth that argues that we must have a strong national defense, reform entitlements, requires national service and promotes progressive, pro-capitalist economics? Independent voters have largely given up on this Administration, but do they have anywhere to go?

I think it is time for a new progressive movement that might work with both parties but isn't tied to either party. They are more concerned with putting the nation first instead of the parties.

My own party has done me wrong with its business cronyism and far right hate filled politics, but I'm not ready to support the Democrats with it's interest group liberalism. We need something that is new, that doesn't look to the past (the Dems look back to the 1960s and 70s and the GOP to the 50s and 80s), but is interested in what America can become.

I'm ready to join that fight.


At 3:38 PM, Blogger Rafique Tucker said...

You put forth sound doctrine, my friend. As a moderate Democrat, I've always felt that both the insufferable ideologues or the Right and Left were getting it wrong, even the well-intentioned ones. I've always believed in a government that was never intrusive, but never too elusive. I think one of the main problems we have now is that we've lost a sense of balance is our approaches to issues. There are got to be a middle ground between the welfare state and the jungle.

Capitalism is the best and most workable system there is, but left unto itself something is lost. It is a necessary but insufficient part of economic stability. A just society requires a good government to set sensible boundaries, without stifling the engines of growth. Both Roosevelts understood that.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Peter said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:46 AM, Blogger amba said...

A new Progressive party! If we can uncouple "progressive" from "liberal" and reconnect it to "effective and efficient," we'll be ready to roll. This post is a great contribution to that effort.

See also Michael Reynolds' "Branding Democrats," on The Mighty Middle. He suggests the Dems should stand for "unity, decency, efficiency." Sounds more like the Progressives to me.

At 3:28 AM, Anonymous Meg said...

I'm thinking if you really want "decency" in there, you're going to have to eschew American exceptionalism and our supposed spreading of freedom.

Fact is our "spread of liberty" helped to give the world Zaire's Mobutu, Salvadoran death squads, the Contra war, and Saddam Hussein. The Colombia Teddy Roosevelt snatched Panama from now massacres nonviolent community leaders and their children, courtesty American military support. (Google San Jose de Apartado for the latter.)

We need to read past the rhetoric to know what "spreading freedom" has really been about.



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