Bring back real 'progressives'

The word has been hijacked by liberals who fear the L-word. Here's what progressivism really means, and why we need more of it.
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Fighting Bob LaFollette, the founding father of Progressivism

The word has been hijacked by liberals who fear the L-word. Here's what progressivism really means, and why we need more of it.

Progressivism, apparently, is this year'ꀙs beige. It goes with everything.

You may have seen primary election endorsements from Fuse Washington, a self-proclaimed progressive political group kept alive by determination and the Internet. (And what does 'ꀜfuse'ꀝ stand for? To irreparably join together or to ignite? I can'ꀙt tell, and that concerns me. Neither option sounds terribly promising.) I will undoubtedly vote for a number of people on the Fuse list, although I'ꀙm still wondering how, in their estimation, Susan Hutchinson, who'ꀙs never been in government, is a more credible candidate than Alan Lobdell, who has.

But the biggest thing I noticed about Fuse'ꀙs list for progressives to vote for was that nobody on that list qualifies as what I understand to be a progressive. They'ꀙre all either labor or green candidates, and while progressivism is not antithetical to those points of view, that'ꀙs not its major thrust.

For example, Fuse endorsed old-line Democrats Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips for King County Executive (and I think they'ꀙre worthy candidates), but the folks who might actually qualify as progressive, state Rep. Ross Hunter and state Sen. Fred Jarrett, were lumped in with newsie Susie as legitimate but unworthy.

So, folks, a little history. "Progressivism" evolved in response to the urban machines and big business politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When waves of southern and eastern Europeans began to immigrate to this country after the Civil War, they found themselves unloved and underserved by the old line patricians who ran much of the country. The political machines were forged in response, welding these immigrants and their descendants into formidable voting blocs that effectively ran a lot of big cities for several decades.

Mayor Richard J. Daley'ꀙs Chicago machine was the last of these, and fairly typical. The machine got things done; and if you played along, you got service and response from your government. On the other hand, it was not a terribly inclusive form of politics. It did not tolerate diversity, either in viewpoints or non-white ethnicity; contracts were more likely to be awarded on the basis of kickbacks than for merit.

Big business, meanwhile, grew rapidly after the Civil War, made possible by the advance of canals, railroads, the telegraph, and then the telephone. Big trusts such as the railroads dominated the national political scene, controlling the U.S. Senate and hence the Supreme Court, thereby blocking any attempt at regulation.

Enter the Progressives, who were the people in between — small business owners, urban professionals, middle-class respectables, and advocates for fair and clean government and an even playing field. Progressives pushed for non-partisan elections to undercut the power of the machines and for a positive role for government in managing the economy. Above all, they were not anti-business, even if they tended to bust up some giant trusts. Figures such as Sen. Bob La Follette Sr. and Teddy Roosevelt were much more like Dan Evans Republicans than like Ralph Naderites.

Fuse Washington'ꀙs statement of goals mentions nothing of this; it'ꀙs all green, egalitarian, and civil libertarian. It sounds all sort of post-modern liberal, and that'ꀙs when I realized that 'ꀜprogressive'ꀝ has become this year'ꀙs beige: They'ꀙre liberals (who dare not speak the name).

Of course, the term 'ꀜliberal'ꀝ has become so thoroughly demonized by the far right that you can'ꀙt call yourself that anymore and expect to win an election. Remember the way the elder George Bush used to say 'ꀜlllliberal'ꀝ in a way that conjured up an image of a tree-hugging, lizard-licking, drug-using, gay fascist commie criminal pervert, and you'ꀙll recall how 'ꀜliberal'ꀝ went of vogue.

Which is too bad. "Liberal" has a broader meaning, and in strict terms, in the U.S. we'ꀙre all children of classical liberalism: a system of social organization that features democratic institutions, reliance on markets, and a relatively high degree of civil liberties. That'ꀙs what the Founding Fathers believed in (not a theocracy), and we continue to operate largely in that way.

But labels are how we understand things, and, sadly, they triumph far too often in post-modern America. It'ꀙs not really "waterboarding"; it'ꀙs just surfing, really slowly. So, for a militant moderate such as me, liberals claiming to be progressives is a point of some concern, because it means they'ꀙre selling something they'ꀙre not going to deliver.

One reason is that a lot of Democrats have never understood business and the market. Similarly, many Republicans misunderstand poverty as nothing more than a moral failing. Libertarians believe that the market will solve everything. (Sorry, kids: No amount of reading Ayn Rand will make Libertarianism actually work. And it'ꀙs been tried.) Democrats have an understandable concern for the poor, just as Republicans have a fondness for the market. The hard part — the really hard part — is finding a balance. For instance, every step toward equality of economic outcome is necessarily a step away from market efficiency, and vice versa. The trade-offs here are fairly substantial.

The health care debate is a microcosm of this search for a balance. Yes, we can probably cover everybody in some way, and that will cost more money. Health care will only cost less if we pay less for it, which means some people will make less money (unless we manage to turn the nation into a legion of pre-emptive fitness buffs, which doesn'ꀙt seem likely). The health care system has an appallingly high level of administrative overhead (something like 30 cents on the dollar, versus 5 cents in Canada). But even there, at least in the short term, truly addressing that problem would put a lot of people out of work.

It would take true, balanced progressivism to navigate through this mess, and that'ꀙs not going to come from foaming-at-the-mouth conservativism, nor from liberals in progressive sheepskins. So while a group such as Fuse is a welcome counterbalance to something like the Discovery Institute, calling themselves progressive doesn'ꀙt make them so.

We could use a few more progressives, properly defined, in government these days. E.J. Dionne wrote a book in the 1990s about progressives, tantalizingly titled They Only Look Dead. But it'ꀙs been more than three days since he wrote that, and I'ꀙm still waiting for them to rise up.


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About the Authors & Contributors

T.M. Sell

T.M. Sell is professor of political economy at Highline College.