Looking back on the Progressive Era

I first read RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: A History of Modern American Reform by Eric Goldman when I was in college in the 1950s.  It is a history of American progressivism and liberalism from Grant to Truman.  Its pivot is the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.  I reread it a couple of weeks ago to see if it held any lessons for today.

The issues of the Progressive Era – corporate monopoly, Wall Street’s power, corruption, global trade, immigration, racial and religious prejudice, the gap between the haves and the have-nots – are still with us today, and our thinking on these issues has not gotten far beyond the ideas of the Progressive Era.

Goldman focused on the ideas of middle-class reformers and college-educated intellectuals, rather than insurgent farmers and industrial workers, which I think is justified, because few social reforms have ever been accomplished in the United States without the support of the middle class.

He did not attempt to define progressivism and liberalism, words which represented different things in different eras.  If there are any common threads at all in progressivism, they are sympathy for the underdog, opposition to the power of big business and a desire to improve rather than replace American capitalism and democracy.  Communism, anarchist and other radical ideologies are outside the scope of Goldman’s book.

At the dawn of the Progressive Era, the big banks, railroads and industrial corporations largely controlled government in their own interest.  Corruption was rampant; bribery was common.  What was even more powerful than money was what Goldman called “the steel chain of ideas.”  It was commonly accepted that regulation of economic activity was (1) unconstitutional, (2) contrary to the laws of economics, (3) contrary to Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest and (4) contrary to God’s law—all arguments that are still made today.

Goldman devoted several chapters to reform interpretations of law, economics, Darwinism and the social gospel.  The common thread was the pragmatic philosophy that there is more than one way of looking at any thing, and you should choose the one that works best for the benefit of all.  John Dewey was the great exponent of this way of thinking.  The problem with this way of thinking, as Goldman pointed out, is that a pragmatist has to make a separate decision in each situation because on the circumstances of the particular case.   Pragmatism is not founded on a rock.  It is hard for pragmatists to stand up to absolutists.

Progressives generally looked to the use of government to solve social problems.  One great progressive achievement was regulation of railroad and utility rates.  The problems with that were no only that government power is potentially at least as abusive as big business power, but that government is vulnerable to being taken over by business interests and operated for their benefit.

To check the power of big business, progressives generally sought a greater degree of democracy and democratic control.  They worked for direct election of Senators, presidential primaries and the recall and the referendum.  The problem with that is that very few people think of themselves as part of “the people.”  Instead they thinks of themselves as members of groups, and try to advance the interests of those groups.  Nor did a more direct democracy eliminate the power of big money, as current and recent Presidential nominating campaigns show.

Progressives agreed on the principle of equal rights for all, regardless of race, religion or national heritage.  The problem with that is that many people are more concerned about the standing of their group within society than they are about the right to be assimilated into society on a equal basis.  Goldman thought Zionism, black nationalism and ethnic identity politics worked against the principle of equal individual rights

Goldman saw two threads in progressivism.  One was the Jeffersonian New Freedom advocated by the pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson, which sought to break up monopoly, increase business competition and provide greater individual economic opportunity.  The other was the Hamiltonian New Nationalism of the post-presidential Theodore Roosevelt, which accepted the need for big organizations as a fact of life and sought to regulate them in the public interest.  As it turned out, the New Freedom has been mostly rhetoric, and that the dominant strain in progressivism and liberalism has been the New Nationalism.

The great nemesis of progressivism and liberalism has been war.  The Progressive Era was ended by World War One.  The New Deal was ended by World War Two.  Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which is outside the scope of this book, was aborted by the Vietnam Conflict, and the so-called War on Terror bars the way to social reform today.

Libertarians object to progressivism on the grounds that it gives too much power to government.  But warfare has increased the size and power of government much more than any social reform.  Libertarians have a blanket objection to increases in governmental power, and tend not to distinguish among the reasons.  But big government is not progressive or liberal in itself—only if it serves humanitarian ends and not always then.

In spite of all these problems and seeming contradictions, Goldman, writing in 1952, thought — rightly — that progressive and liberal reforms had made the United States into a more humane and democratic society, and that liberals had a right to be proud of that.  The lesson of his book is that social reform is a never-ending process.  You never reach a point where everything is settled, and you can rest.  Yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problems and, even when they aren’t, there will be somebody who thinks they are.

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