Posts Tagged ‘Progressivism’

How progressivism was defeated in its birthplace

November 6, 2019

Wisconsin is arguably the birthplace of progressivism in the United States.  At the dawn of the 20th century, that state enacted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law, its first unemployment insurance program, and the first recognition of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Under the leadership of the great Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state established direct primary elections, banned corporate contributions to political candidates and regulated railroad rates.

He forged a powerful political coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners, defending their interests against corporate monopoly.  In 1910, running for re-election as senator, he won 78 percent of the vote and carried all but one of Wisconsin’s then 71 counties.  After his death in 1926, his two sons carried on his legacy.  From 1901 until 1946, a La Follette was either senator from Wisconsin or governor of the state.

Wisconsin became known for the quality of its public schools, state university and public services.  Much of what was done there became the model for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The La Follette legacy was very much a living memory when I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-56.

Later Wisconsin became known as a leader in protection of the environment.  The state was the home of Aldo Leopold, the noted writer and advocate of soil and wildlife conservation, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, who was both governor and senator.

But in 2010, the voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an extreme right-winter as governor.  He pretty much wiped La Follette’s legacy off the blackboard.  And then, in 2016, Wisconsin’s choice for President was Donald Trump.

I read THE FALL OF WISCONSIN: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman to try to understand what happened.

What I learned from the book is that Wisconsin’s rich and interesting political tradition is irrelevant to what happened.  Scott Walker is not a product of Wisconsin politics.  He was the product of a national right-wing movement that has been building for 40 years.

This movement consists of an interlocking network of corporate donors, tax-exempt foundations and think tanks whose agenda is restore corporate business to a position of dominance.  Their specific goals are tax cuts, budget cuts, reduced pubic services, no public welfare, deregulation of business and regulation of labor unions.  Their claim is that all these things will attract business investment and promote prosperity, but this didn’t happen in Wisconsin or anywhere else it was tried.

The key right-wing institutions mentioned in the book are (1) Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, which among other things funded the Tea Party movement; (2) the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose “weaponized philanthropy” funds conservative think tanks, public interest law firms and opposition research firms; and (3) the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model legislation to advance the corporate cause.

For them, winning elections is not a goal, but a means of enacting their agenda.  Leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell do not try to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, because the broader the appeal, the more their program would have to be diluted.

They prefer a narrow majority and an extreme program, which includes measures to lock in their power.  They recognize that, inevitably, the tide will turn against them.  Their calculation is that the tide will never go all the way back to where it was before, and meanwhile they will have left things in place that will help them make a comeback.

The problem is that there is no equivalent force to stand in their way.  There is no La Follette coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners left to defend the La Follette legacy..

All three groups have been losing ground, economically and politically, for decades.  None has a powerful voice in Madison (Wisconsin’s state capital) or Washington.  None of the three groups regards either of the other two as an ally or potential ally.

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Non-moral arguments for humane goals

June 26, 2014

History professor Eric Rauchway pointed out how progressives advocate humane policies based on strictly economic criteria.

Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit.

You had, he said and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment, to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus.  Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

via Crooked Timber.

I hear this kind of rhetoric  liberals today.  They concede the moral high ground to their opponents and then argue that their policies would be a better way of achieving non-liberal goals – for example, that health care reform would be a good way to help balance the federal budget.

One problem is that this type of argument is not always valid.   The larger problem is that when it is, it is not convincing to people committed to the view that the harshest policies are always the most realistic

Looking back on the Progressive Era

February 10, 2012

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.

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