Posts Tagged ‘Reform’

Lessons from North Dakota

July 11, 2016

A century ago, the state of North Dakota underwent a peaceful political revolution—one more radical than what Bernie Sanders attempted this year.  The benefits to the people of the state endure to this day.

North Dakota farmers were subject to the domination of banks and flour mills in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  They set mortgage interest rates and the price of wheat.  Business interests dominated North Dakota government.

But progressive reformers opened up the political process through the initiative (voters could propose laws), the referendum (voters could vote directly on laws) and the recall (unsatisfactory state legislators could be voted out before their terms ended).  More importantly, the state legislated open primary elections.

This opened up the process for the Non-Partisan League, organized by a fiery socialist named Arthur C. Townley.  Starting in 1914, he recruited 40,000 dues-paying members, mainly farmers, in a state whose population was 600,000.  The NPL then endorsed and campaigned for candidates who adopted the NPL program.

In 1916, NPL candidates effectively took over the Republican Party in the state.   NPL candidates won all statewide offices and a majority in the state Assembly; in 1918, they took over the state Senate as well.

Among their reforms were a state grain grading service so that farmers were assured a fair price, regulation of railroad shipping rates, and authorization of state-owned enterprises, including the Bank of North Dakota, the crown jewel of the NPL program, which is still going strong.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

“Make me do it”

March 23, 2010

When you think of Presidents we consider great progressive reformers, they were all being pressured by grass-roots movements to do better than they were.

President Abraham Lincoln was constantly attacked by abolitionists for making compromises on slavery in the interests of preserving the Union.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most pro-labor union President in American history, but leaders of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) did not cease to organize strikes just because they were politically embarrassing to FDR.  President Lyndon Johnson did more for civil rights of African-Americans than any other President except Lincoln and perhaps Grant, but that didn’t stop the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from speaking out against the Vietnam War.

There are stories, possibly true and possibly not, of President Roosevelt or President John F. Kennedy meeting with progressive reformers, hearing them out, and then saying, “I agree with you.  Now go out and make me do it.”

I keep changing my mind about President Barack Obama.  Sometimes I think he is the kind of nice guy who doesn’t win ball games.  Sometimes I think he is a witting or unwitting tool of the business and political establishment. Sometimes I think he is doing the best that is humanly possible to bring about positive change within a dysfunctional system.

But even in the best case, progressive reformers do neither themselves nor President Obama any favors by sitting back and trusting him to do things. Even if in his heart he wants to do the right thing, he needs pressure from the grass roots to make him do it.