When Jeffrey Isaac calls for chastened political expectations, I can’t help but agree. Given the political blockages and intellectual disarray of the moment, who wouldn’t? As I write this, in early July, the New York Times reports that federal cutbacks may necessitate the partial privatization of the National Park Service—one of the most successful and least controversial legacies of the original Progressives. If the parks cannot be sustained in the name of the common good, what can? At moments like these, the old spirit of Progressivism seems as dead as a doornail. But then again, I have my better moments, too—when I think about Newt Gingrich’s astonishing fall from public grace or about the growing divisions within what once looked like an impregnable Republican coalition.
Of course, the political situation now is worse, in some respects, than it was in, say, 1910, when radicalism and reform crackled across the headlines. But in other respects things are at least as hopeful now as they were then—something Isaac suggests when he talks in passing of more recent liberal triumphs. Think of the United States at the time of the original Progressives—when formal segregation was the rule in much of the country; the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise; women did not have the vote; academia and the so-called liberal professions were bulwarks of smug gentility; right-wing fundamentalism was gathering strength; the rise of communism and fascism was just around the corner; and the labor movement, although full of spirit, was about to suffer a series of disastrous and bloody defeats that would leave it looking moribund by the 1920s....
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