DURING THE 2008 campaign, much was made of the Democrats’ shift in self-description. They had retired “liberal,” a tired and tarred moniker-turned-epithet. In its place, President Obama and his colleagues installed “progressive.” At the time, it seemed a canny choice; in the face of domestic and international political turmoil, progress was welcome. The nation was frustrated and, in one way or another, hungry for change.
The term was not an invention, but a reappropriation of an existing tradition. Progressivism has a long history and a set of specific characteristics. Remarkably, this “new birth” of progressive politics shares a substantial amount with its earlier incarnation in the first decades of the twentieth century. Now, as then, a central tension plagues progressivism: it is caught between its populist commitment to equality and its technocratic impulses. Recognizing this goes a long way toward explaining how “progressive” has followed “liberal” in becoming an insult.
This should not be taken as a dismissal of progressivism as a political platform. To note the tensions within a political movement is not to make a knock-down argument against it, but to form a useful means of understanding why its members behave as they do. (After all, the conservative coalition has managed to hold together despite the contradictions in principle between its libertarian and Christian components.) If progressivism rests on the twin pillars of egalitarianism and technocracy, a serious look at the behavior of movement leaders may indicate how a shift in emphasis from one to the other affects the movement as a whole.
LET’S START with equality. The original progressives found egalitarianism intuitive and urgent; they inhabited a world where African Americans had been divested of their newly won right to vote, where women had yet to gain that same right, and where child labor was both legal and relatively common. Frenetic industrial growth and concentration of wealth and population in urban areas only exacerbated the existing inequalities between rich and poor. During this period, the Supreme Court repeatedly struck down state and federal legislation regulating the wage exploitation of American workers, children and adults alike. In the tenement houses and oppressive factories of early-twentieth-century America, very few Thomas-Jefferson styled, self-sufficient yeomen were to be found.
Widening social and economic gaps became so baldly evident that politicians from both parties took up equality’s standard. Democrats like William Jennings Bryan and Burton K. Wheeler joined Republicans like Robert La Follette, Sr., George Norris, and Hiram Johnson to denounce those Theodore Roosevelt termed “malefactors of great wealth.” All these men eventually abandoned their respective parties to help form a national “Progressive Party” that would combat those malefactors, who attempted to circumvent or overwhelm democratic political institutions by leaning heavily upon them with their outsized resources.
Progressive intellectuals like John Dewey called for a revitalization of American democracy in the service of egalitarian ideals. Progressives argued that if the American dream meant anything at all, it meant that every individual deserved some basic equality of opportunity to escape from desperate, dependent poverty. Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the importance of building “sober, strong, self-respecting manliness” in the nation, in addition to “material wealth.” Herbert Croly claimed that “An America which was not the Land of Promise, which was not informed by a prophetic outlook…would not be the America bequeathed to us by our forefathers. In cherishing the Promise of a better national future the American is fulfilling rather than imperiling the substance of the national tradition.”
Croly was, and is, incontrovertibly right. Most Americans find the promise of a better future for themselves and their communities to be deeply stirring. But how might greater equality of opportunity be achieved? On this point, prominent progressives were less Jeffersonian. In his Liberalism and Social Action, Dewey called for a readjustment of American institutions to harness economic forces for the good of all humans concerned. In decrying the systemic greed and exploitation of market institutions, he further argued that many of the nation’s problems stemmed from elite-driven deception of the nation’s lowest classes.
Progressives were uniformly outraged by extraordinary economic inequalities and resulting injustices, but they were also optimistic about potential solutions. They argued that if the scientific method had produced hitherto unheard of economic prosperity and luxury, it could also be brought to bear on institutions that determine the distribution of these goods. Many of the nation’s problems seemed, to progressives, to result from the piecemeal implementation of incompatible and disorganized policies. If only humans could harness their newfound technological abilities to make order of this chaos, solutions would be just around the corner.
The trouble with this approach is probably evident. As Dewey and most progressives knew, egalitarian political regimes are not well-suited to streamlining policy. Shifts in public opinion, rhetorical disfigurement of the facts, and other innumerable vagaries of democratic government render efficiency and majority-rule politics infrequent bedfellows. This is an old debate in political thought; analysts since Thucydides have noted the fickleness of this sort of public decision-making. Indeed, the American founders designed public institutions to slow down decision-making enough for factions to break down while additional public reflection took place.
Thus, the progressives often sought reform by top-down means. Though they were truly concerned with the welfare of the downtrodden, underserved sections of the United States, they looked to experts to address their welfare. This is not because they were illiberal or anti-democratic, but because their faith in scientific analysis of public problems was in tension with their principles of democratic egalitarianism. At their most technocratic, progressives believed that political solutions needed scientific backing, rather than democratic political procedures, for legitimacy. At their best, progressives demanded a return to the facts of the American political situation. If a scientific analysis of policy choices could reveal the actual consequences of each available option, perhaps those who would confuse and manipulate the citizenry would have a more difficult time concealing their biases. When progressives prioritized their egalitarian ends over any suggested technocratic political means, they usually were able to hedge against the latter’s overreaches.
While he rarely merits mention in a serious discussion of American politics, it is worth noting that this is the side of progressivism that torments Glenn Beck. When he equates early American progressives with Marxists or fascists, he outlines a cartoon version of progressivism that is purely technocratic. Beck aside, many serious political commentators have been too quick to categorize progressivism as either egalitarian or technocratic. Of course, the tensions in progressive political thought are never perfectly manifested in political activity. There is no easy way to distinguish those historical moments that were pure triumphs of grassroots activism from those that were wholly top-down. Jane Addams’s settlement houses were highly egalitarian, offering many an opportunity to escape poverty’s limits, but they were also a project conceived of and run by wealthy elites. In contrast, though the Nineteenth Amendment was ultimately implemented as a federal project, it was brought about by decades of grassroots, populist pressure by the suffragettes. The danger for progressives is always to stray too far in the direction of either of their core impulses. Too much populism, like too much technocracy, almost inevitably fails as a political strategy or an approach to policymaking.
ALL OF this is interesting to consider in light of the current progressive moment. After an inspiring, unprecedented grassroots campaign, Obama settled remarkably quickly into the business of governing. While the multitudinous challenges left by the previous administration unquestionably required prompt attention, the president’s agenda quickly became defined by the technical details of various new initiatives. It may be true that Republican intransigence, the scope of the previous administration’s failures, and other ineradicable challenges made this inevitable. Nonetheless, the president’s recent return to populist language appears to be a tacit recognition that progressivism cannot succeed without a robust egalitarian wing. No matter how necessary the new initiatives, no progressive can credibly govern long as a technocrat.
Above all, this is because progressives understand democracy in terms of both individual liberty and equal political treatment. These values rely upon strong civic ties and local communities with high “social capital.” As progressive intellectual John Dewey argued in The Public and Its Problems, a democratic
community must always remain a matter of face-to-face intercourse. This is why the family and neighborhood, with all their deficiencies, have always been the chief agencies of nurture, the means by which dispositions are stably formed and ideas acquired which laid hold on the roots of character…The invasion and partial destruction of the life of [local communities] by outside uncontrolled agencies is the immediate source of the instability, disintegration and restlessness which characterize the present epoch. Evils which are uncritically and indiscriminately laid at the door of industrialism and democracy might, with greater intelligence, be referred to the dislocation and unsettlement of local communities.
Dewey recognized that centrally planned, technocratic solutions were incompatible with the best elements of democratic life. Though much remains inefficient and incomplete in a liberal democratic regime, public life is robust and engaging. It is no coincidence that Alexis de Tocqueville repeatedly noted that democracy’s greatest virtue is in its indirect effects, not in its efficiency. Open engagement with fellow citizens in political discourse is a supreme political good. For this reason, progressives aim at a well-educated, self-sufficient, and free citizenry. Since many individuals had been functionally disenfranchised from democratic community life, progressives attempted to make use of public institutions to help return them to active participatory status. If top-down initiatives were necessary in the earlier twentieth century as a means of rebuilding the American promise, this was in an attempt to recapture the fullness of pre-industrial democracy without nostalgically pursuing long-lost political alternatives.
This is why, in the passage just cited, Dewey bemoans the imposition of “uncontrolled agencies” on community life. Most progressives—from Dewey onward—understand the need for broad, centralized political institutions in a globalizing, industrialized world. They maintain, however, that the benefits of popular control over these mechanisms well outweigh the costs. For these progressives, democracy is both a political regime and a way of living, or even “a state of mind.” The former is a necessary condition for the latter, but it is considerably less important. Furthermore, if less democratic agencies are necessary (as some are), progressive leaders realized they must clearly connect them to the egalitarian ends of American democracy.
As Michael Tomasky recently noted in Democracy, many current progressives are too quickly resorting to cynicism and despair at the pace of political change. These are the heirs of the technocratic wing of progressivism. They would cut through the Gordian knots of current political difficulties with the sword of scientific method. In this vein, the greatest danger to the new progressive era comes not from conservative opposition, but from within. Progressives who rage at perceived ignorance in so-called “red states,” “flyover states,” or (never strictly defined) “Middle America” perjure the progressive tradition with a too-fortified confidence in their own cosmopolitanism. In a strange way, those who scathed Representative Bart Stupak, when he proposed a compromise that kept abortion funding out of the health care reform bill, resemble those conservatives who maintain knee-jerk opposition to every point of Obama’s agenda. American progressives who abandon substantive, serious debate to launch diatribes at their opponents—no matter how intolerant or unfair these others are—do progressivism (and the country) a disservice. Democratic politics is about keeping up the conversation, about persuading and engaging with fellow progressives, independents, and Tea Party activists alike; it’s not a matter of walking away from the game when we discover thorny disagreements.
Progressivism stands or falls based on how it approaches populism. Too often, progressives mistake their preference for empirically based policymaking for unquestionable moral or ethical authority. Dewey rarely spoke in these terms, and neither should we. Elites who dismiss large swathes of the populace for their ignorance are missing a chance to engage. Indeed, those (of any ideological persuasion) who are too sure of their policy positions are usually on the side of closing down democratic discourse. This isn’t progressive, nor is it American. If progressives are losing the battle of ideas in America, the onus is on them to make their case more compelling. This will be unquestionably difficult in the current context, where both Democratic and Republican campaigns rely upon corporate sponsorship, and endless media mergers have eviscerated the objectivity and diversity of the press. Yet the most necessary things often are difficult; their difficulty does not make them less necessary.
American populism—progressive or otherwise—sometimes takes an economic, technical form; the president’s recent focus on making the federal tax code more equitable is one such instance. But it can also be aspirational. Any political leader who speaks of the American “promise” or “dream” is implicitly referring to the equality at the core of the American experiment. Whether Lincoln’s “political religion,” Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” FDR’s “New Deal,” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, belief in the equal worth of all individuals is a fundamental part of the American wager. At his best, Obama echoes these interrogations of our national dreams and draws upon what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Like Lincoln, like King, and like Obama, progressives must dedicate themselves to American democratic discourse. Some Americans may resist such honest overtures, and we should highlight their unwillingness to do so, but always with an eye toward these aspirations. If progressivism is about looking to the American past as a resource for pursuing a better, common future, this is the only way to dissolve its core tension.
Conor Williams is a PhD candidate in the Georgetown University Department of Government. He has recently been published at the Center for American Progress and the Washington Post. Before coming to Washington, he attended Bowdoin College and served as a Teach For America corps member in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Homepage photo: Pete Souza/White House/2009.