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  • Writer's pictureJosh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Progressive? Part 3 (Rise of the Progressives)

Jonah Goldberg, founder of the digital media company The Dispatch, is fond of reminding his fellow conservatives that sometimes technological advancements are more disruptive to society than ideological trends. In his view, the advent of the automobile and contraceptives did more to shatter societal norms in the last century than any theory to escape from a progressive German university.

Had the United States remained a largely agrarian society it’s possible the ideas of the American Left would have never evolved much beyond the teachings of Thomas Paine we explored in Part 2 or the perspective of equality and limit-government espoused by Thomas Jefferson. But the end of the nineteenth century on into the beginnings of the twentieth brought with it one of the greatest upheavals to societal norms humanity has ever witnessed: the Industrial Revolution.

While the Industrial Revolution advanced Americans and the rest of the developed world into previously unknown levels of prosperity, it also shattered the familiar comforts of the past. The capitalist machine doled out both profits and losses in a chaotic, seemingly uncontrollable manner. People groups were unsettled and left to the mercies of uncharted waters. The idyllic countryside where hard-working Americans could happily labor with their neighbors and loved ones in close-knit communities were rapidly being replaced with factory-laden landscapes drenched in the stench of soulless materialism.

What’s more, this new world did not seem to benefit people as equally as the markets of the past. By 1913, an estimated 18% of the nation’s income went to the wealthiest 1% such as businessmen like John D. Rockefeller who became the wealthiest American of all time (adjusted for inflation). Worse still, these wealth imbalances were perceived to result in political imbalances as more and more Americans came to see the system as rigged to favor the rich and the powerful at the expense of the people.

Enter the Populists

By 1882 this populist sentiment had formed into a political party—the Populist Party—and a growing movement in favor of taking power from the new industrial elites and returning it to the people. “The ideology of Populism was not a difficult thing for historians…to identify,” writes historian and populist-sympathizer Thomas Frank. “Its signature ideas—equality, hostility to privilege, anti-monopoly—were part of a radical nineteenth-century tradition that could be traced to Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.”

And just what did the populists want? The clearest expression of their demands can be found in the 1882 Omaha Platform which stated, in part:

“The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized…The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled…The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection…The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind…The national power to create money is appropriated to enrich bond-holders…We seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people,’ with which class it originated…We believe that the power of government—in other words, of the people—should be expanded…as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

The Populist Party began running candidates from national on down to local offices and had some successes, particularly in the sparsely populated Western states. But because populists were distrustful of the elites who controlled the power structures of society, their weapon of choice was to alter or amend constitutions of states and even the United States Constitution, thus circumventing the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies that stood in their way.

Between 1909 and 1919 populists successfully amended the Constitution an astounding four times. First, to enact a national income tax to curb the wealth inequalities brought about in the Industrial Revolution. Second, the popular election of U.S. Senators would, theoretically, ensure the Senate would be presided over by representatives of the people and not special interests. Third, the vice of alcohol, which was of particular concern to the often religious and morally zealous populists, was made illegal with prohibition. Finally, women’s suffrage expanded the franchise to an even larger share of the people.

My home state of Oklahoma, which gained statehood at the height of the populist era in 1907, was significantly influenced by the movement. Notre Dame history professor Walter Nugentsaid Oklahoma’s constitution “was a model of Populist-Progressivism, perhaps the fullest statement ever of Democratic agrarian radicalism.” At its ratification, the Oklahoma constitution was the most lengthy governing document of any government. President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was hesitant to sign the document, chiding that it was “not fit for publication”. To this day, many of the executive and legislative efforts in the State of Oklahoma are frustrated by an intensely complicated constitution intended to deprive elites of the ability to run the affairs of the people.

Populism vs. Progressivism? It’s Complicated

Nugent used the curious term “Populist-Progressivism” to describe the model used to establish Oklahoma’s constitution. But while this is a fair description in Oklahoma’s case, it also may misleadingly imply that populism and progressivism were the same things. What, then, is progressivism? Historian Joseph Tartakovsky writes that his fellow historians “still struggle to define it, except to agree, broadly, that it was a diverse national response to the strains of industrialization and urbanization between 1890 and 1917. Chronologically, it followed the Populist movement and preceded the New Deal, with links to both, yet also distinct from both.” That timeframe is open to debate as it somewhat overlaps the populist era and even today large swaths of the American Left describe themselves as “progressive”. But we’ll save that divergence for a future post.

To Tartakovsky the primary difference in progressivism was less about first principles and goals than it was tactics and tone. Tones that were “calm and middle-class by contrast to the frantic, farmer-led Populism.” Both movements were persuaded that the government had a role to play in protecting the interests of the people who were otherwise at the mercy of powerful special interests.

Historian Nugent solves the Populist-Progressive bifurcation by essentially equating them as one and the same, while acknowledging the difficulty of establishing a uniform definition to the movement. “Because Progressivism manifested itself in everything from railroad regulation to woman suffrage to immigration control to realist art and literature to the first real mass media and paved roads, the movement’s core theme has been hard to pin down,” admits Nugent. “‘Reform’ itself was that theme, vague as the term was and is. But much of the Progressive spirit lay in that very openness to change, that conviction that ‘something needs to be done’.”

Teddy Roosevelt: First of the Progressives

Teddy became president in that weird nebulous between the populist and progressive eras, making it further difficult to distinguish between them. The son of a wealthy New York City family with ties to Eastern establishment, Teddy was a strange champion for the common folk. However, his criticisms of Oklahoma’s “Populist-Progressive” constitution should not be taken to mean he was critical of the sentiments of the movement itself. He was, in fact, the first of America’s progressive presidents who heralded the virtues of the people and was critical of unchecked capitalist forces. Teddy’s views on how government might be used to help the people sound as if they came straight from the Omaha Platform itself:

“[This] does not represent centralization. It represents merely the acknowledgment of the patent fact that centralization has already come in business. If this irresponsible outside business power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public it can only be controlled in one way—by giving adequate power of control to the one sovereignty capable of exercising such power—the National Government.”

Teddy’s solution to the inequalities in wealth and power that plagued the Industrial Revolution was for the government to even the score. “[Teddy] spoke in the authentic Progressive way,” argues Nugent. “Private enterprises capable of exerting economic power over masses of people, irresponsibility—i.e., without responsibility to the people they controlled—had to be regulated by the representatives of those people.” Teddy’s idea of progress wasn’t to upend the idea of America as developed by the Founders, but to use the power of government to protect that idea from the new and growing threats to liberty in the form of powerful and entrenched business interests.

Woodrow Wilson: Critic of the Founders

Yet the next of the progressive presidents, Woodrow Wilson, very much would challenge the ideas of the American founding. For it was those ideas that, in Wilson’s views, put a needless constraint on government’s ability to act on the people’s interests. Conservative commentators such as Jonah Goldberg rarely mince words when describing Wilson’s views of the American founding:

“It is difficult to exaggerate Wilson’s arrogant and sovereign contempt for the system set up by the Founders. ‘The reformer is bewildered,’ he whined, by the need to persuade ‘a voting majority of several million heads.’ Elsewhere he scoffed, ‘No doubt, a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.’”

Wilson’s rhetoric represented uncharted territory for the Commander and Chief. Previous administrations may have differed sharply on the vision they claimed the Founders had intended for the nation, but they did not attempt to argue their vision was mistaken. Wilson’s argument against the Constitutional restraints placed on government by the Founders was that they fundamentally misunderstood the true nature of government:

“The Constitution was founded on the law of gravitation. The government was to exist and move by virtue of the efficacy of ‘checks and balances.’ The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. No living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live.”

Wilson’s Folly

Those who followed my blog might notice a peculiar similarity in Wilson’s description of government as organic life and the conservative notions of political society as a living organism from thinkers like Sir Roger Scruton and Edmund Burke (topics covered here). However, there is a remarkable difference in these seemingly similar notions. Scruton and Burke were describing the gradual process of human habitats growing and adapting, and how such gradual change allowed for a fuller understanding of Natural Law to take shape over time. They were not denying the permanent traits of human nature or the need for a check against otherwise arbitrary powers of the state.

Wilson, on the other hand, was arguing that individuals such as himself were sufficiently enlightened and that society had evolved to the point where the checks and balances placed on state power by the Founders were now a hinderance towards the sort of progress society needed. This was hardly the first time Wilson misapplied the teachings of his betters. As I discussed in a recent podcast with Jonah Goldberg, from Hegel to Lincoln to Darwin to Burke, Wilson was a master at transposing the teachings of great thinkers to lead him to the inevitable conclusion that the enlightened few ought to have power to progress the rest of us forward.

Admittedly, Wilson is not a sympathetic figure. Particularly in light of contemporary standards on racism and bigotry. Although, as this article from Vox points out, Wilson was extremely racist even by the standards of his time. As such, some on the Left might balk at me including Wilson in the progressive timeline. Nevertheless, Wilson’s legacy has had an oversized influence on the Left on down to today in that he was the first to successfully build a political movement that dared to question the traditional beliefs of the Founders. As such, progressivism has long been willing to question our traditions and take seriously the notion that progress might require a fundamental break with the past.

FDR: Progress on Steroids

This willingness to chart a new course was amplified further in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal which took place, somewhat ironically, a couple of decades after historians marked the end of the progressive era by 1917. “A good many Progressives who survived into the 1920s…could not accept the New Deal because for them it went too far toward statism, across the grain of their deep individualism,” explains Nugent. “But others did become New Dealers, seeking in the very different context of the 1930s Depression to work toward a more just and generous society.” Yet whether FDR can be classified by historians as the next iteration of progressivism or not, he certainly talked like a progressive:

“Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, [Wall Street bankers] have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truth.”

The advent of the Great Depression and World War II gave FDR the popular cover to expand the administrative state into an alphabet soup of new agencies that handled everything from work programs to social security. FDR fundamentally changed the relationship of the American people to their government. Never again would the state return to the limited scope of the pre-New Deal era.

The Progressive Paradox

Where does this leave us? Winding through the three progressive presidential administrations we see a common thread between Teddy, Wilson, and FDR that government ought to be empowered to help the people in their cause against an intrusive business class that threatened exploitation and advancing the few at the expense of the many. Teddy was the first president to speak in this authentic progressive manner. Wilson added to this idea by working to obliterate the traditional system of checks and balances that hampered the progressive understanding of reform. And FDR’s New Deal expanded the state’s reach far beyond anything that had ever come before.

Yet among these champions of the progressive mindset of fighting for the interests of the common folk lies a curious paradox: all three of these men did not live the lives of working-class Americans but hailed from some of the wealthiest, most elite circles in the country. And, while that alone would not preclude them from taking up the plight of the little guy, it is at least a curiosity that deserves some examination. And that paradox is where we’ll pick things up in Part 4.

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