"You are the heirs of one of the country's great traditions -- the progressive movement that started late in the l9th century and remade the American experience piece by piece until it peaked in the last third of the 20th century...Its aim was to keep blood pumping through the veins of democracy when others were ready to call in the mortician...While the social dislocations and meanness that galvanized progressives in the 19th century are resurgent, so is the vision of justice, fairness, and equality. That's a powerful combination if only there are people around to fight for it. The battle to renew democracy has enormous resources to call upon - and great precedents for inspiration." - Bill Moyers, The Progressive Story of America
I. Opening Statements.
Where I do definitively side with Nader - and progressives in general, is in staunchly defending citizens from Corporate Power. And this is where I have my big philosophical break with the don't tread on me anti-government Right. When it comes to live and let live social issues I'm all for libertarianism. But history has shown us that the absence of strong government does not create an edenic utopia where individuals flourish, as some right-wingers would have you believe. Rather, as we saw in the Gilded Age, corporate interests soon occupy the power vacuum left by a weak federal government.
Indeed, it was a Republican president -- Teddy Roosevelt -- who first popularized the solution put forth by Herbert Croly and others that a strong federal government had to be the necessary corrective to corporate power, and thus he molded the "New Nationalism" movement of his day. Basically, he realized that government had to be as big or bigger than the corporations to effectively protect the average American citizen from undue harm. (The other major Progressive solution of the time, the decentralizing anti-monopolism of Louis Brandeis, argued the converse: it asserted that businesses should be broken up and made small enough that they could be counterbalanced by a small federal government.)
One of the biggest problems with Roosevelt's approach, unfortunately, is that over the last century corporations have seen the ball game for what it is and fused themselves inexorably to our institutions of government, vis a vis lobbyists, donations, etc. etc. (There's not necessarily a conspiracy here: Corporations, like other groups, were following their interest. Indeed, this process could have started innocently enough as a necessary move to coordinate industry behind the WWI and WWII war efforts, growing to become what Dwight Eisenhower famously deemed the "military-industrial complex.")
At any rate, my feeling is - big or small government - the system is currently busted. Perhaps the technologies of the Information Age can be used effectively to decentralize power in Washington and still retain an efficient and sufficiently strong federal government. But it will matter little if the overpowering influence of corporate money isn't significantly decreased, if not eliminated, from the political process.
Now, let me emphasize here: I don't think business is necessarily bad, nor do I think that corporations and government are always necessarily opposed. But there are enough times when a narrow corporate interest is at odds with the public interest that our government should be strong and independent enough to advocate the concerns of the people first.
In sum, corporations appeal to our wants and desires as consumers. Government should appeal to our needs and hopes as citizens. And, in the final analysis, the latter should always trump the former.
Which brings me to my final point: why I consider myself a progressive rather than a liberal. First off, I don't make the distinction to defend myself against the ridiculous right-wingers who have, in a feat of true Orwellian linguistics, somehow made the word "liberal" synonomous with "pinko unAmerican tax and spend communist." Better a liberal than a conservative anyday, in my book.
But anyway, on to my point. To borrow from Michael Sandel and Alan Brinkley, modern liberalism (not classical "don't tread on me" liberalism, which we now call libertarianism) is rooted in the experience of the government-business partnership of WWII and is primarily concerned with a value-neutral federal government ensuring the equal distribution of rights. Meaning that Washington doesn't take much of a stake in fostering any particular value in the people as a whole. Instead, it is committed to ensuring equal justice to each segment of American society, be they by gender, race, ethnicity, or occupation. In other words, the concept of the public interest is subsumed by variety of competing interests, and it's the government's job to act as a honest "broker state" ensuring fairness for all. Modern liberalism's greatest success, of course, was the great and still unfinished civil rights revolutions of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's.
Progressivism, on the other hand, is rooted in the Progressive Era of TR and Woodrow Wilson, and is primarily concerned with fostering some kind of virtue in the electorate and in preserving the prerequisites of citizenship. What's the difference? When liberals talk of competing interests, progressives speak of the public interest. When liberals talk about the rights of individuals and the concerns of groups, progressives talk about the obligations of citizens and the needs of communities. While liberalism as a philosophy is value-neutral with respect to corporate power (they serve the needs of consumer-Americans), progressives want to know how this corporate power adversely affects citizenship. In the liberal view, government mediates betwen groups of people, while, in the progressive view, the people are the government. In the progressive view, carmakers, farmers, breadbakers, and gun owners; Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, we are all citizens.
TR and Woodrow Wilson were progressives. JFK and LBJ were liberals. FDR, crazy, wonderful experimentalist that he was, was both and neither. When faced with the Great Depression, that sucker would - and did - try anything.
These two strands of public philosophy - liberalism and progressivism - aren't mutually exclusive by any means, nor are they only represented in one party (although the Republicans' guiding philosophy in everything but social matters, since Goldwater in '64, has primarily been "classical liberalism," a.k.a. just leave me alone.)
Now, there is one major problem with progressivism as I've rendered it so far. Due to its concern with fostering some specific virtue in citizens, progressivism can be a coercive philosophy (in which people are "forced to be free," in the words of Rousseau) if misapplied. As y'all know from reading this weblog, I'm not much in favor of pious virtuecrats deriding sex, violence, and 50 Cent for our nation's ills, nor of the government abridging individual freedoms to save individuals from themselves. But, as John Stuart Mill noted in On Liberty, one virtue that government can get behind and thus sidestep this coercive trap is independence and self-cultivation.
In other words, in my view of progressivism, the government has two main virtues it should try to cultivate in each citizen:
One should be the necessary education to think independently and creatively for oneself. To ensure that each person in America has the tools and the space to follow their own path and arrive at their own destination (I could go into a whole nother digression here involving the transcendentalists, the Beat, and the peculiarly Zen nature of American life (see Robert Thurman, Stanley Cavell), but I get a sense I've been going on for way too long here anyway.)
The second virtue that government should foster in its citizens should be the habits and techniques of deliberation, a.k.a. the skills of democracy. We should teach our children (once they reach an appropriate age) not only how to think for themselves, but how to engage each other in thoughtful discourse. How to challenge each other's opinions and statements in a non-personal way. Basically, how to debate each other about the public good as citizens of a functioning republic must.
I know it all sounds a bit academic and removed from reality, but, what can I say? This is where my idealism (or what vestiges of it that survive this election cycle) lies. Fortunately, neoprogressivism is a nascent but full-fledged movement in our country and in the Democratic party these days, thanks to communitarian writers like Sandel, Benjamin Barber, and Amitai Etzioni, historians like Brinkley...and politicians like Bill Bradley.
My, I've rambled on today, haven't I? Now back to your regularly scheduled weblog.