from the notebooks…
You do not truly understand an idea until you can articulate its flaws or its limits. This is particularly true with social, economic and political ideas, but it should apply to any idea you support.
Similarly, you cannot understand any idea you innately oppose unless you can articulate its benefits, at least in the minds of its adherents.
The real and perceived failures of commerce and capitalism in the Gilded Age of the late 19t5h century and again in 1929 drove the public and into the arms of reform. The extremists of socialism and communism (and anarchy) saw capitalism as a failed system. Seduced by reform, they could clearly identify the flaws that surrounded them but could not visualize the shortcomings of the solutions they championed.
Progressive leaders saw the benefits of the economic growth in the expansion of the railroads and the connection of vast new markets in the west and the millions of immigrants that needed the stuff of a new life. Protected by two oceans our growth was relatively protected from the instabilities and wars of Europe.
American Progressives saw the flaws in the socialism sailing to our shores by the disruption they left behind in Europe. Progressives sought many of the objectives of socialism but pursued evolutionary rather than revolutionary means. Progressives also sought social justices and economic equality but retained a respect for the Constitution and its limits of government power.
In spite of heated debate, we have retained a theological kind of respect for the Constitution, and like the bible we debate its true meaning while retaining deep respect for its words and the ideas behind them.
Clarity in words and thoughts decay over time. When opposing views retain respect for the same words and principles, those ideas become ripe for interpretation, transposed to meet our current personal and political objectives as much as we may profess fidelity to its conception.
Progressivism can be seen as an American restraint on socialist impulses. Conservatives may see it as a socialist contamination of our republic. Progressives saw equality before the law inadequate in a society of growing economic inequality. They feared the excesses of democracy less than the founders and assumed a general will or a will of the people that proved to be a myth. The factions noted by the founders and framers of the constitution did not dissolve, they multiplied.
Some early Progressive thinkers contested Constitutional principles of individualism and natural and individual rights, but the durability of the movement came from making peace with the constraints of the constitution; working within its structure and finding new meanings in its words while adapting them to a world the framers could never have foreseen.