I was asked last night how I described a Progressive-  

The Progressives as described by Wilson believed that the Constitution was deeply flawed; that natural and individual rights were not permanent fixtures of our system of government, that they were merely contingent on the times and served the needs of the expansion west but were no longer relevant. Wilson saw the Constitution as an unnecessary restraint on the proper use of government to fix the ills of society, rather than a tool to protect  the cause of liberty and individual rights. I believe this attitude remains with today’s progressives.

Wilson also believed in greater democracy, pushing for popular election of Senators. He spoke of a unified will (a fascist sounding term to me) obscuring any difference among the electorate of what should be done and how.  Yet he also spoke of the need for a strong leader to tell the electorate what they wanted. He described it as I would describe a populist demagogue though that is my word and not his.

While pushing for greater democracy he also believed that the administrative state should be kept away from politics and run by an educated elite.  The dark side of this was the rise of eugenics; a movement facilitated by a new educated elite with eugenics programs in over 350 colleges. Wilson’s own racism is well known.

Before Wilson the Progressives stood against the power of the large trusts and corporation and the corruption that sometimes followed. They stood for regulations of food and drugs, worker’s safety and benefits for workers such as workmen’s comp and shorter hours.  Teddy Roosevelt weighed the benefits accruing from many large corporations against the power and problems emanating from them. Brandeis thought all big companies should be broken up; but he also wanted the government to adopt many of the ‘scientific management ‘techniques of the new big industrial entities.

I consider Robert DeFollette a founder of the Progressive movement. Teddy believed in the power of the federal government particularly in the area of National Parks and resources, but he stood strong on the need for individual responsibility. TR evolved into a Progressive while in office.  It was Wilson who created the intellectual framework for what it became.

FDR framed the movement in different terms- citing the need  to use the power of government to EXTEND the benefits of the constitution rather than to oppose the intellectual basis of the constitution. (TR spoke of the Progressive movement similarly.) FDR was able to exchange the term ‘liberal’ for progressive.  Thus the classical liberal that stood for individual rights and a smaller state became the new conservative and the progressive became the modern liberal.

Under FDR and though LBJ the administrative state joined with the welfare state to further the size of government.

The progressive movement was fed by the creation of Keynesian macroeconomics which relied on the government to manage the economic cycles, and by the school of Pragmatism (capital P) which dismissed political and economic principles and theories to the needs of the moment.

IMO  the early progressives sought needed changes and struggled to do so in the context of the constitutional structures.  But when they sought to change the structure of the government and expand the administrative state they stumbled and burdened economic growth unnecessarily. This was largely covered by the needs of the War including the cold war and the market advantage we had for decades after.  The Reagan Clinton Years was largely a rejection of the Progressive mindset but more accurately only kept it from advancing for a few decades.

W Bush and Obama are the start of the third stage.

In my biased mind the Progressive movement today is characterized by:

  1. Excessive regulatory state
  2. Welfare state with the inability to articulate any limits
  3. Pragmatism and short term focus
  4. Crony Capitalism
  5. Centralized decision making ( as opposed to federalism)
  6. Moral Supremacy- ends justify the means thinking- Gruberism- inaccurate and biased self-serving analysis
  7. Political correctness. Intellectual intolerance.

I think the movement has difficulty distinguishing the need to update the mechanics of the constitution from the respect and preservation of its moral and intellectual roots.

The regulatory state needs fewer, clearer and more strongly enforced rules.  We cannot return to the welfare state of 1935, but there must be some clearly reinforced limits. After 100 years of progressivism, I am not sure how much progress we have made in corruption, inequality and reducing poverty.

Poverty has been redefined up- there are far fewer cases of physical deprivation, but at the expense of soul crushing dependency and personal stagnation.

And finally this Keynesian idea that the economy and its players can be controlled and manipulated like the levers and valves of a machine is exhausted. The debt must come under control.