Political conditions today look similar to the dawn of progressivism.
The original Progressive Era (1900-1920) addressed the concentration of economic power which threatened to influence the exercise of political power. The disparity in wealth on conspicuous display during the Gilded Age paralleled the tremendous economic growth of the industrial age enabled by the development of railroads; much as the growth in the internet has enabled the growth of high tech and social media empires today.
This Progressive Era expressed legitimate concerns for the problems brought by industrialization, urbanization and immigration. The adoption of the income tax to replace tariffs as the main source of revenue meant the wealthy would pay a much larger share of the burden of government. Tariffs had placed the dominant portion of the revenue burden on consumers. The 17th Amendment made Senators popularly elected rather than appointed from state legislatures. This was designed to reduce the influence big money had at the state level on the appointment of Senators while expanding direct democracy. Trust busting pervaded the Progressive Era to reduce concentrations of business ownership and wealth.
Progressivism also served middle class interests for protection from the new giant corporations and trusts. The controversy of the movement, however, was centered more on the means than its ends; progressive intellectuals saw the constitution as an anachronism unsuited to the demands of the day; overly restrictive of central authority and presidential power.
I view the century as three waves of progressivism punctuated by reactions. The First Era from 1900 to 1920 ended with the elections of Harding and Coolidge and the 1920s. The second period from 1930 to 1980 spanned the New Deal and the Great Society and was extended by the demands of WW II and the Cold War. Its consequences were delayed by the devastation of our global competition, but the combination of policy failures and the recovery of global competitors led to the stagnation of the 1970s and the end of the second period. Government came to be viewed as the cause of our problems rather than the solution. This reaction lasted from Reagan through Clinton and the third wave came with George Bush and Barack Obama.
The rise of Trump has illuminated a set of conditions that looks remarkably like the first progressive era. The rise of a new high-tech oligarchy has raised concerns of cultural as well as political influence. Trump’s rise was propelled by the concerns of the blue-collar workers that had been abandoned by the identity politics of the Democrats and neglected by the Republicans. The Democrats had become a coalition of urban minorities, public sector unions who directly benefited from big government, academics and the coastal media centers. Democrats in small midwestern towns were centered on their local communities and paid little attention to how distant their priorities had become from the national Democratic party until they discovered Trump. These Trump Democrats had much greater influence on Trump’s victory than any Russian or alt-right efforts, real or imagined, according to Stephanie Muravchik in their book bearing that title.
A hollowed out middle class and a growing concentration of new businesses has brought us full circle but now we have a huge and expensive central government that has sought to avert these conditions for over a century.
There was an element of the moral imperative in the first era that culminated in the 18th Amendment, prohibition. That moral component exhibits itself in the current progressive iteration in the form of the various woke ideologies of social justice. Fred Siegel notes that this current wave of progressivism is more interested in moral progress than material progress, becoming in a sense “progressives against progress.”
Is Trump a progressive? He is certainly unbeholden to old ideologies as were the Pragmatists of the first Progressive Era, and he certainly believed in the wide use of presidential power. While his judicial appointments were more traditional Constitutional conservatives, his other actions were a mixed bag of executive power and populism.
One can view the original Progressive Era as an extension of the populism of William Jennings Bryan or as a reaction to it. Richard Hofstadter viewed the Progressive Era (1900-1916 in his view- ending with the entry into WWI) as the rise of one special interest to combat another, an evolutionary step from the populism of the late 19th century to the grand achievement of the New Deal. He did not live to see the exhaustion of the New Deal/ Great Society Era and the second reaction which came under the Reagan Era.
Some Influential progressive intellectuals felt betrayed by Woodrow Wilson in his second term (1916) with the suspension of critical liberties well noted in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. This was when the term ‘progressive’ transitioned into ‘liberal’ as we now know it, a distinct change from the classical liberalism of our founding. FDR also pivoted to the term ‘liberal’ even though the New Deal contained most of the elements of the progressive hard liners like Bob de Follette. It has become common to use liberal and progressive interchangeably.
The rise of the new technical plutocracy is different from the monopolists of the first era; relaying less on direct political influence and more on influence through control of a new media. We have a sharply growing tech economy with a class of voters being left behind, expressing their anger in the voting booth. The rot of alcoholism has been replaced by the rot of the opioid epidemic.
While the second Wilson Administration pushed illiberal policies such as the Sedition Act of 1918, today we have voluntarily embraced illiberal means to achieve liberal ends. I find this even more disturbing. The cancel culture and politically correct curbs on free speech has eroded legitimate debate and made the voting booth the last remaining safe space. This is magnified by a media that has replaced objective journalistic standards will the protection of partisan narratives.
Why has the growth of our central government and the evolution of progressive ideology failed to prevent the same problems that led to the first Progressive Era?
A dynamic economy will always result in inequality of some degree. The expanded marketing network of the railroad made it easier for central locations of industrial power to reach distant consumers. Steel mills in Pittsburg replaced blacksmiths in Nebraska. This concentration led to developments of greater efficiencies, dramatic growth in productivity and a widening of inequality. The expanded marketing network of the internet and cellular technology has had a similar effect propelling those who quickly master this new market to build insurmountable advantages. The hierarchy has flattened to #1 and everybody else.
The nature of inequality has also changed, and inequality is no longer synonymous with poverty. There is a distinct difference between the absolute poverty of 1900 and the relative poverty today. When the progressive income tax and safety net transfer payments are considered, income inequality shrinks dramatically. The destitution of severe poverty experienced in 1900 has been nearly eliminated. If Bill Gates walks into a room of executives with six figure compensations, the inequality in the room just skyrocketed, but poverty did not suddenly become an issue.
What the consumer has lagged in wage growth they have gained in personal debt. In 1900 few consumers had 90% mortgage loans, auto loans, or credit card debt. This burden has made economic downturns exceptionally burdensome on both the consumers and the lenders, making the taming of the economic cycle a progressive illusion. It has also fueled the tremendous growth in the national debt made tolerable by permanently low interest rates which also increases inequality and economic vulnerability.
The media has become a proxy for political influence. When the press is no longer an objective watchdog, but a partisan player the corruption of a Congressman is no longer dependent on explicit bribery. The influence peddling of the early Progressives Era has become institutionalized as regulated lobbying.
The replacement of an aristocracy of wealth with a meritocracy has proven to lead to the same results; one group achieving power at the expense of another. Academics, public sector unions, and the coastal media elites have achieved power through the prism of identity politics that has excluded the blue-collar workers of the industrial era.
The increase in central power has solved some problems but replaced them with others. The ability to tame economic cycles and mitigate human shortcomings is limited no matter how big our government grows or how much it spends. The more we depend on central government to solve local and personal problems, “to mend every tear in the social fabric with a permanent bureaucracy” (Henninger), the more we will be disappointed.