First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

US '16: Who’s Progressive and who’s not?



US ’16: Who’s Progressive and who’s not?

The fight between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party's nomination has increasingly become one for the soul of their party. Will its voters choose someone who says he is a progressive and wants a political revolution, or someone who also labels herself a progressive, but says she is someone who gets things done? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the history of what a 'progressive' really means.

In recent weeks, the battle between the two Democratic Party candidates in America for their party’s presidential nomination increasingly seems to be hinging on who is (or, alternatively, is not) a progressive, and the implied point of view that being a progressive has become the litmus test of all things noble. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders now embraces the label of progressive (as opposed to his earlier choice of “democratic socialist”), now using that term as a political Excalibur sword to deal with his enemies. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton has taken to defining herself as a progressive as well (and away from her earlier identification as a hard-edged, political realist/moderate). But, now, she has morphed into the progressive who gets things done – apparently as opposed to some other kind of progressive.

Where did buzz over the word progressive come from? Why has the idea of being a progressive suddenly turned into an all-purpose political t-shirt – at least among Democrats? At this point it only remains to be seen if one of those chameleon-esque Republicans seeking their party’s nomination will eventually glom onto the term as well, as soon as one of them cinches their presidential nomination. When that happens, they will turn it into their being a responsible progressive, or perhaps even a conservative progressive. That seems easy enough for a political shape-shifter like Donald Trump, should he actually gain the nomination, and given his cycling through both major political parties as well as some time spent as a self-declared independent voter over the years. And don’t forget George W Bush’s riff as a “compassionate conservative”, whatever that meant.

This kind of seemingly off-the-wall thought should not be seen as beyond the realm of the possible, especially since the very idea of progressivism was, at its birth, significantly a Republican Party idea – or at least it was for one wing of that party. Being a progressive was an approach to government, rather than a specifically partisan policy – and not the creation of either party. Or as historian Alonzo Hamby defined it, progressivism was (and is) a “political movement that addresses ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from modernization of American society. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century.”

And as historian William Leuchtenburg added, “The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.”

At its heart, progressivism argued that the role of government was to rein in the excesses of businesses (and especially those increasingly powerful cartels) at the expense of the average citizen, to regulate businesses to prevent such excesses in future, to balance the power of government against the power of business, to implement laws and regulations about worker rights in their workplaces, to conserve the national environment, and to prise open the inner chambers of politics to the average citizen. Pushed by investigative journalists, the so-called “muck rakers” – like Upton Sinclair and his expose of the stockyards, The Jungle – progressives led the charge for what became a panoply of regulatory agencies and the increased use of the judiciary to weaken the power of cartels providing public services like long haul freight railways and intra-city commuter lines or the health and safety environment in industries like slaughter houses and meat packing plants. In terms of the political environment, the progressives also led the way for the use of popular voting over referenda on a wide variety of public policy choices, and the electoral primary system – important features of the contemporary political system.

Probably the best-known, most articulate progressive, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt, the reformist state legislator who eventually became vice president and then president when William McKinley was assassinated. And Roosevelt was, of course, a Republican. Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic president who replaced Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, was similarly seen as a progressive from within the Democrats. Roosevelt, increasingly unimpressed by Taft’s political orientation, had joined the 1912 presidential race as an independent progressive candidate, helping split the Republicans and thereby giving the election to Wilson. Interestingly, Roosevelt, while thoroughly progressive from his comfortable spot as a member of the nation’s old money, social elite, was seen as an aggressive protagonist on behalf of the average man. Simultaneously, though, he had an assertive international relations stance that might easily be labelled as an avowedly neo-conservative one if it was a presidential policy these days.

Meanwhile, Wilson largely continued many of Roosevelt’s progressive policies, although his values did not extend to race relations. Wilson insisted upon a thorough segregation of the civil service as well a distinctly non-due processes towards the rooting out radical socialists in the country – even to the point of expelling some of them from the country. In international terms, while Wilson pushed hard for the establishment of the League of Nations, he continued the country’s interventions in various Latin American nations of the Caribbean basin.

At its heart, the progressive movement was an alternative to the socialist agenda. Progressives argued for the pro-active use of governmental power in order to assert a balance that had gone askew with the rapid industrialization of the country and the growth of powerful industrial combines and cartels. But, importantly, progressivism was also a way to provide a way to preserve the country’s privately held big business sectors. Meanwhile, in response to that same transforming industrialization of the nation, various populist, socialist and still other more extreme efforts such as the International Workers of the World were all pushing for forms of nationalization and worker control of industry.

Importantly, progressives in the early part of the 20th century saw their political movement as a profoundly pragmatic one, rather than the messianic promise that was bound up in the nation’s socialist movements. A key idea for progressives was to win the legislative and judicial battles on a case-by-case basis, rather than pushing for an all-encompassing political revolution.

And so it is on to the contemporary war of words between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over who owns – or can own – progressivism banner and make it uniquely their own. Ultimately, Sanders is not, after all, calling for a government that will reassert a balance by trimming away the worst excesses of business. Instead, his pitch to voters is the sweeping away of the old, and setting off that political revolution (albeit still largely undefined) he keeps calling for in his stump speeches and debate appearances. His calls for the total replacement of the national health care system, his pledge to break up the nation’s big banks, to cancel student debt, and to make tertiary education free does not seem to be the stuff of those more traditional progressive values. Rather, these are the kinds of thing that are truer to his long-time political heritage. But would explaining such a political revolution in detail frighten the national political horses too much in a country where the bulk of the votes to gain a winning share are almost always found in the political centre?

Actually, while it may be hard to see Bernie Sanders engaging in the tough, sharp-elbowed legislative give and take necessary to achieve improvements in the regulatory environment, it seems so much easier to visualize him at a party in some bohemian neighbourhood in New York City back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They are dreaming of their new “Promised Land”, while Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” pours out of the stereo system in that smoke-filled apartment:

Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry
Hey, now it’s time for you and me
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, come on now we’re marching to the sea
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Who will take it from you, we will and who are we?
Well, we are volunteers of America (volunteers of America)
Volunteers of America (volunteers of America)
I’ve got a revolution
Got a revolution….”

By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s difficulties with effectively bearing the label of being a progressive, given the fact that Sanders has now seemingly succeeded in defining the landscape his way, is that, right before our astonished eyes, Clinton has been transformed into a darling of the establishment, that clubby world where the big boys parse out all the rewards. The fees for her many speeches for the big bank groups, while certainly not out of line with the fees other political high flyers have earned from many other similar groups and organizations over the years, still make her a very easy target as the plaything of the very banks Sanders has identified as enemy number one of the young, the middle and working classes.

All those reported details of contributions from some of the very financial institutions that draw the blame for the 2008 financial crisis are not helping her very much either. And as an exemplar of an approach that recognizes the political realities of achieving moderate progress negotiated through the current hyper-partisan legislative labyrinth, it seems Clinton is now portrayed as someone past her sell-by date who only wants to measure out dribbles of progress with a coffee spoon, rather than reaching for a socio-economic moon shot. Going forward, after her expected humiliation in New Hampshire’s primary election on 9 February, Hillary Clinton must now look deep inside herself to find the language to define why her pragmatism should inspire an appreciation for the possibilities of real politics, without the chimera of a political second coming. Going forward, this will be a much harder task for her than anyone in her camp could possibly have imagined just six months ago. DM

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shake hands in the midst of the Democratic presidential candidates debate sponsored by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted