Correction to This Article
A caption with an Oct. 9 Outlook article about Progressives of the early 20th century did not specify which Robert La Follette was pictured. It was Robert M. La Follette Jr. of Wisconsin, who won two of three U.S. Senate elections running as a Progressive. His father, Robert M. La Follette Sr., also a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, was a prominent early leader of the Progressive movement and a contemporary of the other two men featured in the illustration, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
The Era to Bring Back

By Joel Kotkin
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Hurricane Katrina did more than drown a city last month. It also exposed how water-logged partisan politics in the United States have become.

Conservative Republican attitudes toward planning, conservation and investment in basic infrastructure clearly contributed to the tragedy along the Gulf. But so did the failures of the corrupt, inefficient liberal Democratic administrations that have controlled cities like New Orleans for generations. Dominated by narrow, self-interested elites, America's political parties have built a dysfunctional system that's run aground on the constant conflict between two flawed ideologies.

Neither of these ideologies seems equipped to deal with the wrenching challenges we face. We need a new political model that rejects the narrow and sectarian for a broader notion of national interest, a politics of reason rather than one that appeals to peoples' fears. We need something like the early 20th-century Progressives.

Despite modern-day liberals' co-option of the term "progressive" as an equivalent of the "L" word, the early Progressive movement was not primarily a movement of the left. In fact, Progressives believed in a nonpartisan approach to governance. They were Democrats like Woodrow Wilson and Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette; political heirs to the Progressives later in the 20th century included California governors Earl Warren, a Republican, and Pat Brown, a Democrat.

As many owned property themselves, they naturally advocated not the redistribution of wealth but such middle-class measures as antitrust legislation and federal loans for farmer and homeowner mortgages. The Progressives were politically pragmatic rationalists who helped make this nation the most powerful and successful large society in world history. They fostered the creation of our great national and state parks, pushed the development of water and power systems, promoted agricultural conservation and state-supported education.

If anything can be said to define the Progressives, it was their commitment to governmental efficiency. They embraced neither the contemporary conservative notion that government could do no right, nor the current liberal conceit that governmental ineptitude is acceptable as long as it's in service of well-intentioned ideological causes or aggrieved minorities.

Their ideal, formed in reaction to the political corruption and corporate dominance of the era, was government operated in a businesslike and rational manner. The pro-labor New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served from 1934 to 1945, didn't hesitate to make exacting demands on public employees, leading some to liken him to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. As he famously proclaimed: "There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets."

The Progressive legacy provides an excellent framework for responding to the challenges facing 21st-century America. As we do today, the early 20th-century Progressives confronted a society beset by a widening chasm between classes and fearful of growing foreign competition. They addressed these challenges by fostering education and science, and also by modernizing basic infrastructure -- roads, bridges, public transit, water, ports and power systems. Many great construction projects of the 20th century were the result of their peculiar political vision.

Progressives thus speak directly to our contemporary predicament. California's infrastructure was once one of the most advanced in the world; today, Californians brace for brownouts every time the temperature rises. Los Angeles's often-clogged ports, the largest in the nation, are now threatened by competition from more modern facilities that have been proposed for Mexico's Baja California. Similar disrepair and underinvestment stretches nationwide, encompassing everything from our bridges to the systems that provide clean water to our cities.

Our largely dysfunctional public education and training systems make us increasingly vulnerable to emerging challengers like China and India. American teenagers routinely rank well below students in other advanced nations in math skills, while businesses complain that they simply can't find enough skilled workers. America's unique economic and political strengths have so far allowed us to escape a reckoning, but how long will this be possible?

Neither major political party today seems capable of addressing these concerns. Like conservatives a century ago, the modern Republican Party can't seem to separate parochial corporate interest from the nation's larger interests. As shown by their often reckless, record spending, today's Bush conservatives embrace market principles only selectively, and usually when it benefits their core backers in the largest private companies. At the same time, their flirtation with extreme fundamentalists has gotten in the way of promoting scientific and technological competitiveness.

These failures could leave the Republican Party on the brink of a historic defeat. Yet the predominant liberal Democratic alternative appears no more capable of stepping up to the plate. Some Democrats may describe themselves as "progressives," but most are simply products of narrow interest-group liberalism.

They reflect a mutation of progressivism that evolved during and after the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt, who came to office as a self-described Progressive, found himself forced to deal with the Depression and World War II. To win the war, the peace and subsequent elections, he and his Democratic successors needed to bring powerful forces such as industrial unions and large businesses over to their side. If the old Progressives prided themselves on giving preference to no one, as historian Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic study, "The Age of Reform," the emerging liberal broker state "offered favors to everyone."

In later decades, the civil rights and environmental movements accelerated the Democratic left's focus on concentrating power and emerged, along with the increasingly powerful public employee unions, as the core constituents of an interest-group liberalism.

Over time, this liberalism has fallen out of touch with the predominant realities of American life. Progressives came not only from elite cities and universities, but directly from the Main Streets, schoolhouses and churches of the country's smaller towns and villages. In contrast, contemporary liberals increasingly reflect the narcissism of so-called "progressive" activists in affluent places such as San Francisco, Manhattan, Seattle, Portland and Boston.

As the Stranger, a Seattle weekly put it, activists in these cities perceive themselves as "islands of sanity, liberalism and compassion" compared to the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas where "people are fatter and slower and dumber." The prevailing urban liberal prescriptions for America reflect their prejudices. Many, like the patrician Al Gore, have campaigned for "anti-sprawl" planning measures that directly threaten the home-owning middle-class aspirations -- and jobs -- of millions of Americans.

Finally, contemporary liberalism displays a critical indifference to notions of discipline, self-reliance and other traditional American moral or religious ideals. In contrast, the lexicon of the Progressives was full of old-fashioned values such as patriotism, the role of the citizen, the importance of law and character, conscience, morals, service, duty and shame.

This lapse in moral conviction may be the most difficult problem for liberal Democrats to overcome. Without a clearly stated notion of right and wrong, or a sense of balance and discipline, no serious reform program can succeed. Even in a post-industrial era, suggested the late social thinker Daniel Bell, the fate of societies still revolves around "a conception of public virtue" and how best to serve the overall public good.

In contrast to the sad alternatives of failed conservatism and interest-group liberalism before us, traditional Progressivism offers enormous promise. But a progressive response cannot be only programmatic; to be effective it also has to have a political strategy. Fortunately, there are helpful trends. Most opinion surveys suggest that Americans increasingly distrust both major parties -- much like the turn-of-the-last-century electorate.

And there are powerful issues upon which Progressive reformers -- in either party -- could build with voters, including addressing middle-class concerns about energy dependence, the crumbling infrastructure and an education system that's underfunded by Republicans but whose necessary reform is opposed by most Democrats.

Social, demographic and economic trends may also contribute to a neo-progressive movement. Both unions and the large corporate establishment -- measured by employment -- have shrunk as portions of the electorate. The self-employed working in the private economy now outnumber union members by 3 to 4 million. Independent and pragmatic by nature, the entrepreneurial, self-employed and professional classes resemble the very classes that nurtured the first progressive movement and could be the key to its 21st-century revival.

We've already seen their political imprint in campaigns by maverick politicians ranging from John McCain and Bill Bradley to Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although none of these figures has made a true breakthrough, nor offered a coherent case for a new Progressivism, they may be harbingers of a future market for innovative, independent politicians. Let's hope so.

Author's e-mail : jkotkin@pacbell.net

Joel Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The City: A Global History" (Modern Library).

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