Is The Time Ripe for a Progressive Revival?
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“Where do we go from here?” asks Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in his article, “A Question of Power,” in The American Prospect, April 23, 2001. An ambiguous and questionable election, a president who ignores the fact that he lost the popular vote by more than half a million, a cabinet of corporate retreads and right-wing ideologues, and a near statistical tie in Congress creates a tricky terrain on which to tread.
The Bush administration, Schlesinger goes on, “is already playing pro-business hardball, canceling workplace ergonomic standards, endorsing the pro-creditor bankruptcy bill, recanting the campaign pledge to force power plants to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide.” David Broder, hardly a left-wing commentator, writes, “…money interests prevailed over the public interest.” In the judiciary Mr. Bush may well pay off the religious right.
In economically contented times like the 1990’s class-and-interest politics recedes and cultural politics comes to the fore. Religion, morality, ethnicity, abortion, gun control, homosexuality, school prayer, capital punishment, and flag burning are issues that agitate the electorate. Both parties have succumbed to the cultural temptation–the Republicans to the evangelical right, the Democrats to the politically correct left. Perhaps, Schlesinger suggests, with economic troubles apparently ahead and an administration so firmly in the hands of the corporate community, the time has come for the revival of the Progressive tradition.
Progressivism sprang from the cities, while Populism was an agrarian movement. But Populists prepared the way by breaking with the basic Jeffersonian dogma that the government that governs least governs best. Fearful of the rising power of the large corporations, the Populists declared in 1892, “We believe that the powers of government–in other words, of the people–should be expanded…to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”
The Progressive Era, the first decade of the twentieth century, took Jefferson head on. Regarding unaccountable corporate power as the great threat to democracy, President Theodore Roosevelt argued that “only the national government” could exercise the “needed control” over the economy. “This does not represent centralization,” he continued. “It represents merely the acknowledgement of the patent fact that centralization has already come in business. If this irresponsible outside power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public, it can be controlled in only one way–by giving adequate power of control to the one sovereignty capable of exercising such power–the National Government.”
Woodrow Wilson, too, abandoned Jeffersonian dogma. “Without the watchful interference, the resolute interference of the government, there can be no fair play between individuals and such powerful institutions as the trusts.” Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in 1933 that “The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson.”
“The heart of the Progressive tradition is opposition to corporate rule,” says Schlesinger. “The national government, the Progressives felt, was the key to the preservation of democracy. It was in particular the protector of the powerless. The Jeffersonian illusion was to say that local government was more responsive because it was ‘closer’ to the people. But local government has mostly been government by the locally powerful. The way the locally powerless have asserted their human and constitutional rights has been through appeal to the national government…national authority was essential to defend the rights of minorities and individuals against the aggressions of local minorities.” The national government has affirmed the Bill of Rights against local vigilantism. It has protected the public lands, forests and waterways from local greed. It has civilized industry, secured the rights of labor organizations, improved life in the countryside, and provided a decent living for the old. Above all, it has pressed for racial justice against local bigotry.
Herbert Hoover and Friedrich Hayek said that governments go totalitarian when governments acquire excessive power under the pretext of doing good for their citizens. This thesis is historical nonsense. Impotent democratic government, not unduly potent democratic government, has laid the foundation for totalitarianism. Fascist and communist regimes arose not because democratic government was too powerful but because it was too weak.
One wonders why Hoover and other enemies of the welfare state believed that government aid to corporations is wise and virtuous while government aid to farmers or workers or the unemployed or the elderly is vicious and leads to collectivism. It also seems odd that so many of those who denounce “statism” when it means social protection of the poor or prohibition of destructive business practices are at the same time the most zealous advocates of statism in the sinister sense of using the government to crack down on citizens thinking unpopular thoughts. They demand censorship, book banning, loyalty oaths, witch-hunts, expulsion of liberal professors, etc.
Public solicitude, it is said, corrupts the poor by depriving them of that economic insecurity that the well-off hold to be the essential stimulus to achievement. “The poor need most of all the spur of their poverty,” writes George Gilder, right-wing publicist. The affluent apply this argument more to the poor than to themselves. If the rich really believed in the salubrious effects of economic insecurity, they would favor a 100% inheritance tax so that their own children would not be deprived of this great moral benefit. But–we all know how the rich feel about that tax.
The record shows that the intervention of national authority has given a majority of Americans more personal dignity and liberty than they ever had before. The real inciters of class warfare are the CEOs who pay themselves more in a day than their workers make in a year. Laissez-faire zealots and market fundamentalists somehow don’t get it. They still don’t understand that it is precisely the intervention of the national government that has rescued capitalism from the dreaded Marxist fate. The unfettered market that conservatives worship systematically undermines the values conservatives hold dear: stability, morality, family, community, work, discipline, and delayed gratification. The greed and glitter of the marketplace, the exploitation of prurient appetites, the anything-goes psychology, the short-termism, the ease of fraud, the devil-take-the-hindmost ethos–all these are at war with professed conservative ideals.
Even premier capitalists are appalled by what runaway capitalism has wrought. Financier and philanthropist George Soros observes, “Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society.” The ”uninhibited pursuit of self-interest” produces “intolerable inequities and instability.”
“The untrammeled market is not likely to solve the problems that assail us,” asserts Schlesinger. “By itself the market will neither improve our schools nor protect our environment nor rebuild our infrastructure nor civilize our cities nor provide all our citizens with medical care nor protect consumers and investors from business deception nor achieve racial justice nor reduce the growing disparities in wealth and opportunity.”
“Governments,” Tocqueville wrote, “must apply themselves to restore to men that love of the future with which religion and the state of society no longer inspire them.”
“The great strength of democracy is its capacity for self-correction. The work of the Progressives is far from finished,” says Schlesinger.”
Resurrecting Utah Democrats
Salt Lake County Councilman Joe Hatch addressed the July General Meeting of the Humanists of Utah on the prospect of a miracle: the “resurrection” of the Utah Democratic Party. Councilman Hatch shared statistics and strategies, models and memories from art and science of campaigning.
Things are not as dismal as they seem for Utah Democrats-if they could only move 5% of the Republicans to the Democratic party, and another 5% of the Republicans to the Independents, “Democrats could be competitive.”
According to Hatch, there are at present three models of how the Democratic Party can gain in numbers in Utah:
- The David Magleby Model (after the Political Science Professor at Brigham Young University) requires that the Democrats only run very active Mormons, and recruit heavily from LDS Church ranks, especially positions of leadership; it also requires that the Utah Democrats eschew the social liberalism of the National Democratic Party (abortion, gay rights, etc.).
- The Ted Wilson/Randy Horiuchi Model (after the Salt Lake City Mayor and County Commissioner). Attack the Republicans. In the tradition of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry”-tell them the truth and they’ll think it’s hell. Never miss an opportunity to point out the “right wing whackos.”
- The David Spatafore Model (after the Utah lobbyist), in which you abandon the big seat races (Governor, Senate, Congress) and concentrate on the state legislature. The problem with this was recently illustrated in Congressman Cannon’s race. Because there was no Democratic opposition, the Congressman went west to Nevada to campaign against fellow Mormon, Democrat Senator Harry Reid. Reid is now one of the leading Senators in the majority Party in the Senate, but he won the election by only fifty votes.
The Councilman discussed the merits and limitations of each of the models and its prescription for success. After all of the models were considered, his recommendation is for the Democratic Party to concentrate on economic issues. He recounted the election of 1932, when LDS Church leadership was very vocal against the direction of the “New Deal” proposed by candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In spite of the direction from the Brethren, Utahns turned out to vote in overwhelming numbers for FDR and his programs.
This bit of history illustrates that it is in the area of economic justice, Joe Hatch claims, that the Democrats will have the greatest appeal to active Latter-day Saints.
Hatch also disputes the idea that there is direct LDS Church domination of the state’s government. “It’s more a matter of the culture.” He cautions would-be hecklers of the LDS Church: “The one thing you must not do is publicly embarrass the LDS Church. If you do, the community will turn against you.” He recommends a conciliatory approach in the spirit of compromise.
“They are pragmatic men,” he said.
The Councilman left the Humanists with a picture of Realpolitik in Utah, but also with the hope for a strategy for a new progressive movement.
The Bioethical Challenge
Abortion. Bionics. Cloning. Embryonic stem cells. Euthanasia. Gay rights. Genetic engineering. Organ harvesting. Sex selection.
This is a short list from a much longer one: the bioethical land mines left behind by our explosive, accelerating technology. Denial won’t help. Relying on the traditional views of the sacred and skeptical-scriptures and secular law-will not help.
The degree of confusion was brought home recently, when conservative LDS Senator Orrin Hatch found himself under fire from the Religious Right because he advocated further research using embryonic stem cells.
Unfortunately, the religious rhetoric often is impenetrable. In the July 20 Utah County Journal, columnist Grace Conlon asks, “Shouldn’t we be relying on a higher authority to call the shots on which couples become parents and which do not? Surely human judgment on this cannot compare with what the Almighty has planned for us.” And, “With the increasing numbers of orphaned and deserted youngsters all around the world, perhaps Heavenly Father, in His omnipotent wisdom, has planned for childless couples to take up this calling. If He doesn’t send children to some of us, there must be a good reason. Are we to second-guess Him?”
My dear Ms. Conlon, you may have noticed that we don’t all have the same “Him”; and, frankly, we all “play God” whenever we breed flowers, livestock…and ourselves. Life and death is in our hands. It is up to us. Now what? We are left with our compassion and our honesty and our ability to learn. The science fiction future is here, now; turning away in terror from things undreamed of in the Bible gets us nowhere.
Pale Blue Dot
Longtime readers of these pages may recall that I have previously reviewed five other books by Carl Sagan. It has been very difficult for me to choose a “favorite” work other than what I am currently reading. The thing I found most illuminating about Pale Blue Dot is that, contrary to what I previously believed, Sagan’s greatest talent may not have been his ability to explain science to the masses. His accomplishments as an astronomer in general and as a directing consultant with the American space agencies and projects are phenomenal.
My understanding of our Solar System was greatly enhanced by reading this book. Sagan was convinced that one of best ways, perhaps the only way, to preserve human life is to explore and populate other planets (specifically Mars), moons (Titan first), asteroids, and comets. He described how, with technology available today, it might be possible to terraform Mars. The cost for a single country or corporation is prohibitive, but working together globally is a recurrent theme for Sagan. Perhaps most imaginative is a plan to occupy comets in the Oort Cloud hopping from one to another where eventually it is speculated that our Solar System’s Oort Cloud would occasionally interact with a comet cloud of another star system and the chance to move into other solid planets.
The June edition of this newsletter contained a quote from this book written by Carl Sagan (Random House, 1994). Here are a couple more quotes in an attempt to whet your interest enough to obtain a copy for your personal reading:
The emerging picture of the early Solar System does not resemble a stately progression of events designed to form the Earth. Instead, it looks as if our planet was made, and survived, by mere lucky chance, amid unbelievable violence. Our world does not seem to have been sculpted by a master craftsman. Here too, there is no hint of a Universe made for us.
And from the book’s conclusion:
Once the first children are born off Earth; once we have bases and homesteads on asteroids, comets, moons, and planets; once we’re living off the land and bringing up new generations on other worlds, something will have changed forever in human history…I believe that it is healthy-indeed, essential-to keep our frailty and fallibility firmly in mind. I worry about people who aspire to be “god-like.” But as for a long-term goal and a sacred project, there is one before us. On it the very survival of our species depends…Peopling other worlds unifies nations and ethnic groups, binds the generations, and requires us to be both smart and wise. It liberates our nature and, in part, returns us to our beginnings.