A Biased, and Limited History of Modern Progressivism

An article in The Nation gave me pause and inspired me to thought. It highlights FDR’s 1944 call for, to quote the magazine, “a second Bill of Rights-an Economic Bill of Rights-that would include the right to employment, housing, education, health care, and an economy free of unchecked corporate and monopoly power”.

A good and noble vision this, and as all too many good and noble things a casualty. Since that time, a neoliberal element rhas ridsen to power in the Democratic Party and chosen to make concessions to conservative economic notions. This was an unwise effort to maintain political power in the face of what was assumed to be a public trending toward accepting the consolidation of corporate power as normal and desirable. They were, of course, right about the move toward corporate monopoly but misjudged the means to counter it.

The neoliberals, or misnomered moderates, surrendered to conservative ideology and continuously moved to the right in a futile effort to appeal to center right voters. The goal posts kept moving to the right and eventually neoliberals turned the Democrats into Republican light. This in contrast to the conservatives who stuck to their guns, stayed the course, and as time moved the needle to the right eventually became mainstream. That progressives were unable to trust their morality and related policy was a very unfortunate circumstance.

As this crisis of trust continued Democratic support of progressive policy slowly started to fade. Amid challenges from the center right of Eisenhower, the hard right of Goldwater and the fiasco in Vietnam, progressive Democratic leadership was replaced by center-right, frightened, pseudo Libertarian Neoliberals. Lyndon Johnson’s somewhat reluctant creation of the Great Society, War on Poverty, Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts was the final straw. The swan song of liberal advancement was complete.

During Johnson’s second term alignment of party loyalties was permanently adjusted. Dixiecrats and moderate Republicans from the Northeast switched teams. The contentious and damaging power struggle of the 1968 nomination flipped the final switch and the Democrats internally rid themselves of the vestiges of New Deal and Great Society policies, while still espousing them publicly.

To my mind this schism had its origins at the 1944 Democratic convention. Roosevelt was dying and a group of conservative Democrats felt that his progressive, near Socialist politics would not do well in a post WWII world where Communism was the new boogeyman. They were especially concerned about Roosevelt’s Vice president, Henry Wallace, who was an avowed Socialist. They knew that he, if reelected, would acsend to the presidency and were frightened that his policies would align closer to the Soviets than they were comfortable with.

This led to the removal of Wallace from the ticket. It was done by any means, which means were quite vicious. Every chit was called in to keep the nomination from him. The problem was, there was no consensus on who to run against him at the convention. After much intense politicking, in that way of the smoke filled room, a little known senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman, became the compromise standard bearer. He was nominally the anti communist’s man from then on. He became reliably tough on our ostensible Communist allies and, knowing little of its devstating power, was convinced to unleash the atomic bomb on Japan.

The schism in the party really took hold in 1948. The rank and file continued to work toward Roosevelt’s vision and passed the Marshall Plan of European Reconstruction. They included a call for universal healthcare in the party platform. At the convention Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey made an impassioned plea for civil rights. Southern delegates walked out. Truman took a hard line with the Soviets in East Germany and started the Korean War.

Although Congress remained in Democratic hands virtually throughout the last half of the 20th Century the progressive and neoliberal wings continued their struggles for party dominance. Their last dance with real executive power was post Eisenhower but Vietnam and Southern backlash over the Great Society ended all but the memory of the New Deal.

After the serious damage the Democrats suffered in 1968 only biconceptual or right center Democrats have had any success in nationwide elections. In 2016, underlying White Supremacy, economic uncertainty, and frustrated nationalism was fanned into incendiary fervor and Donald Trump was elected president. As we begin 2019 a cloud of authoritarianism blankets the nation. Many are weary and disillusioned.

One encouraging and oddly unintended consequence of the Trump administration’s train wreck is the tiny but real opportunity for a progressive vision to be made clear and viable to the American public. To those who are fed up with being disrespected and used by the monied few. To citizens who cry out for equity and justice.

Instead of being reviled liberalism could be understood as the strong, responsible, protective, empathic and caring philosophy of life it is. In a major coup, years of conservative framing could be undone, but only if the left is wily and smart.

If the Democrats could quit the vicious politics practiced seemingly everywhere inside the beltway, and re-evolve into the diverse and coalescent party it can and should be, things may actually ricochet back toward a government that works for all people. Life seen from a progressive viewpoint could guide the way to true prosperity, a prosperity for all. Everyone in and no one out.

To do this people of good will must be courageous. They must overcome fear.

I’m not the best at that.

Frankly, I could be less a scribe and chronic complainer and more a positive actor and humble ally.

There is a window to be opened. Open and climb through it.

We haven’t much time.

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