Respond to this Article June 2006

The Progressive Trinity

Family, Business, and Public Service

By Greg Colvin

8.What would a new statement of Progressive political philosophy look like?

At the moment, Democrats in Congress seem to be casting about for a legislative manifesto to inspire enthusiasm from the voters in the November 2006 elections. With the president's approval ratings so low and many Republican lawmakers on the defensive, the Democrats sense an opportunity to gain a majority in one or both houses. They look back to 1994, when Newt Gingrich and a phalanx of young Republicans rolled out their Contract with America and used it as a vehicle to help capture the House of Representatives two years after Clinton's first term began.

Even if the Democrats could put forth a clear, desirable legislative reform package for the 2006 election, that would still not amount to a political philosophy. A policy agenda for today is a practical application--much needed, but still a full step below a philosophical theory that links our understandings about the individual, society, and power to basic assumptions about human nature.

We need a fresh philosophical statement not tied to the Democrats or to the Republicans, an alternative to the tired labels of liberal and conservative. For that, we may have to go back to the nineteenth century.

On the morning of the November 2, 2004 election, 2.5 million people in America received a history lecture by email. Wes Boyd, of the online activist group MoveOn.org, suggested they turn off the TV and ponder a speech by Bill Moyers entitled "This is Your Story--The Progressive Story of America. Pass It On."

Moyers covered the great sweep of American history that began in the late 1800's when farmers in the Midwest and South formed a People's Party and declared war on inequality and government favoritism toward the wealthy. These Populists advocated for government to control the damage being done by industrial capitalism rather than collude with it. They were denounced as socialists and lasted only about a decade as a minor party, but their ideas were picked up by a "rising generation of young Republicans and Democrats."

In Moyers's words, the Progressives "were a diverse lot, held together by a common admiration of progress" but "a shared dismay at the paradox of poverty stubbornly persisting in [its] midst...." Jane Addams, who founded settlement houses for the poor in Chicago and the profession of social work. The muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. The Harvard lawyer Louis Brandeis, who became a Supreme Court justice. National politicians like Robert LaFollette and of course, Theodore Roosevelt.

Their accomplishments were astonishing, a peaceful revolution, recasting the role of government to protect the weak, not just defend the strong. Public transportation, water districts, and public utilities. Anti-trust laws to prevent the worst forms of monopolization. Workers compensation for injuries on the job. The Food and Drug Administration. The direct election of Senators. The power of initiative, referendum, and recall in half the states. National parks and national forests. And a graduated federal income tax based on ability to pay.

The Progressives were far from perfect. Their class perspective was strong, but they were weak on diversity. It was mostly a white movement, sometimes associated with anti-immigrant and ethnic prejudices. In the South, Populism coincided with the disenfranchisement of black voters. And their foreign policies ranged from the seizure of the Panama Canal to Woodrow Wilson's idealistic dream of making the world safe for democracy.

Still, the Progressive movement contained many themes extremely relevant to us a hundred years later.

They were bold and fearless about reform. If the Constitution needed to be amended to allow for progressive income taxation, for election of Senators by popular vote, or to give women the right to vote, so be it.

They were willing to conduct great social experiments for the betterment of humanity, such as the prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages by constitutional amendment in 1919, repealed in 1933. Attacking corruption in government, they created independent commissions at the state and federal levels and the civil service system in an effort to replace politicians with professional administrators, the much-maligned bureaucracy we still have today.

They believed in a mixed economy. If necessary for the common good, they thought that Public Service agencies, not Business, should own and operate railroads and telephone networks, regulate the stock market, and insure bank deposits.

They were driven by religious fervor. Singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" at their political conventions, they believed in a "social gospel," challenging the tyranny of wealth and trying to apply the moral teachings of Jesus to the problems of the day.

They instinctively and passionately took the side of the oppressed. Jane Addams wrote of her strong opposition to the "accepted moral belief that the well-being of a privileged few might justly be built upon the ignorance and sacrifice of the many."

They stood steadfastly against social Darwinism, rejecting the notion that inequality of wealth in society reflected a natural selection process favoring the survival of the fittest. Not only did they believe that this justification for oppression was morally wrong and unchristian, they placed a high degree of trust in the ultimate ability of the people to rise above their circumstances and take responsibility for their common affairs.

They were inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 just as many of my generation were inspired by the words of John Kennedy in 1960. They dedicated their lives to advancing the precious American experiment in democracy that Lincoln had given his life to save.

No political movement in U.S. history has focused so attentively on Family problems. Child labor laws, the eight-hour day, and minimum wage laws protected the Family from total exploitation by Business. Women Progressive leaders fought against the rise of alcoholism and divorce, perhaps not successfully but they finally secured their right to vote.

Progressives transformed the role of Business in America because they were capable of holding in mind two contradictory attitudes about Business at the same time--as ruthless exploiters and as engines of material progress. Workers compensation for injury benefited employees, but it also protected employers from workers' lawsuits for negligent conditions. The reformers busted trusts and monopolies and banned corporate political contributions, but enshrined free and fair competition as the norm for Business behavior.

American Progressives, in essence, showed the twentieth century world that it was feasible to hope for and build a moderate alternative between the extremes of a triumphant Business sector and a triumphant vanguard party of the proletariat (communism), by recreating a workable balance among the legitimate interests of the Family, Business and Public Service.

An empirical study of history, however, is not enough to create a theory of Progressive politics. We must study the intellectual works of philosophers who have proposed great moral principles for the purposes of human striving in society and who have made logical deductions from those principles about how power should be legitimized and exercised.

For that, the nineteenth century is also a good place to start.

Abraham Lincoln once said: "I hold that while man exists it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankindů.I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest number."

The concept of the greatest good for the greatest number was developed by several English philosophers, first David Hume and then Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, as the "utilitarian" principle for distinguishing right and wrong human behavior. Many ethical puzzles could be addressed using the utilitarian rule, such as how a medical team should conduct triage when coming upon a disaster scene, but the principle seems to have gained a broader application as a way of understanding the purpose of democracy.

That is, rather than following a purely egotistical rule of behavior (what's best for you) your choices should take into account the total consequences of your actions or omissions insofar as they can be reasonably anticipated: the degree of harm or happiness caused and the number of people affected. Therefore, in constructing a philosophy about the best use of power in government and in other social systems, utilitarianism offers a qualitative and a quantitative yardstick.

Measuring the "greatest good" or the greatest happiness is not an exact science, although some philosophers have tried to concoct a "felicific calculus" to do just that. How can you compare listening to Mozart, a chocolate milkshake, and a roof that doesn't leak? Nevertheless, there are massive areas of life where a human consensus of what is good can be safely presumed. Starvation, disease, and injury are not good. Having a car or some form of mobility is good. Literacy and education are good. Having enough money to provide for your needs is better than not having enough. And for competent adults, freedom of choice is almost always better than being forced to obey the will of another.

The "greatest number" is a bit easier concept to work with, although it presents many paradoxes, especially for Americans today. How many of the people affected do we need to care about? My circle of family and friends? My country? The whole world? Future generations?

It is possible to combine utilitarianism with the human rights theory advanced by John Locke (life, liberty, and property) and Baron de Montesquieu. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams put the concept of natural rights--that even kings cannot override--into political practice in the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the American republic, calling those rights "God-given" and "self-evident." John Stuart Mill wrote persuasively on both liberty and utilitarianism, arguing that: "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." Therefore, people can do anything they like as long as they do not harm others.

Another way to express the thought that human beings in society are entitled to a certain minimum level of respect for their bodies and minds is to use the idea of dignity. This is not a concept fixed in historical time. The Bill of Rights includes some very specific guarantees, such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and from self-incrimination. Later, as law and medicine progressed, it was possible for the U.S. Supreme Court to refine those rights further to include a Miranda warning when a suspect is taken into custody, and a woman's right to privacy and control over her own body during pregnancy, at least in the early stages, under Roe v. Wade.

As our understanding of human nature grows, as new threats to the integrity of the individual appear, and as society becomes capable of doing more to protect the quality of life, our sense of what is respectful and what is degrading to all human beings will no doubt change and so will the laws that define and protect our rights.

Therefore, I believe that the modern statement of moral principle that should be used to judge whether our social contract with our principal institutions, including politics and government, is performing well or badly, should be "the greatest good for the greatest number, with dignity for all." By "all," I mean all individual humans, everywhere, and for as far into the future as we can reasonably see.

With this enlightened purpose as our guiding philosophy, we must constantly assess the roles played by the Family, Business, and Public Service toward that end, and be willing to support, shape, redirect, and balance the ways in which they serve humanity.

A hundred years ago, men and women across America embarked on a similar reform movement, accepting that modern Business was here to stay but deeply outraged against its worst consequences, standing firmly on the side of the oppressed, believing in progress. They believed that it was time, and possible, to intervene in the nation's destiny, answering the call to Public Service inside and outside of government. We honor their memory and achievements by calling ourselves, as they did, Progressives.

9. What ethical principles should guide our social behavior?

To serve the greatest good for the greatest number with dignity for all, the Family, Business, and Public Service all require ethical behavior to work properly. There are many ways to enumerate these moral standards of right and wrong: honesty, integrity, redemption, respect. Let's look at integrity and respect.

Integrity means doing the right thing even though you could do the wrong thing, causing harm to others, without detection or without punishment. Our society is in a crisis of "do what you can get away with."

The more public examples we see where a person acts for their own benefit without due regard for the impact on others, the more we feel that we are losing something very valuable: the sense that I can be considerate of others without being taken advantage of. Every man for himself. Sink or swim. Me first. Winner take all. What's in it for me? Survival of the fittest.

I believe there is a close link between "do what you can get away with" and the logic that drives Business today: pay attention to your own enterprise, compete with and triumph over others, make the most money. But I'll bet even Milton Friedman doesn't cut ahead of you in the taxi line at the airport, because he respects the civil customs of society: it is better to reinforce the culture of taking turns than to get there first.

The deterioration of personal integrity is evident everywhere.

Talk loudly on your cell phone on the bus, in the elevator, anywhere. I recall in the 1950s it was customary for a person to ask others occupying the same space, "May I smoke?" Anyone ever ask you, "Would it bother you if I used my cell phone?"

It is better to go ahead and do what you please, even if it might hurt or annoy others, then to ask permission from them. It's just easier that way. Let them complain if it bothers them, then you can decide whether to stop.

Cast aspersions on your teammate in the Winter Olympics speed skating competition. Ski hung over. Do what you can get away with.

Make huge profits from gasoline sales after Hurricane Katrina, don't pay your punitive damages from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Do what you can get away with.

Decline to hire that qualified mother with three children because you'd have to pay for their health benefits. Do what you can get away with.

Profanity and sexual innuendo is everywhere, on the street, in the stores, in the media, in elementary schools, in your face.

Be a radio or TV talk show demagogue, utter absolute falsehoods, never correct yourself. Do what you can get away with.

Invade, conquer, and occupy Iraq on the pretext that you have evidence Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and must be disarmed, if you have the military power to get away with it.

Play little sex games with a White House intern, hope no one will notice or tell.

Stab your wife and an innocent bystander to death, hire a dream team of lawyers, and get away with it.

Cut taxes for the wealthy, let pork-barrel spending and drug prices get out of hand, expand the federal deficit. Do what you can get away with.

Install a voice mail system so you don't have to take incoming calls. Do what you can get away with.

Buy a college term paper off the Internet or take other students' prescriptions so you can stay awake. You can get away with it.

Or, get in the habit of doing the right thing, even if no one will ever know.

Respect means treating others as human beings rather than objects. Because they are human they occupy a divine, unique place in the universe, whether you call it soul or spirit or something else. If we can be honest with each other, if we play by the rules of personal integrity, if we are able to forgive, then we are showing each other the kind of respect that is likely to be reciprocated and passed on.

Respect means judging people, as Martin Luther King said, by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We have forgotten about the "character" part. When we objectify people and use secondary features to judge them, such as gender, language, ethnicity, disability, appearance, personality style, sexual orientation, or religion, we lose the opportunity to know them by their good deeds or their bad deeds.

There is a place for moral authority in America; we are entitled to take stock of the personal character demonstrated by each other's behavior.

Immigrants to this country will tell you they are happy with the opportunities here, but very dismayed by the disrespect that students show to teachers, children show to adults, and strangers show to each other in public. I remember the Australian who told me that when an American doesn't hear you he says, "huh?" rather than "beg pardon?"

From top to bottom in our society, we are seeing more disrespect--in the Family, in Business, and in Public Service. Although most people are respectful to each other, the frequency of mean-spirited, offensive behavior is becoming an epidemic. If it is not reversed, by our own daily efforts and by the public examples set by our leaders, we are in danger of losing a measure of our dignity as human beings and the belief that unselfish consideration of others is worth the effort.

10. How do we address our social problems?

From what has been said so far, the principles of Progressive philosophy can give us useful tools to analyze our most pressing social problems.

First, we should ask ourselves what path is most likely to result in the greatest good for the greatest number, with dignity for all?

Second, how can we achieve a better balance among Family, Business, and Public Service?

Third, what government action is needed for protection, correction, or connection?

Fourth, how can our political leaders set an example that will inspire sacrifice for the common good?

Fifth, how can we move away from a "do what you can get away with" ethic to behavior that shows integrity and respect for others?

Sixth, we must be bold about Progressive reform. In some matters, what should be done in the public interest is pretty clear, and the solution is long overdue. The question is whether we have the will and resolve to do it. In other cases, we may be faced with a difficult paradox, where one set of efforts to improve the common good may diminish the common good in other ways, and we cannot tell in advance which would be better.

With paradoxes, we should consider our efforts to be experiments. We must evaluate the results honestly and we must act in accord with what we have learned from the experiment. It is time to put the "science" back into political science.

Class divisions. The stratification of America by economic class is getting worse. The greater good is accumulating in fewer hands, and what some people have to do to survive in America shocks our sense of human dignity. The disparity of Family incomes has many causes, most related to how Business values the kind of work we do and compensates us for it. Poverty still exists here, and our leaders should talk about it, not avoid the subject. To begin with, a minimum wage increase is way overdue. We need experiments that correct the terms of the labor market without undermining the incentive to be productive. We need to enforce and improve the laws enabling labor unions to organize and represent low wage workers. Nothing has been done in this regard for over fifty years. The unions themselves should use the power of online Internet organizing to become truly "international," a brotherhood and sisterhood linking workers in the same industries together, equal in power to the global Business enterprises that have been undervaluing their labor.

Iraq and our military policy. We ought to redirect our national security efforts to address the worst threats of violence to the most number of people in the world: nuclear weapons and genocide. The appropriate Public Service response to protect us from terrorism would be to harden our stateside vulnerabilities and build a first-class, high-tech, multi-lingual police force to go on the offensive and work with foreign governments to rip up foreign terrorist networks wherever in the world they may be.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we removed despotic governments and are using military occupation as a means to conduct democratic experiments in the Muslim world, but at horrific cost and risk to our country and theirs. Business no doubt hoped that a second war in Iraq would pay for itself with oil revenues as the first Persian Gulf war did. Now, Business is ambivalent about Iraq as many U.S. corporations find substantial reluctance to trade with us abroad so long as the occupation continues. The military Family is hurting from multiple deployments and disabling injuries; military wives are serving months and years as unpaid social workers for their husbands' units. After almost four years, can we honestly assess these dangerous experiments, formulate the best next steps to take to protect our security, and accept the results? We need to shift from a reckless and egotistical process of applying military power where we think "we can get away with it" to a wise, foresighted, and deliberate policy for the use of force.

Use of the earth's resources. As a matter of will, we must be determined to correct how Business presently exploits the earth's resources so we don't endanger the well-being of future generations. We must reduce consumption of the world's oil reserves so they last longer, reduce the man-made disruptions of our atmosphere that will sooner or later cause irreversible climate change, and find other ways to power our economies. Drill for new oil in Alaska in 50 years, not now. We should commit ourselves to the spiritual and practical concept of stewardship for the long run, and be willing to enter into international treaties even if they require major adjustments to the wasteful patterns we have become accustomed to. Our leaders should be honest with us about what sacrifices we need to make, and show the world that America can lead, rather than drag its heels. And we need to manage the inevitable rise in the cost of energy so that Business is not enriched at the expense of the average Family.

Paying for government. As a matter of will, there should be an absolute rule preventing all governments, federal, state, or local, from operating at a deficit, except for carefully-defined circumstances when public spending is needed to stimulate a depressed economy or borrowing is needed to invest in infrastructure. We should conduct Public Service on a pay-as-you-go basis. Deficits increase interest rates and inflation, which is hard on the Family and Business. It is a "do what you can get away with" mentality. Taxation is a paradox, but if we must fight a costly war, it should be financed by an income surtax based on ability to pay so we shoulder the burden now, not by going into debt and throwing it onto our children. Raising taxes (really, restoring the progressivity that existed before the Bush Republicans cut taxes on the wealthy) would take political courage, but that's what leaders are for, to inspire us to sacrifice for the common good.

Elections. We must have the will to ensure that our elections for candidates and for ballot measures, at every level of government, are conducted in a marketplace of information, ideas and policies in which the influence of accumulated wealth has been completely removed. This means not only prohibiting all Business expenditures to influence elections, but also leveling the playing field by allowing only individuals to donate, and prohibiting any individual from spending more than a set maximum (e.g. 100 times the minimum wage) on any public vote, including the person's own candidacy. This would be a per-person contribution limit, essentially, not a total campaign limit. Candidates, parties, and interest groups should be able to spend as much as they can aggregate in these small donations, because political engagement of the public is a good thing. If the Supreme Court won't let Congress do this, then we should amend the Constitution. This is the only way to end Business domination of Public Service in America. It is time we finally got the democracy we were promised 200 years ago.

11. In the fewest number of words, how do we convey what we stand for?

Inevitably, political activists want to know: OK, what are the themes, the magic words, that will tell America, in ten seconds, what progressives stand for. The slogans that will inspire people and win the next election, like John Kennedy's "New Frontier."

Personally, I'd like to say "a new balance--Family, Business, and Public Service" but New Balance is the name of a shoe. It is an intellectual property already taken by a Business.

Philosophically, the best formulation may be "the greatest good for the greatest number, with dignity for all," but I suspect that may sound too pure and theoretical to serve as a practical, cutting-edge tool to solve today's problems.

In the book Don't Think of an Elephant!, Professor George Lakoff sets forth the ten-word philosophy that he says conservatives have used successfully to evoke their values and principles over the last thirty years:


Strong Defense
Free Markets
Lower Taxes
Smaller Government
Family Values

Lakoff challenges Progressives to do the same, provide a simple, clear statement of philosophical direction. Well, you can't really reduce a political philosophy to a list of words. You lose the analytical quality of thought, the ability to explain cause and effect.

However, two or three words are better than one. Some Progressives seem to think that single nouns such as diversity, equality, justice, sustainability, security, prosperity are all that is needed to convey values, but the problem with single words is that they are static, they lack dimensions, attitude, and dynamics. Probably you and Dick Cheney will be able to agree on most one-word statements of value, so what does that prove? To get an edge, to show discernment, a sense of right and wrong, you need adjectives.

As a statement of conservative vision, "strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, and family values," has worked for Republicans because they have been able to convince many people that these principles were reliable ways to distinguish them from the Democrats.

Professor Lakoff's own nomination for a ten-word philosophy was: "stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government, mutual responsibility." One reporter called these the least objectionable words in American life.

Here's my list of principles that I think contains the essence of Progressive philosophy as applied to the immediate present.

One America
Wise Use of Force
Stewardship of the Earth
Culture of Respect
Smart Government

One America because John Edwards is right, we live in two Americas. The manic Business culture of "every man for himself" is driving us apart. We experience our country in such different ways as the middle class shrinks and the gap between rich and poor grows larger, as Business marches relentlessly toward domination of our world and our lives. The disparity between corporate CEO compensation and the minimum wage shocks the conscience. We don't want to be a nation of haves and have nots, powerful and powerless, red states and blue states, white and non-white, Christians and non-Christians, so badly polarized that our elected representatives have lost the ability to compromise for the common good. That doesn't mean homogenizing America, just balancing it. We are all in this together. We want One America.

Wise Use of Force because we cannot accept sending our soldiers into high risk, high cost experiments such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where the chances of success are so low. A wise doctrine for the use of American force was articulated by General Colin Powell around the time of the first Gulf War in 1990. Why couldn't we follow it, learn from history? We have no exit strategy, we gambled against very long odds. I don't know the answer on Iraq now. All the options look bad. However, as a citizen and voter I'm obliged to have an opinion, so I would go with Congressman John Murtha, military expert and Marine veteran: our troops have done everything we asked them to do, it is time to end the occupation in an orderly way. We must resolve never again to depart from the principle of Wise Use of Force.

Stewardship of the Earth because it's all we've got. We are here to serve as stewards of God's creation, not to exploit it until it's gone. It is time we took this seriously, and start planning and acting based on worst case instead of best case scenarios. Chances are we are heading rapidly into a worldwide oil crisis, accelerated climate change because of what we've put into the atmosphere, loss of fisheries, unstoppable contagious diseases, and more. Will Business adapt to an era of limited supplies or remain in denial, collect huge profits, and run us right into the wall? There is a gathering spiritual movement, including evangelical Christians, realizing that man's dominion over the earth does not entitle us to use up everything we have been given but rather obligates us, probably through a mandatory international system of restraints, to assume our mutual responsibility for Stewardship of the Earth.

Culture of Respect because the breakdown of moral authority in America, the level of disrespect for others we encounter every day, has made too much of our public life coarse and mean-spirited. Families may try to teach respect at home, but it is a losing battle with our mass culture. Both liberals and conservatives, in turn, have played roles in bringing this about. Liberals rightfully questioned the legitimacy of existing authorities and encouraged individual free choice, but neglected moral teaching. Status may not matter but character always does. Conservatives turned everything over to the free market where nothing is sacred, if it sells it is good, opportunism and aggression are rewarded, "do what you can get away with." Our leaders' behaviors speak louder than their policies. Do they make promises they can't and won't keep? Do they avoid responsibility for mistakes? Do they promote themselves by tearing others down? We can and should judge people on the content of their character; on this, we can build a Culture of Respect.

Smart Government because Public Service is an honorable calling and it deserves to be done well. The things our government does are so frequently and obviously stupid that we have had to become schizophrenic patriots--we love our country but hate our government, the only one we have. We complain but we don't fix it. It will take undaunted courage to root out old ways of doing things, to provide fast, quality service to everyone. To make budget deficits the exception, not the rule. To establish principled limitations on the role of government and stick to them. To conduct the affairs of government openly so that the governed may give it their informed consent. To stop this suicidal nonsense about starving government with tax cuts. The level of tax should reflect what is really needed to serve the population and the tax burden should be fairly distributed according to ability to pay. You do dumb things in a Family or in Business, you reap the consequences right away. Should Public Service be any different? We must insist on Smart Government.

"One America, wise use of force, stewardship of the earth, culture of respect, smart government." I believe this is what most people want. It is what the Republicans in charge are not doing. It is what Progressive Republicans and Democrats could do together. This is our practical philosophy, for today and tomorrow. Let's go.

Copyright (c) 2006 Gregory L. Colvin. All rights reserved.

Greg Colvin is a San Francisco attorney who advises political organizations and charities ranging from MoveOn.org to Toastmasters International.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here