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March 15, 2014 9:06 AM What Can We Learn from the Progressive Era?

By Martin Longman

Prof. Jackson Lears has an excellent review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book in The New Republic. The book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, is a treatment of our last Gilded Age, and of the Progressive Era that arose to challenge it. This is important history, as Prof. Lears explains:

It is no secret that we are living in a second Gilded Age—another era, like the first, of corrupt rule by plutocratic elites. What is less clear is how to end it. Without assuming that one can draw simple “lessons” from history, we might begin by exploring how we ended it the first time, by discovering how reformers redeemed democracy—or at least some semblance of it—from crony capitalism. How did the Gilded Age become the Progressive Era?

I have been thinking the exact same thing. But I keep running into the problem that you can’t understand the Progressive Era without accounting for the force of Teddy Roosevelt’s personality, and you can’t separate Roosevelt’s progressive instincts from his imperialistic instincts. If our current times have a zeitgeist, it is a zeitgeist weary of foreign adventures, and decidedly less unified than our progressive forebears in its desire to promote a commonwealth against wealth as a standard of value. Whatever we have in the way of seeds for a progressive revolution, they don’t look quite like this:

At the core of that transformation was a widespread revulsion from plutocracy, a desire to promote a larger public interest—a reassertion of commonwealth against wealth as a standard of value. A hundred years ago, this agenda animated millions of Americans. A clear majority of the electorate considered themselves “progressive.” But the word was elastic enough to contain everyone from Eastern patricians to Nebraska wheat farmers and small-town attorneys in Georgia. Walter Lippmann was a progressive, but so were William Jennings Bryan and Pitchfork Ben Tillman. The progressive notion of “the public” was as shadowy and ubiquitous as the contemporary politician’s notion of the “middle class.”

Our populist reaction to plutocracy and governmental incompetence has been elastic enough to encompass the anti-war uprising that first brought the congressional Democrats to power, and then President Obama to office, the Occupy Movement, and the Tea Party, the latter of which has been an interesting transmogrification of right-wing populist outrage into co-opted plutocratic minionism. By contrast, the actual progressive movement that we have in this country is fairly unified and geographically contained. It cannot be said to constitute a clear majority of the people, nor is there evidence that the people as a whole are clamoring for a new politics of common interest.

This may be largely a result of modern media. Our muckrakers don’t quite stack up to the originals, and where they’ve been most effective at ginning up outrage, it’s been less about the extractive industries and campaign finance and more about the NSA. Reading the following, I couldn’t help thinking of reporters like Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler:

At a Gridiron Club dinner, [Roosevelt] unleashed a tirade against “the man with the muckrake,” who was so preoccupied with cleansing politics of corruption that he failed to see the signs of vigor in American public life. In a burst of presidential ambivalence, the “muckraker” was born—sometimes performing public service but eventually annoying even would-be reformers by “insisting upon nothing but the dark side of life,” as Roosevelt complained to the humorist Finley Peter Dunne.

Yet, it is was these same journalists who broke the stories that mobilized public opinion for the major reforms of the Progressive Era which, ironically, proved the vigor of American public life.

When I look at what this history has to teach us today, I can’t help but draw the conclusion that a second Progressive Era cannot emerge until progressivism breaks out of its urban and academic enclaves and begins to attract the Nebraskan wheat farmer and the small-town attorneys of Georgia.

Sometimes I feel like Hillary Clinton is the only politician in America with the ability to hold Obama’s supporters together and add substantially to them by attracting white working class voters who are alienated by the president and his rainbow coalition.

Yet, at other times, I think she is entirely wrong for the times, which call for an entirely new kind of politics not based so much on demographics as on a rebirth of the idea of public interest and a renewal of the concept of civic responsibility.

Barack Obama aspired to this with his talk of this country not being a red state America or a blue state America, but a United States of America. The reality he encountered was something quite different.

Prof. Lears is critical of Goodwin’s book because it focuses too much on a few great men and not enough on the people who did the dirty work of organizing against the plutocracy. President Obama’s experience bolsters that criticism. A single man or woman, no matter how great, cannot produce a second Progressive Era on their own.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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