Sunday, January 20, 2008


The other day I wrote the first of what will probably be a series of posts on the topic of Progressivism -- both Modern and Historic.

I made the claim that Progressivism today is a governmental operating system, not an ideology. It is how you do things, principally in a governmental system. Progressivism is not necessarily what you do at all, though it can involve plenty of what in the getting of something done. But the point is to get something done, not so much what is done.

At one time, the Progressive operating system was virtually universal in American government; every level of government in the US operated on Progressive principles, and all divisions except the electeds themselves -- and sometimes the courts -- were coordinated with one another through common adherence to Progressive principles.

This was true throughout the public sector, and it extended well beyond it. The non-profit sector is largely made up of Progressive minded people and organizations, for example. Whole cadres of Progressive consultants form a class of experts on call to assist any agency or organization research, plan and develop policies and programs in the public interest.

And that last phrase is the key to what this Progressive Operating System is all about.

It starts from the premise that Government exists to Serve The Public Interest, and that Public Interest is found through a combination of Democratic Processes and reliance on Expert Analysis and Opinion.

Democratic Processes -- campaigns and elections, open sessions of elected bodies, extensive debate and discussion, decisions through voting and common consent that the losers will go along with the winners of votes -- play a role, but it is not the only role, in Progressive governmental operations. In a Progressive system Expert analysis and opinion guide the deliberations which are fundamental to Democracy, and in practice, the Experts are often delegated to not only "study" and "opine" about this or that, they are directed to carry out the very programs and policies they have developed and recommended. These Experts may be inside or outside of government. But reliance on Experts (In the Public Interest) is a hallmark of Progressive Governmental Operations.

The question is always "What is In the Public Interest?" In the early years of the Progressive movement, determining the Public Interest was relatively easy, in part because during the previous period of Gilded Age Excess, so much of the Public Good had been neglected in the interests of rampant corruption, greed, and exploitation. It's hard to imagine just what a Third World nightmare the American Experience was for half the nation or more during the period from the end of the Civil War until well after 1900, when Progressive reforms began to settle in.

Those Progressive Reforms started with Good Government, the whole point of which was to end the corruption of government so typical of the previous era. Prior to the Progressive era, Government in the United States, at all levels, was was essentially a bought-and-paid-for private preserve of well-heeled corporate interests.

California, for example, was run as the private fiefdom of the Southern Pacific Railroad until their power was curbed, if not overthrown, by the Progressive revolt of 1911. The railroad had bought state and local governments decades before, and the People were incapable of using standard democratic processes to get it back. It took a natural disasater, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, and the accountability trials that resulted (and exposed just how deeply and completely corrupt San Francisco municipal government and state government were) to jump-start the replacement of the broken and disastrous government-by-corporations with a Progressive alternative.

But make no mistake. The Progressive alternative was not necessarily Government By (or For) The People.

Progressive reforms allowed the People to have somewhat more of a say over some aspects of government and society, and they curbed the direct control of government by the leading corporations, but Progressive reforms were not meant to -- and did not -- remove corporations from a leading role in political, social and economic affairs. The reforms were meant to -- and did -- curb some of the more outrageous corporate activities, made the corporations and the rich pay for some of the many advantages they continued to have, and encouraged a somewhat less tilted playing field for the rest of the (white) people.

Women still couldn't vote; blacks and Asians and Brown folks of all kinds were still left out of the mix.

A widespread argument is that the Progressives were a counter to the rising Populist tide sweeping rural America at the end of the 19th century and the growing anarchist and revolutionary fervor within many of the immigrant-packed cities. This is true enough, but it doesn't quite explain why Progressivism was adopted so quickly and almost universally. There are a couple of neglected aspects of the story:
  • 1) Theodore Roosevelt became our first Progressive president upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. The shock of the assassination helped to goad Americans into accepting Roosevelt's Progressivism.

  • 2) Further, the United States had recently become an overseas imperial power with the seizure of the remnants of Spain's empire in 1898. The Philippines were proving troublesome, however, as the Natives were demanding independence and fighting for their liberty; the struggle was fierce and brutal, with American troops committing multiple atrocities in an effort to subdue the Natives. Americans in the Philippines had a hard time proving their good intentions under such circumstances, and reforming the corruption and hypocrisy at home and tempering the brutality of the unwelcome occupation of the Philippines became something of a necessity.

To Be Continued...

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