Progressives and “progressives”

Progressives and “progressives”

We have a nomenclature problem in this country, specifically a political nomenclature problem.  The terms we use to describe various ideological and partisan factions are inaccurate or outdated to the point of uselessness.  In some cases, our use of inappropriate and misleading political names is so profound that it actually causes us, as a people, to maintain destructive and obsolete policies and policy positions out of pride and stubbornness.

Consider the following:

In 1988, the presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis focused in part on the use of the term “liberal.”  Dukakis declared himself a “proud liberal,” and Bush buried him with the word, using it exclusively as a pejorative.

The demonization of “liberal” had at least three noticeable and significant effects.  First, it helped Bush win the White House, after being written off by the prognosticators and media.  Second, it induced classical liberals to take back the term from contemporary leftist “liberals” – hence the appearance of the previously rare term “classical liberal.”  And third, it sent American leftists scrambling, looking for a new, unsullied term to use to describe themselves.

For a handful of reasons – some political, some historical – it took those on the Left a few years to settle on a new name by which to call themselves.  When they did, they went back to the political archives, choosing to resurrect the term “progressive.”

In re-adopting the term progressive, the Leftists appeared to choose wisely, at least superficially.  They shed the derogatory term “liberal,” embraced their hugely successful electoral past, and assumed what they thought was an unobjectionable identity.  Who, after all, could possibly be opposed to “progress?”

What they also did, however, was tie themselves to an ideology that was, to put it mildly, batsh*t crazy.

People – ourselves included – have a tendency to lump “the Left” together into one big pot and treat it as a unitary ideology that is, more or less, based on Marx.  This is a convenient shorthand, but it misses a great deal about the ideologIES that comprise the Left more broadly.  To remind ourselves and our readers of this, we actually spent a decade or so compiling a 1000-page collection of the various ideological variations that have evolved over the course of the last two-and-a-half centuries.  (See part one of that compendium here, for example).  The bottom line here is that the term “the Left” actually covers a wide variety of ideas, beliefs, and practices – including Progressivism.

Progressivism, to which today’s Democrats wish to liken their beliefs, was America’s homegrown and totally nuts version of Leftism.  It was a unique and curious blend of ideas, including scientism (through Herbert Croly and his affinity for Comte), religious fundamentalism (though Richard Ely and the Social Gospel movement), bureaucratic elitism (through Woodrow Wilson and public administration), and – as is almost always forgotten or intentionally ignored – eugenics (derived from the Progressive affinity for the Fabians).

As we have noted, in these pages and elsewhere, many of the most serious problems facing our country today were created or, at the very least, exacerbated by the “reforms” of the Progressive Era.  The establishment of the civil service/federal bureaucracy, the passage of the 16th and 17th Amendments, the creation of the Federal Reserve, the corporatist collusion between Big Government and Big Business, and countless other terrible or terribly executed policies date from the Progressive era.

Our interest in this subject was rekindled the other day by the reaction to the beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis, Tennessee police officers.  Nichols was black…but so were ALL five of the officers who beat him.  This last bit created a problem for the usual suspects who decry excessive police violence, but only a minor problem.  Before long, the far Left, including the first “Gen-Z” Congressman Maxwell Frost (D, FL) were insisting that it “Doesn’t matter what color those police officers are. The murder of Tyre Nichols is anti-Black and the result of a system built on white supremacy.”

This is mostly identity-politics nonsense, of course, but there is a kernel of truth at its heart.  As we noted not quite two years ago, the American system of policing is unique in the world.  And the aspects of it that make it unique were introduced during the Progressive Era by Progressive reformers who sought specifically to insulate police and police bureaucracies from voters and politics.  American policing is based, in short, on reforms designed to maintain the thoroughly discredited elitist conception of the politics-administration dichotomy.  Or, as we put it two years ago: “American policing, like so many other American institutions, suffers today from decisions made by the early, proto-Progressive reformers to insulate the management and operations of this intended ‘public’ service from the public.”

The problem is that these clearly mistaken, clearly dysfunctional “reforms” are practically sacrosanct and unassailable – and that’s because of people like Congressman Frost.  Although today’s (small-p) progressives have little in common with yesterday’s (capital-P) Progressives, they are nevertheless exceptionally jealous of the “progressive” reputation and are, thus, exceptionally stubborn about conceding that their predecessors might have made mistakes.  This is, we think, part partisan stubbornness but also part fear that any concession on the failures of one Progressive institution could lead to a preference cascade, dictating similar concessions on other Progressive institutions, especially the eugenics-based organization founded by the racist eugenicist Margaret Sanger, i.e. Planned Parenthood.

Whatever the motivation, the reforms of the Progressive Era are almost universally “not up for discussion.”  The Progressive Era may well have been the most absurd and destructive few decades in American history, yet we, as a people, are unable even to consider righting its manifest wrongs, simply because today’s Leftists chose to use the same name to identify themselves.

In retrospect, you kinda have to wonder if getting George Bush to the White House was worth the linguistic cascade that followed in the wake of his campaign strategy.

We’re not so sure.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.