over the past decade, politicians and pundits have increasingly sought authority for their actions and ideas in the Progressive Era. After Newt Gingrich became speaker in November 1994, he compared himself to William McKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna and declared that a new progressive era was at hand. The Hudson Institute, known for founder Herman Kahn's claims of prophecy, put out an anthology, The New Promise of American Life, edited by Lamar Alexander, based on the premise that the old progressive era in Progressive Era in American politics that Herbert Croly had helped inspire in his book The Promise of American Life was about to give way to a new one. In 1996 the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) produced a manifesto entitled "The New Progressive Declaration," whose premise was that the new "information age" called forth a response as ambitious as that by the progressives to industrialization. In Between Hope and History, President Clinton compared his administration to Theodore Roosevelt's, and his program and vision to that of "the Progressive Movement." And in this presidential election, Democrat Bill Bradley, Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain, and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan have all claimed that their politics resemble those of Progressive Era political leaders.
There is obviously something self-serving about some of these comparisons. By likening their agenda to the progressive movement, conservatives like Gingrich and Alexander have obscured the reactionary thrust of their programs: They haven't sought a new progressive era as much as a repeal of the old one. For Clinton the comparison disguises the meager legislative achievements of his two terms in office, during which the economy has boomed but Washington has remained deadlocked. The major regulatory achievement of the Clinton years, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is hardly a throwback to the Progressive Era. Yet beyond these misuses of history, there is something about the Progressive Era that stirs our imagination and serves as a reference point for our activities. For both liberals and conservatives, the period hovers over the present in the same manner that the country's founding decades transfixed nineteenth-century politicians.
The most important thing about the Progressive Era is that it is not yet part of our past. During that era, Americans were first faced with fundamental questions about democracy, capitalism, and America's place in the world that still haunt us, and the answers they gave have continued to define our basic political approaches. One of these questions is whether the development of corporate capitalism can be reconciled with America's democratic ideals--whether democracy can co-exist with a system of production that creates greater inequities of wealth and power. Another question is whether America can exercise world power without becoming an imperial power--and without either undermining democracy at home or contributing to wars of redivision abroad. Progressives eventually answered both questions affirmatively, but each new political generation has had to face these questions anew and fashion answers of its own.
In America's first 100 years, many Americans, particularly in the North, believed that political democracy depended upon relative economic equality. Economic equality, rooted in the spread of small farms and small-scale urban manufacturers and trades, made possible political equality, and political equality, exercised through elections and government, was the best guarantee against the emergence of political or economic tyranny. The spread of large joint-stock corporations during the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, along with the creation of an extensive propertyless working class, undermined the promise of economic equality that underlay the older republican ideal of democracy. Economic inequality-- evidenced in the disparity of wealth and power between the new captains of industry, on one hand, and the small farmer and industrial worker, on the other hand--contributed to political inequality. The right to vote was subverted by the power of the campaign contribution and by the power that control over industry bestowed upon corporate managers. This political inequality led in turn to governmental measures that reinforced or even widened economic inequality. By the turn of the century, progressives were faced with the question of whether this new corporate capitalism was compatible with democracy. Did it even make sense to describe America as a democracy?
This question has a quaint, unfamiliar ring, but it is as relevant to our situation today as it was to that of the progressives. It is echoed in the debate over campaign finance reform, the private delivery of health care, the power of Microsoft, the effect of mega-mergers, and the role of multinational corporations in the world economy. Between 1880 and 1920, Americans put forth three different answers to it: conservative, socialist, and progressive. The socialist is no longer with us, but a century later the conservative and the progressive continue to define the parameters of political debate in America.
Progressives and their Enemies
Conservatives from William Graham Sumner and Andrew Carnegie to the Supreme Court justices who struck down minimum wage laws believed that by attempting to ameliorate the inequality caused by new capitalism, Americans would jeopardize their political and economic liberties. Egalitarian reforms would restrict the rights of property owners and enlarge the power of the state over the individual. They would threaten prosperity and the advance of civilization by favoring the weak over the strong (the Social Darwinist argument) and by disturbing the normal and beneficial workings of the market (the classical economic argument). "The price which society pays for the law of competition," Carnegie wrote, "is also great; but the advantages of this law are greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its wake." Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson believed that America could foster liberty and equality. The conservatives warned, in Sumner's words, that "every effort to realize equality necessitates a sacrifice of liberty."
Unlike the socialists, progressives believed that corporate capitalism could be reformed without being overthrown. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, progressives called for political reforms that would reinvigorate popular democracy. Believing that economic inequality was undermining political equality, they sought to strengthen the public political realm as a counterweight to private inequality. They advocated extending the power of the electorate through direct election of senators and the use of the initiative and the referendum. They called for reducing business's hold over legislators through campaign finance reform. (Theodore Roosevelt actually proposed public financing of elections in 1908.) The progressives also favored legislation that would mitigate economic inequality, such as the minimum wage, the progressive income tax, and unemployment compensation, and they promoted education as a means of fostering social mobility. They were not anticapitalist. But unlike conservatives, they did not believe that these egalitarian reforms would threaten capitalist prosperity. (Later, during the New Deal, they would argue that these reforms were essential to economic recovery.)
In the first decades of the twentieth century, different progressives took somewhat different paths to reform, epitomized in the 1912 contest between Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism and Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. Roosevelt and Croly of The Promise of American Life emphasized the power of the national government through a strong executive, sustained by enlightened business leaders and a new technocratic and scientific elite, to enact the progressive agenda. Wilson, Louis Brandeis, and Croly himself after World War I emphasized the power of competition and of countervailing institutions, particularly labor unions, to challenge the dominance of the new corporations. These outlooks were subsumed under Franklin Roosevelt's version of democratic pluralism and have remained complementary (and sometimes contending) components of the progressive approach.
From 1900 to 1932, and from 1960 to 1980, America experienced sharp swings between the progressive and conservative approaches, but it also experienced periods of political stalemate when progressives and conservatives fought to a draw. James McGregor Burns characterized the Eisenhower years as "the deadlock of democracy," and a similar characterization could be made of the period from 1986 to 2000. Liberals, including Burns himself in a new book entitled Dead Center, have expressed the same frustrations about Clinton and the Clinton years as conservative Republicans of the 1950s voiced about Eisenhower and the Eisenhower years.
Over the century, however, progressives and liberals have slowly, and almost inexorably, shifted the national debate onto their terrain. While the progressives of today may not be as bold as some of their forebears, conservatives are far more tame. Today, no one--not even at the Cato Institute--espouses the unequivocal rejection of the welfare state that used to be common among conservatives. Today, conservative Republican candidates brag of giving targeted tax cuts to the poor, look for ways to broaden access to health insurance, and insist they, too, are defenders of Social Security. The means may be puny, but the ideals are progressive. In this sense, pessimistic conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr., have been right when they have claimed even during the 1950s and 1980s that they were losing out to liberals and liberalism.
Despite some missteps along the way, the gradual advance of progressivism has also been a victory for American civilization. It has meant, among other things, that Americans of humble birth are no longer subject to the vicissitudes of the business cycle and that many more Americans enjoy a degree of social security and economic opportunity that in the nineteenth century were enjoyed only by the very wealthy.
Progressivism and Global Engagement
In America's first 100 years, Americans adhered to a foreign policy that was articulated by George Washington in his farewell address and that was reinforced by the country's disastrous experience in the War of 1812. The United States sought to extend its "commercial relations" while having "as little political connection as possible" with the nations of Europe and their wars. Washington warned that entering into "permanent alliances" with European nations and taking sides in their conflicts would require the United States to maintain "one of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to republican liberty."
By the end of the nineteenth century, these principles were being undermined by the change in America's circumstance. The United States had become an industrial power on a par with Great Britain and Germany, and the European nations were engaged in colonizing Asia and Africa. Many American political and business leaders, particularly after the depression of the 1890s, feared that the U.S. market could no longer absorb the growing surplus that American industries were producing. Without foreign markets, the United States could face recurrent depressions, and the only way to ensure foreign markets, it seemed, was for the United States to embark upon imperial conquests of its own. How was it possible, then, to promote prosperity without becoming an imperial power and without building the kind of centralized, military state that would undermine local liberty?
The first great debate of the twentieth century was between the imperialists who advocated a new American empire and the anti-imperialists who warned that it would undermine the American republic. But by the end of the first decade, however, imperialists like Henry Cabot Lodge, faced with a Philippine insurrection and recognizing that the United States could not hope to redivide the colonies that had already been parceled out, had abandoned that strategy in favor of what came to be called the "open door." The open door, practiced first toward the European powers that were dividing up China, sought actively to replace colonialism with open competition for foreign markets. It presumed an economically interdependent world in which war would become increasingly unthinkable and in which the United States, because of its superior industry, would be able to outsell its competitors. Its underlying assumption was the opposite of George Washington's: It assumed that without enlightened American overseas political leadership, American prosperity and democracy would eventually be threatened.
From Theodore Roosevelt's administration through Wilson's first term, the United States exercised world political leadership primarily by seeking to act as a mediator among the imperial powers, but the failure of Wilson's "peace without victory" initiative during World War I demonstrated that the United States would actually have to become a player rather than simply a mediator. Wilson's strategy from 1917 to 1921 was aimed at creating a new world order that would banish not only imperialism, but also the growing threat of communism, evidenced by the Russian Revolution. America would lead, but it would increasingly exercise leadership though multilateral institutions that would replace the imperial "balance of power" with a new post-imperial "community of power." Wilson's internationalism was never an end in itself--he didn't fantasize about abolishing the nation-state--but a means toward achieving American national interests through a world order in which peaceful capitalist competition would displace both imperial rivalry and socialism. In such a competitive environment, Wilson believed Americans would flourish.
Wilson and his successors often adopted clumsy or unrealistic tactics to carry out this strategy--epitomized by Wilson's vain hopes in the Versailles agreement and the League of Nations and by the disarmament conferences of the 1920s. During the Cold War, progressive internationalism triumphed as a tactic by which to pursue containment, but its vision of a community of power became a distant hope. The events, however, of the last three decades of the twentieth century have brought America and the world on the verge of realizing Wilson's dream.
First, during the 1970s, the last vestiges of European colonialism disappeared--the victim of rising nationalism in the developed countries and a shift in the world economic priorities. Then, in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall ended communism as a threat to world capitalism. China remained in name a communist country, but it more closely resembled a state capitalist oligarchy. It could generate regional military conflicts, particularly over Taiwan, but it did not seek to be an empire in the manner of either pre-World War I Germany or the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it sought to be integrated--albeit on very favorable terms--into the world capitalist system.
Both the Bush administration's pursuit of a new world order and the Clinton administration's strategy of "democratic engagement and enlargement" reflected the triumph of Wilson's progressive internationalism. Wilson didn't foresee the absence of war, but he believed that it could be contained through the concerted action of major powers. The coalition that Bush assembled to fight Operation Desert Storm and the one the Clinton administration forged in the Balkans were models of Wilsonian diplomacy. As Wilson had hoped, peaceful economic competition has largely superseded military conflicts. There are conflicts over trade and investment, but they usually take place directly between corporations and banks rather than between nations seeking closed markets and a monopoly of raw materials. Sometimes these conflicts do involve governments, but in order to adjudicate them, the United States and other nations have created new institutions, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), that serve in the economic realm as the counterpart of the United Nations and of regional alliances like NATO.
The opposition to this progressive internationalism has traveled under different guises, but since the 1930s, it has been pejoratively termed "isolationism." Citing Washington's farewell address, the isolationists have advocated commercial, but not political, expansion. In 1900 this meant opposing imperial expansion in Asia and the Caribbean. Later, it meant opposing American participation in world wars I and II and in multilateral institutions that committed the United States to the defense of nations other than itself. Anti-imperialists and later isolationists limited the use of the American military, or American participation in military alliances, to instances where they believed the United States was directly threatened--such as after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. They had a water's-edge view of what it meant to defend the national interest.
By the 1950s, isolationism had disappeared from American politics. American foreign policy debates were over how rather than whether to apply the progressive internationalist strategy. Even during the Vietnam War, the majority of antiwar protestors rejected the war on Wilsonian grounds. They believed it represented a betrayal of the promise to build a democratic community of nations. Yet in the past decade, isolationism has staged a comeback in the Republican Party. Many conservatives had accepted internationalist tactics during the Cold War because they thought they were necessary to defeating the Soviet Union. Once the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, they saw no need anymore for American overseas political involvement--whether in the Mideast or in the Balkans--and began to view American participation in organizations like the UN, NATO, and the WTO as a threat to American sovereignty. They opposed American participation in international peacekeeping forces, adopting instead a "fortress America" military strategy based on the construction of an anti-missile defense system.
This conservative opposition to the new world order has been echoed on the political left. Some left-wing opponents of American intervention abroad and of multilateral institutions still view the world through the prism of the antiwar movement of the 1960s--seeing the Gulf War or the intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo as an expression of American neo-imperialism. Other left-wing critics, particularly within the labor movement, have been concerned about how the new world system has spawned economic inequality by allowing multinational corporations to bid down wages and regulations and to undermine the power of unions. Where labor and left-wing activists used to seek their salvation in a new social-democratic international order, some of them now rest their hopes on a quasi-closed national system similar to that envisaged by the Republican right.
Progressivism for a New Century
Some of those politicians and pundits who now invoke the name of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson or the memory of Progressive Era reform have little conception of what these leaders stood for or what progressive reform really entailed. Conservatives in The Weekly Standard who cite Roosevelt as the basis for their hawkish foreign policy-centered "national greatness" conservatism ignore that outside his own hemisphere Roosevelt envisaged the American president largely as an international mediator, and that Roosevelt always insisted, as he declared when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910, that the "cause of industrial peace" was as important as that of international peace. Similarly, today's progressives at the DLC who invoke Wilson's "new freedom" as the model for their politics forget that it rested on both the decentralization of corporate power and the empowerment of workers and local communities.
As we try to understand what progressivism and progressive internationalism meant at the beginning of this century, it is important to recognize two kinds of changes that have had enormous bearing on how these principles can be applied. The first have to do with changes in work, the work force, and corporate power that have occurred in America since the 1950s but have accelerated during the Information Revolution. These changes have rendered obsolete the view of democracy that was held by progressives from Theodore Roosevelt through Lyndon B. Johnson, but that is still echoed nostalgically by members of the labor movement and of the Democratic left.
During the first half of the twentieth century, progressives and liberals based their view of democracy on two different theories of political change: One emphasized the development of powerful interest groups, the labor movement in particular, that could contest the power of business, and the other stressed the growth and influence of an enlightened and disinterested scientific elite. The changes that have taken place in capitalism since the 1960s have reduced or threatened the promise of the former and strengthened that of the latter.
Some progressives have argued that the new information economy has unequivocally strengthened democracy. In its "New Progressive Declaration," the DLC writes, "Today's dispersals of economic power suggest a corresponding diffusion of political power, away from central institutions to people and local institutions." But while production has dispersed, control over production has become more centralized than ever.
As a result, while corporate leaders find it easier to organize and wield power, their employees and the dispersed citizens of the communities in which plants and offices are located find it more difficult. The labor movement and many of the movements and organizations spawned by the 1960s have atrophied, while businesses have vastly increased their presence in politics and in Washington. Business's lobbying budget is 10 times that of labor and single-issue organizations put together. This creates a wide disparity of power and influence and potentially undermines the promise of democratic pluralism.
On the other hand, the development of a new postindustrial capitalism, in which knowledge has become the critical resource, has led to the proliferation of technical expertise and social and political knowledge. Millions of citizens are now employed producing ideas rather than things and possess the knowledge and ability to plan and direct the nation. The growth of the Internet, like the development of the printing press 500 years ago, has made possible an unprecedented diffusion of knowledge and has helped to lay the basis for a new kind of political community. This community may already be manifesting itself in the movement for political reform that began in the early 1990s and that led most recently to the successes enjoyed by Republican John McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley in the presidential primaries. It is the successor of the late nineteenth-century political reform movement that foreshadowed, and prepared the way for, the more substantial achievements of progressivism.
The second set of changes has occurred in the global economy, enmeshing the United States much more deeply in other nations' affairs and making a purely national economic strategy infeasible. Well before World War I, countries' economies were closely bound together through trade. These links, including those between Great Britain and Germany, failed to prevent the outbreak of war. But the nature of the global economy has changed radically since the 1950s. Previously, foreign investment by advanced countries focused on raw materials and on production for the markets where the investment itself took place. Imperialism was based on acquiring territory and the raw materials that were produced there. But foreign investment is increasingly geared toward the production of products for a global marketplace. Capital moves quickly from nation to nation in search of the best arrangements for production. A final product--say, an IBM computer--is likely to contain components manufactured in dozens of countries. Certain commodities like oil still confer power on nations and can bring countries to power, but the power to create wealth is not measured primarily by a nation's command over its own or other nations' raw materials. It is measured by the quality of its work force and technological infrastructure.
This new phase of global capitalism, which has been accelerated by information technology, has had beneficial effects. It has spread knowledge and technology over the globe, making it possible for some previously backward economies to catch up to the most advanced. The new globalization and the rise of the new global corporation has weakened the state as an instrument of economic power and of war, making individual nations depend on the ebb and flow of capital investments. It has removed much of the rationale for the older imperialism. But there is also a downside to this process: By encouraging global competition among production sites and allowing capital to roam in search of the lowest costs, it puts downward pressure on wages, working conditions, and environmental regulations.
During World War II, Roosevelt's Vice President Henry Wallace conceived of a global New Deal that would extend to the rest of the world the reforms adopted in the United States. Wallace was one of the first public officials to see a close connection between progressive domestic policies and progressive internationalism. The challenge facing progressives in the next century will be to forge and expand that connection--to extend to the international economy those same principles of liberty and equality that have periodically governed domestic politics in the United States and to ensure that the growth of the international economy will not undermine, but will complement and strengthen, the impulse toward domestic reform and a more perfect union. The goal is not to have a new progressive era, but to put the heroes and memories of the old one to rest by completing, finally, the political project of progressivism and progressive internationalism upon which it embarked. ¤
This essay is adapted from John B. Judis's The Paradox of American Democracy. Judis also draws upon Martin J. Sklar's The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism: 1890-1916, Postimperialism and World Politics; N. Gordon Levin's Woodrow Wilson and World Politics; and Frank Ninkovich's The Wilsonian Century.