A Question of Power

Liberals may well wonder where we go from here. An ambiguous and questionable election, a president who ignores the fact that he lost the popular vote by more than half a million, a cabinet of corporate retreads and right-wing ideologues, a near statistical tie in Congress--all this creates a tricky terrain on which to maneuver.

Nor should the new president be underestimated. He is not so dumb as he sometimes seems. He may lack intellectual curiosity, but he is shrewd as well as amiable, and in one mood he seems determined to put a human face on his retrograde party. He is a big-tent Republican who appears to have dumped the hot-button issues of the age of Ronald Reagan: criminalization of abortion, legalization of school prayer, abolition of the Department of Education and the endowments for the arts and the humanities, dismantlement of affirmative action, exclusion of immigrants, and the like. Sixty percent of George W. Bush's acceptance speech and 90 percent of his inaugural address might have been delivered by Al Gore.

On the other hand, Dr. Jekyll sometimes gives way to Mr. Hyde. Behind a fanfare of melodious words, the Bush administration is already playing pro-business hardball, canceling workplace ergonomic standards, endorsing the pro-creditor bankruptcy bill, recanting the campaign pledge to force power plants to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide. In such cases, writes David Broder, hardly a left-wing commentator, "money interests prevailed over the public interest." Mr. Hyde dominates when it comes to elections, as Senator John McCain discovered last year; when it comes to cabinet appointments, where Bush has a Harvard Business School reverence for corporate orthodoxy; when it comes to the judiciary, where he may well pay off the religious right, whose legislative agenda does not seem worth the investment of presidential capital.

Now that Bush is safely in the White House, he is seeking to legitimize his presidency by acting as if he had won by a landslide and thereby earned a mandate. In this he is quite unlike John Quincy Adams, his forerunner both as a presidential son of a president and as a popular-vote loser, and about whom our new president is reputedly reading his book of the year. "Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors," Adams said in his inaugural speech, "I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence."

The preponderance of those who voted for Al Gore or Ralph Nader suggests that a majority of the electorate does not wish a Bush replay. But the issues of the day are murky and confusing. In economically contented times like the 1990s, class-and-interest politics recedes and cultural politics comes to the fore. Religion, morality, ethnicity, abortion, gun control, homosexuality, school prayer, capital punishment, and flag burning are issues that agitate the electorate.

Both parties have succumbed to the cultural temptation--the Republicans to the evangelical right, the Democrats to the politically correct left. Perhaps, especially with economic troubles apparently ahead, the time has arrived for American liberalism to return to fundamentals. With an administration so firmly in the hands of the corporate community, has the time not come for the revival of the Progressive tradition?

Beyond Jefferson

How to define the Progressive tradition? Let me cite some texts. Progressivism sprang from the cities while Populism was an agrarian movement; but the Populists prepared the way for the Progressives by breaking with the basic Jeffersonian dogma that the government that governs least governs best. Fearful of the rising power of the large corporations, the Populists declared in their 1892 platform: "We believe that the powers of government--in other words, of the people--should be expanded ... to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land."

This was not a totally new thought. Sixty years earlier, resorting to government as a check on the overweening power of business had been a Jacksonian insight. "The Bank of the United States," Old Hickory told his cabinet, "is in itself a Government which had gradually increased its strength from the day of its establishment. The question between itself and the people has become one of power." His presidency vindicated the national government against two foes: Nicholas Biddle's Bank of the United States and the nullificationist state of South Carolina. But public authority was invoked ad hoc against private power and did not modify hallowed Jeffersonian doctrine.

The Progressive Era, the first decade of the twentieth century, took Jefferson head on. Herbert Croly wrote The Promise of American Life in order to "emancipate American democracy from its Jeffersonian bondage." Regarding unaccountable corporate power as the great threat to democracy, President Theodore Roosevelt argued that "only the National Government" could exercise the "needed control" over the economy. "This does not represent centralization," Roosevelt continued. "It represents merely the acknowledgment of the patent fact that centralization has already come in business. If this irresponsible outside power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public, it can be controlled in only one way--by giving adequate power of control to the one sovereignty capable of exercising such power--the National Government."

Woodrow Wilson too abandoned Jeffersonian dogma. "I feel confident," he declared in 1912, "that if Jefferson were living in our day he would see what we see... . Without the watchful interference, the resolute interference of the government, there can be no fair play between individuals and such powerful institutions as the trusts." As Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal drew on both Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism and Wilson's New Freedom, put it in November 1933 to Wilson's homme de confiance, Colonel E.M. House, "The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson--and I am not wholly excepting the Administration of W.W. The country is going through a repetition of Jackson's fight with the Bank of the United States--only on a far bigger and broader basis." The heart of the Progressive tradition is opposition to corporate rule.

The national government, the Progressives felt, was the key to the preservation of democracy. It was in particular the protector of the powerless. The Jeffersonian illusion was to say that local government was more responsive because it was "closer" to the people. But local government has mostly been government by the locally powerful. The way the locally powerless have asserted their human and constitutional rights has been through appeal to the national government. As James Madison had predicted long ago to George Washington in proposing a congressional veto on state legislation, national authority was essential to defend the rights of minorities and individuals against the aggressions of local majorities.

History has justified Madison. The national government has affirmed the Bill of Rights against local vigilantism. It has protected the public lands, forests, and waterways from local greed. It has civilized industry, secured the rights of labor organizations, improved life in the countryside, and provided a decent living for the old. Above all, the national government has pressed for racial justice against local bigotry. Had the states' rights creed prevailed, we would still have slavery in the United States.

Yet in recent years, there has been a backlash against the national government. "Government is not the solution to our problem," Reagan said in his first inaugural address. "Government is the problem." Democratic presidents proclaim that the era of big government is over. A Supreme Court majority seems eager to shrink the commerce clause, defer to state sovereignty, and move the Constitution back toward the Articles of Confederation (except, of course, when judicial intervention is necessary to elect a Republican president).

The attack on affirmative government had long been on the way. "The slogan of a åwelfare state,'" said Herbert Hoover, "has emerged as a disguise for the totalitarian state by the route of spending." In 1944 Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom endorsed the proposition that countries go totalitarian when governments acquire excessive power under the pretext of doing good for their citizens.

The Hoover-Hayek thesis was, and is, historical nonsense. Impotent democratic government, and not unduly potent democratic government, has laid the foundation for totalitarianism. Fascist and communist regimes arose not because democratic government was too powerful but because it was too weak. Sixty years ago, Thurman W. Arnold scoffed at "the absurd idea that dictatorships are the result of a long series of small seizures of power on the part of the central government." The exact opposite, he pointed out, was the case. "Every dictatorship which we now know," he wrote, "flowed into power like air into a vacuum because the central government, in the face of a real difficulty, declined to exercise authority."

Or, as FDR said, "History proves that dictatorships do not grow out of strong and successful governments, but out of weak and helpless ones." The New Deal did not put the Republic on the road to serfdom; it liberated the serfs to become producers and consumers (and, as they prospered, to start voting Republican).

One wonders why Hoover and other enemies of the welfare state believed that government aid to corporations is wise and virtuous while government aid to farmers or workers or the unemployed or the elderly is vicious and leads to collectivism. Hoover himself signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the highest in American history, in order to promote corporate welfare.

It seems equally odd that so many of those who denounce "statism" when it means social protection of the poor or prohibition of destructive business practices are at the same time the most zealous advocates of statism in the sinister sense of using the government to crack down on citizens thinking unpopular thoughts. Those who most loudly condemn statism on the economic front are very often the ones who advocate it most vociferously on the intellectual front--who demand censorship, book banning, loyalty oaths, witch hunts, expulsion of liberal professors, and so on. Enemies of affirmative government as potentially totalitarian used to worship the government agency that contains the greatest potential for totalitarianism: J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The affluent argue that affirmative government has malign moral consequences. Public solicitude, it is said, corrupts the poor by depriving them of that economic insecurity the well-off hold to be the essential stimulus to achievement. Economic security for the poor is considered to sap initiative and self-reliance and to promote dependency. "In order to succeed," the right-wing publicist George Gilder writes, "the poor need most of all the spur of their poverty."

The affluent apply this argument rather more to the poor than to themselves. If the rich really believed in the salubrious effects of economic insecurity, they would favor a 100 percent inheritance tax so that their own children would not be deprived of this great moral benefit. Instead--well, we all know how the rich feel about the estate tax.

When the rich do not oppose affirmative government as a threat to the morals of the poor, they oppose it as a menace to the liberties of the people. But the record surely shows that the intervention of national authority--far from rushing the Republic down the road to serfdom--has given a majority of Americans more personal dignity and liberty than they ever had before. The individual freedoms destroyed have been in the main the freedom to deny black Americans their elementary rights as American citizens, the freedom to work little children in mills and immigrants in sweatshops, the freedom to pay starvation wages and enforce dawn-to-dusk working hours and permit squalid working conditions, the freedom to deceive in the sale of goods and securities and drugs, the freedom to loot national resources and pollute the environment, and so on. These are all freedoms, one supposes, that a civilized country can readily do without.

National problems cannot always be confided to state and local government. Even with recent improvements in state administrative skills, it is far from clear that state and local governments are more competent, more expert, and more incorruptible than the national government. In fact, it remains as true today as it was when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1832 that, as he wrote then, "the business of the Union is incomparably better conducted than that of any individual state."

The researches of that wonderful watchdog agency the Center for Public Integrity into the financial disclosure reports required in 47 of our states show that legislators too often have significant monetary interests in the laws they impose on their constituents. And state and local lawmakers are subject to much less journalistic and other scrutiny than members of Congress. Because state legislatures are so much more vulnerable to corporate pressures, Theodore Roosevelt concluded, "the effective fight against adequate Government control and supervision ... of corporate wealth engaged in interstate business is chiefly done under cover; and especially under the cover of an appeal to States' rights."

Of course, a politician today who spoke like TR would be accused of waging class warfare. But the real inciters are the CEOs who pay themselves more in a day than their workers make in a year. Laissez-faire zealots and market fundamentalists somehow don't get it. They still don't understand that it is precisely the intervention of the national government that has rescued capitalism from the dreaded Marxist fate. Market fundamentalism--that is, the doctrine that the unbridled marketplace contains the remedy for all our troubles--would have, as Karl Marx predicted, made the rich richer and the poor poorer and thereby intensified class war. What saved capitalism from being destroyed by its own contradictions was something Marx had not foreseen: the democratic interventionist state.

Marx had dismissed the state under capitalism as "a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie." But political democracy put even the capitalist state up for grabs; and in America, noncorporate types--farmers, workers, intellectuals, minorities--have succeeded from time to time in grabbing the state in order to humanize the marketplace and infuse the system with a modicum of social responsibility. "The more we condemn unadulterated Marxian Socialism," said Theodore Roosevelt, "the stouter should be our insistence on thoroughgoing social reforms." The essential thing is to rescue capitalism from the capitalists.

Countering Creative Destruction

With interventionist government as the savior of capitalism, why then the rejection of the Progressive tradition? Well, the national government, like all tools, is liable to misuse and to abuse. Sometimes government intervenes too much. Its regulations become pointlessly intrusive. Its programs falter and fail. After a time, exasperations accumulate and produce indictments.

The neoliberal critique of affirmative government has made some useful points. The fewer responsibilities loaded on the national authority, the better it will be able to discharge those it cannot escape. The more responsibilities that can be discharged by the market or by local or voluntary initiative, the better. The national government should intervene only when local and private efforts manifestly fail to promote the general welfare.

Moreover, where traditional liberals see government as an instrument of the general welfare, neoliberals see government as dominated by organized interest groups that define the general welfare as the total of group claims and that weigh the economy down with group entitlements. The Progressive tradition views the public interest as transcending an aggregation of single-interest claims, but the scramble of politics often yields to the best organized.

There is also the vulnerability of public agencies to business takeovers. As Henry Adams, the most brilliant of American historians, noted when large corporations first began to afflict our democracy, the Erie Railroad had "proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than Erie ... will ultimately succeed in directing government itself." Adams continued gloomily: "Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporation, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law--and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape."

The market has proved itself the supreme engine of innovation, production, and distribution. But as it careens ahead, its method--heedless of little beyond profits--is what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." In its economic theory, capitalism employs the model of equilibrium; in practice its very nature drives it forever toward disequilibrium. The unfettered market that conservatives worship systematically undermines the values conservatives hold dear: stability, morality, family, community, work, discipline, delayed gratification. The greed and glitter of the marketplace, the exploitation of prurient appetites, the anything-goes psychology, the short-termism, the ease of fraud, the devil-takethe-hindmost ethos--all of these are at war with professed conservative ideals.

Even premier capitalists are appalled by what runaway capitalism has wrought. If understanding capitalism can be measured by success in making money out of it, no one understands contemporary capitalism better than the financier and philanthropist George Soros. "Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets," Soros writes, "I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society." The "uninhibited pursuit of self-interest," Soros continues, produces "intolerable inequities and instability." Market fundamentalism is the great enemy of democratic capitalism.

It remains, as Andrew Jackson said, a question of power. The unconstrained market is not a check on but a stimulus to corporate rule. Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy were everlastingly right in affirming democracy's need for countervailing power against corporate domination. That need is as urgent today as it has been in the national past--perhaps more urgent, since the decline of organized labor and since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 enlarged the influence of private money in politics. The untrammeled market is not likely to solve the problems that assail us. By itself the market will neither improve our schools nor protect our environment nor rebuild our infrastructure nor civilize our cities nor provide all our citizens with medical care nor protect consumers and investors from business deception nor achieve racial justice nor reduce the growing disparities in wealth and opportunity.

The very nature of such problems calls for affirmative government in the Progressive spirit. As Orestes A. Brownson, a hero of my youth, once said, "The men of wealth, the businessmen, manufacturers and merchants, bankers and brokers, are the men who exert the worst influence on government in every country... . They act on the beautiful maxim, åLet the government take care of the rich, and the rich will take care of the poor,' instead of the far safer maxim, åLet the government take care of the weak, the strong can take care of themselves.'"

"Governments," Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, "must apply themselves to restore to men that love of the future with which religion and the state of society no longer inspire them." The great strength of democracy is its capacity for self-correction. The work of the Progressives is far from finished.