The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Counter-Progressive Era

We are living in a counter-progressive era.

Upon reading this pronouncement, many people will want to argue the point.  That's fine.  Drawing out opinions is as much the purpose of this blog as is informing them.  Before you disagree, however, let me make sure we're on the same page.

To both the conservatives who view the word "progressive" as a stand-in for the word "liberal" and the liberals who view it the same way, be aware that when I say "progressive," I do not mean "liberal."

For one thing, I would never claim that we are living in a "counter-liberal" era.  What would that mean when, propaganda from the founder of The American Spectator aside, liberal ideology is reflected in so many of our policy discussions, debates, and candidates?

No, I mean very precisely that we are living in a counter-progressive era.  To explain, let's talk for a moment about what it means to be progressive.

Progressive Thinking in Practice

Conservatives view government as something to be feared and liberals see it as something to be celebrated, but both behave as if government is eternal.  This makes the question is who will control it, with the corresponding goals of either containing it from or enabling it to do what it does.  A conservative success is dealing with government, for instance, is one that prevents "it" from "stealing" people's money or "infringing" on their liberties.

The progressives grasped the fundamental truth that government is not eternal, and that in a democracy it is not only a construct but specifically our construct.  There is no government but what we ourselves create, and the government is us.  Therefore, anything that "it" wants to do or does is a function of what we want to do, and -- this is important -- we can do anything.

The first half of the 20th Century was dominated by progressive ideas, and examples of this can-do approach abound.  No progressive rejected the claim that an income tax was unconstitutional, but that did not impress them.  Government is of, by, and for the people; they wanted to enact the tax, so they amended the Constitution to reflect their will.

And they did it often.

With what amounted to a national show of hands, progressives destroyed foundational principles on which American government was established by transferring election of senators from state governments to the voting public and then seven years later including women alongside men as members of the voting public. 

Furious with the giant wealth transfer mechanism of liquor peddled to exhausted workers who in turn traded back to company stores the very earnings for which they had given their liberty, progressives established in no uncertain terms that the sale, possession and consumption of "intoxicating beverages" was illegal -- then decided sixteen years later that they had been wrong, and by another show of hands undid what they had done.

Beyond the Constitution, the Progressive Era of the 20th Century saw the dismantling of cronyism in favor of a professionalized civil service, the establishment of systemic and scientific means of assessing food and drug purity and safety, and the oversight and regulation of the banking system. 

It also featured the establishment of the Selective Service, the "draft" process by which American citizens were conscripted to fill the armies of the nation during time of war.  Far from being the attempt to shuffle wars onto the poor that it had become by the time of Vietnam, the draft was first enacted for precisely the opposite reason: among the most zealous and idealistic of Americans with the students and children of the wealthy, and as it became clear that these were leaving to join British and French forces in prosecuting the First World War even with American neutrality still in effect, lawmakers rushed to find a way to field troops that would ensure that America did not lose an entire educated generation in an instant.

Were the actions taken by progressive governments infringements on individual liberty?  Of course they were.  But those individuals who felt their liberty infringed were members of a society that had banded together for the purpose of protecting it.  That protection was not magical but a function of the effort of everyone made to keep America free.  Thus, progressive thinking reasoned (and progressives were very big on reason over ideology; this was a scientific age), American freedom itself was a function of American will, and could be "protected" only insofar as the American people themselves defined it.

The same reasoning applied to business.  Confronted with anti-trust claims, financier J.P. Morgan suggested that Theodore Roosevelt should "have his man see my man and fix it."  Morgan missed the central tenet of progressive thinking and therefore did not anticipate Roosevelt's response -- that as President of the United States, his demands were the demands of the American people and could in no way be compared to or negotiated against the preferences of even the great banking magnate.  (The government won.)

Progressive ideals fueled American mobilization and victory in the Second World War, the rebuilding of Europe, resolve in the face of Soviet aggression (e.g. the Berlin Airlift), the establishment of the social safety net including the health programs of the Johnson years, and the long campaign to dismantle segregation and confront racism that today we call the Civil Rights Movement. 

Progressives did not necessarily agree with one another as to particular outcomes.  What they did believe was that they could accomplish their goals through government, which was more a function than it was an establishment or entity.  The act of government, the exercise of power by the American people, was by definition acceptable and proper whenever it occurred; the government could not "overstep" because the actions were taken by us rather than it.

But do you hear that language today?  What happened?

Reversals and the Changed Mindset of Today

To be sure, there are still progressives.  Some would be astonished to know that these exist on both the political left and right, but let's be clear: many people on the left have outlooks that are rather counter-progressive. 

The vast majority of Americans today see government as something that is, an existing entity that can be taken over and leveraged but whose limits are fixed by something.  On the right, for instance, it is common to hear the Constitution discussed as if it were the Ten Commandments, carved in stone by God and handed down in as-is form.  That many of the key provisions were changed, or even that some of the most sacred of their beliefs (such as the right to bear arms) were only introduced as amendments, somehow does not impact this view of the world.

Where the progressives saw our system as purely representative, we have come to see it as immutable.  We see no way out of the gridlock of current politics -- even though we could with a national show of hands scrap the filibuster or scrap an entire house of Congress.  We feel doomed by a national debt that is utterly meaningless, denominated in a currency purely of our own making and as uncollectable as a pledge to turn over all of the air on Earth.  (In all of the fearmongering about China and debt collection, have you ever wondered how one collects a debt from a debtor holding a thousand nuclear bombs?)

This sense that the government is an alien partner or oppressor than than a manifestion of our own power and will in turn robs of us our imagination.  Barack Obama infamously "spent" $800 billion trying to stimulate the economy -- but what did that money really do?  Half of it went out in tax cuts (little mention of that from Republicans, mind you) because tax cuts were easy to do.  More than another third was handed to state and local governments to pay current bills. 

Somewhere in the mix, a few billion was floated for high-speed rail pilot projects.  But have you noticed that we are, $800 billion later, still talking about our "crumbling roads and bridges," and the high rate of unemployment? 

There are more than 15 million work-eligible Americans out of work today.  $800 billion was enough to overtly pay each of them a $50,000 salary for a year and utterly eliminate unemployment -- and that idea was never, ever discussed.

Americans today exist in a state of idolization of market forces and so-called "job creators."  We don't ask ourselves why it is that in a country where enough food exists to feed every person virtually anything he or she might want to consume on a given day, we still cling to a model of price-rationing that guarantees hunger to so many.  We point to the past and say that people always worked for their food, missing that for virtually all of the past food was actually scarce rather than abundant and always sidestepping that we employ a vast and thoroughly abused underclass of people whose sole function is to grow and deliver that endless bounty.  Surely, these are not the ones benefitting from the price-rationing.

What is wrong with a nation whose people look at an unemployed physicist and ask why he hasn't taken a job as a janitor so he can be "working" -- as if the societal value of work were irrelevant compared to the paycheck that the act of working delivers?  But this is how we think.

And social issues are no different.  Court decisions can be important catalysts and sustaining fuel for ongoing popular campaigns, because they strike at existing laws and bring them to national attention, but the real victory of the Civil Rights era was the Civil Rights Act, not Brown v. Board.  The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed black Americans the right to vote in 1869 but was uniformly ignored in the wake of the Hayes Compromise until the Voter Rights Act was passed a century later.  Writing something down doesn't make it powerful; it becomes powerful when people stand behind it.

But on the social issues of today, where are we?  The push for redefinition of marriage is being waged primarily in a series of court cases, and we have already seen the outcomes: when courts establish rights that voters have not agreed to back, they often move to amend constitutions to eliminate those rights. 

Are advocates of so-called gay marriage hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will find for them a Constitutional implication of their right to marry?  This would be utterly unnecessary if a broader effort were made to positively provide for the redefinition of marriage at the Federal level, something possible with broad popular support.  Absent that support -- absent progressive action -- a court decree may well prompt a backlash, leading to a Constitutional amendment that explicitly defines marriage in paired heterosexual terms ("one man and one woman").  To prevent that, redefinition advocates need win over just twelve states, which would make ratification impossible.  But if a court end-run inflames popular passions against them, those advocates may find that they have not only lost everything for a moment but now need thirty-nine states to pass a new amendment repealing the first.

Everywhere, there are walls being erected.  The leftists in the Occupy movement consume commericial bottled water instead of demanding repair and improvements of the world's most envious public water system.  On the right, people fawn over deference to our men and women in uniform while urging their own sons and daughters to avoid military service, now an optional profession rather than the national duty it was in the Progressive Era.  We argue over which agencies to cut and which to fund whether asking what it is that they provide and whether that is being done well, saying we can't afford it instead of asking whether we need it.


No society that has built a wall has thrived because of it.  The transition from can-do expansionism to an effort aimed at maintaining the status quo (particularly as it relates to one's own society's accomplishments) stands out in history as the point at which societal decline sets in.  People seek to safeguard themselves because they believe some are inevitably lost; they build private toll roads because they have given up on the notion of a generally accessible and sufficient network for public travel.

In a counter-progressive climate, where everything becomes more and more about onesself and less about the society in which we live and our duty to that society, we enter a paradoxical spiral: the more we cling to what we have, the more we must consume to stay where we are as the people around us fail to keep up.  Economies and social networks are both circulative.  Clinging to your money may leave you with a high-tallied bank account on a street of foreclosed homes, populated by dangerous people who have each laid claim to a weapon and have their sights set on your family.

Forget about the debt.  Is this hopeless, docile world the one that we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?

And if we can't break the cycle of how we think about government, does it really matter which party is overseeing the gridlock in Washington?

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