A while back, Glenn Beck spoke at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Committee), and gave an impassioned speech that included a blistering indictment of "progressivism." (Note: I didn't watch the speech, I caught about 2 minutes of it while channel-surfing and then read various pundits pontificating about it the next day.) Beck said that the biggest threat to the modern USA is this "progressivism," and pointed out that in our last election, we had the choice between a liberal Democrat who embraces "progressivism" and a Republican whose political idol is Teddy Roosevelt, himself the father of the progressive movement. In the minute or so of the speech which I saw, Beck said (and it's been a while, so I'm sure I'm garbling the quote) that you have one party sticking a fork in your eye, and the other party telling you they'll be better because they are only going to stick a toothpick in your eye. Nice analogy.
Well, the progressive movement has been getting a lot of ink lately, and I wanted to wade in, both with some history and some opinion. Last year, Jonah Goldberg wrote a terrific book that went to #1 on the NYT best-seller list called Liberal Fascism. He took a lot of heat for the book, primarily from those who didn't read it or objected to either the title or the cover art (which features a smiley-face with a Hitler mustache). But he correctly points out that (a) our stereotype that communism is left-wing and fascism is right-wing is based on a falsehood; (b) Mussolini was beloved by the American left throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, when he began to behave badly by invading Ethiopia and eventually ally with the Axis; and (c) that the "war socialism" of "progressive" president Woodrow Wilson during WWII was intellectually in the same vein as Italian Fascism (everything from the espionage and sedition acts to the Palmer raids to the use of propganda to the War Industries Board and food rationing).
Now, please note--Goldberg takes great pains to point out that this does NOT mean that liberals, then or now, were Nazis. But I agree with him that the root impulses behind small-f fascism (divorced from Hitlerism), the idea that Mussolini "made the trains run on time," and that this benefit was worth some small dimunition of freedom in exchange, is at the heart of what we call "progressivism." Indeed, one of my personal favorite figures of the era, the humorist Will Rogers, was quoted back in the early 1920s (long before Mussolini became a "bad guy") as saying that this dictatorship business ain't so bad, so long as you get the right dictator. I know that sounds just horrible these days, but it's also exactly what Plato said in The Republic about 2500 years earlier.
So, back to "progressivism." At the turn of the century, there were zillions of areas of American public life screaming out for "reform." Labor issues like the 8-hour day. The "temperance" issue. Political reforms such as the overgrown "spoils system" which had begun with Andy Jackson and had even led to the assassination of President Garfield. Woman suffrage. Anti-lynching laws. What to do about the new phenomenon of "big business," including such monopolies as Standard Oil, US Steel, and the railroads. Tariff reform, and the desire to replace tariff revenue with an income tax. There was not a single "movement" calling out for all of these things at once, but there were numerous reformers willing to make common cause to accomplish their own agendas. That is the world in which Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. And what TR said (correctly, I think), is that the USA by the turn of the 20th century had grown beyond Thomas Jefferson's wildest imagination--that we were too big, too rich, and too interconnected to remain as decentralized and laissez-faire as we had been for the previous 100 years. The best example of this that springs to mind is the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which TR famously supported after reading "muckraker" Upton Sinclair's expose of the meat-packing industry, The Jungle. Back in the days of Jefferson, no one had to worry if their sausage was really sausage. It was bought from a local butcher. The buyer likely knew the butcher personally. He possibly knew the pig personally. But by 1906, it was a good idea to have an inspector certify that certain standards were met. (By the way--even though I'm pretty conservative, I do very much like knowing that my USDA-certified ground round is actual COW.)
Anyway, TR is the one who let the genie out of the bottle. He used the previously-toothless Sherman Antitrust Act to "bust" trusts. He established the primacy of the US government over even the biggest of big businesses (JP Morgan's Northern Securities Corporation). And, over time, he and his successors co-opted many of the populist reform movements into a big tent called "progressivism." But it was Woodrow Wilson who took it to the next level.
The trick is, Wilson did not just breeze into office and impose a smiley-face fascism-lite on the USA. He did so in the face of World War I. Now, I'm no fan of Wilson (for a variety of reasons, including his racism and the feeling that his ego and stubbornness squandered the victory of WWI and set the stage for WWII... but I'm in the minority of historians). But we need to recognize that one of the key conflicts in all of US history is trying to find the proper balance between liberty and security. We may think that our generation's struggling with the ethics of Gitmo and enhanced interogation is something new, but it's not. During the Civil War, Lincoln (arguably our greatest president) suspended civil rights. During WWI, Wilson threw political opponents in jail (Eugene Debs actually ran for president from prison). During WWII, Franklin Roosevelt interned thousands of Japanese-Americans. And after 9/11, congress passed the Patriot Act by overwhelming margins. Pretty much every time we feel threatened, whether in the face of actual war or "the moral equivalent of war" (like the Great Depression), we the people make the same choice that Italians did with Mussolini--we say, "if you'll protect us and make the trains run on time, we'll gladly dilute our liberties... just a little bit." And then, when the threat passes, we calm down, step back, and write histories about how America did not live up to her best principles.
That brings us to today and the current "crisis." Whether it was Wilson (our first and only PhD president) and his "dollar a year men," or FDR and his "brain trust" or JFK and his "best and brightest," we keep on falling into the same trap that Will Rogers did. If only we could get enough brilliant experts on the job, they could run our lives for us better than we can for ourselves. The Ivy Leagues are full of brilliant, earnest, good-hearted young people who are just SURE that they could manage this nation far better--for our own good--than simple rubes who shop at Wal-Mart. They write books like What's the Matter With Kansas, which suggests that if only ignorant Kansans knew their own self-interest better, they would be more liberal politically. And of course, our current president fits in that same academic vein--Columbia undergrad, Harvard law, instructor in a top-tier law school. So once again, we're seeing the same refrain--let us (the smart folks) run things, from GM to Health Insurance, and we'll take better care of you than you would take care of yourselves.
So, Beck has a point--the "progressive" impulse is at the heart of our diminishing freedoms. But the answer is emphatically NOT to go back to the days of rat-poop in the sausage. What we need to recognize is the trade-offs, and the laws of unintended consequences. Many very popular "progressive" ideas didn't work out as planned (prohibition comes to mind, as does the income tax, and the "war on poverty"). Not every change is "progress."