June 13, 2007
a new progressive era?
Tomorrow, I'm presenting at the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) National Policy Forum. I've been invited to speak on a panel entitled, "A New Progressive Era? The Influence of State and Local Initiatives on National Policy." Presumably, I was invited because I wrote a book entitled The New Progressive Era. I don't have much to say about the real topic of the panel, which is whether "recent local and state initiatives on employment and labor relations" will lead to "national level policies." If I'm going to be any help at all, I need to reflect on general parallels between the Progressive Era (1900-1924) and today. This will also be a chance to present a different view of the original progressive movement than the one I held in the 1990s.
Huge changes occurred during the Progressive Era, and the word "progressive" had such positive connotations at the time that proponents of every important development liked to call it "progressive." (Walter Lippmann observed in 1921 that "an American will endure almost any insult except the charge that he is not progressive.")
Among the important changes that could be called "progressive" were: administrative centralization in industry and government; specialization, professionalization, and the cult of science and expertise throughout society; the increased use of formal rules and regulations in both government and business, often to protect consumers; reform legislation designed to reduce the impact of money in politics; the "efficiency movement"; the growth of organized labor (which mimicked forms of administration seen in business and the state); and a new ideal of citizenship. Whereas the 19th century citizen was supposed to be a loyal and enthusiastic member of an identity group, the progressive citizen was supposed to be an independent, informed judge of public policies. That ideal led to concrete reforms such as the secret ballot and attacks on political parties. Overall, politics became less "popular," more a matter of expert administration; and turnout dropped accordingly.
In my book, my heroes were Robert M. La Follette, Sr., Jane Addams, John Dewey, and their associates. Although these three surely deserve the label "progressive" (for instance, La Follette won the Progressive Party nomination), they were ambivalent about the main trends I mentioned above. In the Library of Congress, I read a book manuscript that La Follette wrote--but for some reason never published--criticizing the state government of Wisconsin for becoming overly professionalized, expert-driven, bureaucratic, and distant from ordinary people. Jane Addams battled the Chicago Democratic machine but wrote appreciatively of the emotional connection between a machine Alderman and his constituents. Compared to the "village kindness" of the ward boss, she wrote, "the notions of the civic reformer are negative and impotent .... The reformers give themselves over largely to criticisms of the present state of affairs, to writing and talking of what the future must be; but their goodness is not dramatic; it is not even concrete and human."
I thought that my favorite progressives were characterized by three main principles:
They were democrats, willing to do what the public wanted rather than push policies that they favored for theoretical reasons. That was the heart of Dewey's pragmatism: a rejection of general rules and a commitment to democratic processes. It is what separated all of my heroes from the Socialist Party of the time, which used democratic procedures but which was wedded to Marxist principles. La Follette embodied Deweyan pragmatism even before Dewey wrote any influential books. As a candidate, La Follette typically avoided strong policy proposals but argued for a more democratic process and pledged to do what the people wanted. Most of his policies were procedural--campaign finance, lobby disclosure, and the like. They were egalitarians, critics of political processes that gave some people more power than others because of money, secrecy, or administrative structures. They loved deliberation. La Follette printed the following words by Margaret Woodrow Wilson on the front cover of his popular Weekly in 1914: "No wonder that [politicians] do not always know what the people want. Let us get together so that we may tell them. All of our representatives are organized into deliberative bodies. We, whom they represent, ought also to be organized for deliberation. When this happens, and then only, shall we vote intelligently." For these reformers, democratic participation did not mean developing preferences and expressing them in the ballot box or the marketplace. It rather meant discussion, listening and persuading--collective education.
I would now add a fourth principle:
They understood that deliberation and democracy could not be achieved through changes in rules and processes alone. Citizens needed new skills and identities in order to participate. Culture-change was essential. This explains why they built model institutions with strong democratic cultures, such as Hull-House, the Chicago Lab School, and the University of Wisconsin's Department of Debating and Public Discussion, which sent 80,000 background papers per year to citizen groups.
The people I'm calling Progressives faced several serious dilemmas that we still haven't solved. It was hard to sustain public support for "democracy" without promising concrete social and economic changes. Yet to promise a particular policy, such as a child-labor law, meant circumventing public discussion and dialogue. Progressives appealed to the general or public interest, but people understandably identified with narrower group interests. The Progressives built impressive small institutions that were genuinely deliberative and democratic; but they never figured out how to increase the scale of these efforts. For example, Deweyan educational practices, when implemented on a large scale, became grotesque parodies of his ideas. Finally, despite their ambivalence about expertise and centralization, the Progressives never designed large and strong institutions that remained participatory and egalitarian. The Wisconsin state government that La Follette criticized as bureaucractic and arrogant was the very same government that he had built during his own gubernatorial administration. Although he wasn't directly responsible for how it developed, he did not know how to stop it from becoming a Weberian bureaucracy.
Despite these dilemmas, I believe the Progressives whom I admire contributed an enormous amount to mid-20th-century liberalism. Most progressives (including Dewey) were ambivalent about the New Deal. But the New Deal benefited from the open deliberations of the Progressive Era (which generated a host of creative policy ideas) and from ordinary people's trust in public institutions. People trusted the government and were willing to spend tax money on it because--among other reasons--many teachers, social workers, conservationists, and other public employees had Deweyan traditions of working collaboratively with laypeople. For instance, neighbors of Hull House and its employees had real mutual accountability and respect. So when Hull-House was "taken to scale" in the New Deal, people could feel a place in the new government agencies.
In short, Progressive-Era pragmatism contributed to something that it wasn't--to the ideology of mid-century liberalism that dominated government from the FDR to LBJ. Liberalism was a robust ideology because it had: a comprehensive diagnosis of social problems, a store of moving rhetoric and famous leaders, an impressive array of policies and institutions, and a set of active constituencies, many of which benefited from liberal policies. Thus the ideology replicated itself from generation to generation.
But, in my opinion, mid-century liberalism has been dead for 25 years. The Great Society diagnosis doesn't fit our contemporary problems, many of which have strong cultural dimensions. The leftover institutions, such as public schools and environmental agencies, are insufficiently participatory and accountable. The liberal constituency has shattered, in part because people don't have good reasons to trust the government.
The time is ripe for a revival of La Follette-style pragmatic progressivism. An open-ended, deliberative approach to politics is timely now because we don't have any impressive ideologies. (Conservatism is as dead as liberalism is). An enthusiasm for deliberation is appropriate for an era in which we have exciting new techniques and technologies for public discussion and collaboration. It's time for a new look at government agencies now that businesses and nonprofits are becoming less hierarchical and "flatter." And small-scale experimentation is appropriate given the frailties of our large public institutions. Today's charter schools, watershed restoration projects, community development corporations, and land trusts may well be our equivalents of settlement houses and lab schools.