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October 29, 2008

a new progressive era?

A reporter asked me yesterday whether a hypothetical Obama victory might mark the beginning of a "new progressive era" (which happens to be the title of my 2000 book). It occurs to me that, yes, we might see a new progressive era, as long as we understand that phrase in a certain way.

In my view, the original Progressive Era was not defined by one agenda or set of policies, such as the launch of new federal regulatory agencies. It was defined by some very vigorous debates among people who called themselves progressives but had quite different orientations. They all agreed about some problems, such as the human suffering and environmental degradation that accompanied industrialization. But they disagreed profoundly about such essential matters as the role of expertise versus citizen participation; the conflict between centralized and local power; the value of cultural pluralism as opposed to some kind of unified natural culture; the organization and methods of the press; and the proper role of "special interests" (including unions, parties, and ethic associations) versus nonpartisan "public interest" associations such as the League of Women Voters. People who called themselves "progressives" could actually take diametrically opposite positions on these issues.

So a New Progressive Era would mean a reopening of such debates among people who were generally dissatisfied with the performance of the market but who disagreed about other important matters. Like their Progressive forebears, they would have to invent or develop new institutions and modes of social organization appropriate to a new economy. In general, these new institutions should be flatter and more open than the bureaucracies of the mid-20th century.

It's my sense--perhaps it's only my hope--that Barack Obama would stand on the side of his Midwestern Progressive forebears, people like Jane Addams and Robert LaFollette, as opposed to the technocrats of the Progressive Era (most of whom happened to be Easterners). One could trace a lineage from Addams to Obama, two organizers of Chicago neighborhoods, although obviously Obama has had many other influences.

I thought that the central questions of the Progressive Era figured in the primary campaign between Obama and Clinton. Obama took the populist side when he expressed skepticism about a national health system and when he argued that it was the grassroots Civil Rights Movement that had achieved voting rights in the 1960s, from the bottom up. Clinton, in contrast, had tried to create a complex, expert-driven, national health-care system in the 1990s. She dropped that goal only for pragmatic reasons. In debating the Civil Rights Era with Obama, she argued that professional politicians had played an essential role. Neither position is obviously wrong; but I found the difference interesting.

In the 1912 presidential campaign, the progressives were Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Robert M. LaFollette. All three went on the record decrying centralization, arrogant professionalism, bureaucracy, and the loss of neigbourly community. But Wilson's administration (1913-1921) permanently increased the power of experts and bureaucrats in Washington. LaFollette criticized this trend from the Senate, but he had lost the presidential campaign, and his own home state of Wisconsin drifted in a technocratic direction while he worked in Washington. We never had the opportunity to see what a Midwestern populist pluralist would do if he actually won the White House.

October 29, 2008 12:25 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


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