“It will be as exciting as the 1930s.”
~ Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist
Here is a small history lesson.
It appears that many Americans, across the ideological and demographic spectrum, are quite confused by this seeming new species of politics we’re seeing. But the fact is that it isn’t new. And it isn’t just hidden prejudices surfacing from the deep like Moby Dick, the great white whale that destroys the ship. There is some racism and misogyny being churned up, and it is blatant in a way not seen in a long while. But the question is what is churning it up.
I’ve had a suspicion for a while and some statements by Trump’s adviser, Steve Bannon, seem to confirm it. Bannon said that he isn’t a white nationalist, rather an American nationalist and economic nationalist, and that if they do things right even minorities will support them. He talked about concrete policies like a trillion dollar infrastructure project. The Trump administration apparently is trying to revive old school progressivism. I find it interesting that liberal Democrats no longer recognize it, even as it smacks them upside the head — they viciously attacked economic populism as if it were a dangerous invader when it showed up in their own party.
So, what is old school progressivism?
Progressivism of the past did tend to be socially conservative in some ways and comfortable with certain kinds of prejudices. The old school progressive leaders were fine with making alliances with racists, if that was needed to accomplish their goals. The religious right has historically loved old school progressivism, when it comes to power, and old school progressives tend to find common cause with the religious right. Populist reform mixes economic reform with social and moral reform.
Progressive leaders like the Roosevelts, also coming from inherited business wealth, were strongly nationalistic and promoted patriotism. They were all for a strong military and strong borders, leading to a mistrust of perceived foreigners and restrictions on immigration. And if you were seen as not being in the national interest for the moment, as happened with certain minorities during WWII (Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans), you just might find yourself thrown into a internment camp. They were law and order presidents who didn’t mind using force when necessary, not always worrying about political correct niceties. But when possible, they were more than happy to use a carrot rather than a stick… or to walk quietly while carrying a big stick.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and cleaned house. He basically told everyone that they’d play nice together… or else! When unions tried to assert their power, he responded by being the most union-busting president seen in US history. Yet when big biz got out of hand in being overtly oppressive and even violent toward workers, he stepped in to demand that workers were treated with basic decency and fairness. The interests of both workers and capitalists were forced to fall in line with national interests. It was a progressive corporatism that only later became reactionary corporatism. And he raised the taxes on businesses and on the rich like never seen before or since to help fund those national interests.
He used that tax money to build the middle class with aid to veterans, cheap college and housing, a strong welfare state, and worker protections. If you were willing to work hard and work within the system, you felt secure in knowing you’d probably do well. This was the foundation of what many came to see as the American Dream. He also used that tax money to build infrastructure and modernize the entire country, bringing the national economy into position as part of the country’s new global power, so that American businesses had the power of the US government behind them in the boom years as US military and economy became a global force following the aftermath of WWII.
We haven’t seen an old school progressive elected to the presidency since that time. And so we’ve forgotten what it looks like… or at least what it sounds like. We have no idea if Trump will follow through on this political vision that is still in the process of being formulated. But that also fits into the uncertainty that is felt by many when progressivism comes to power, bringing along with it a tinge of radicalism and risk-taking, putting everything on the line to create a new order.
I’m not saying you should support Trump and feel inspired by his vision. I’ve never thought he necessarily meant anything he has said. And I’ve never trusted his motivations. I’d apply the same caution toward Bannon, of course. Even so, you should understand what it is that’s being said and why it is so powerful at times like these. This kind of populist rhetoric leading to this kind of populist movement is far from unknown in American history. And it doesn’t easily fall into simple left/right categories. Even if you want to fight it, you better understand what you’re fighting. Old school progressivism is a powerful beast.
* * *
There is another aspect of old school progressivism. It just occurred to me. The aspect is that of technocratic management, sometimes associated with modern liberalism but with its origins in early Progressivism.
The clear example of it was FDR’s administration. He saw society and the economy as something to be managed and, of course, it was assumed that those who would manage it were the technocratic experts. It wasn’t just that there needed to be central management. That had existed before. The difference was that it was an overt and direct management.
That is what justified forcing both organized labor and the capitalist class to work together. Prior to that, the labor wars were often violent, sometimes erupting into gunfights between workers and corporate goons, often the Pinkertons. The Progressive vision was in response to a violent and lawless time in US history, what felt like social breakdown with the rise of gangs and organized crime, along with the privatized police forces like the Pinkertons.
It was also a time of corruption with many politicians being openly bribed. The idea of Progressivism was to create a professional bureaucracy that eliminated cronyism, favoritism, nepotism, and all other forms of corruption. The idea was to create a meritocracy within the government. The most qualified people would be put into official positions and so this decision-making taken out of the control of party leaders.
It would be a well managed government.
So, it was interesting when I heard Trump use similar rhetoric, from something he said a year ago. The specific issue he was talking about is irrelevant, as he walked back his support immediately afterward. It was the way of talking itself that matters most, as it shows the kind of attitude he will bring to politics. In explaining how he would accomplish something, he stated that:
“It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures and we can do that… it’s all about management, our country has no management.”
The issue that he was talking about is relevant in one particular way. It was about law and order. That is what management meant in old school progressivism. A well managed society was an orderly society based on the rule of law and enforced by a professional bureaucracy. There is a paternalism in this worldview, the heart of progressivism. The purpose of a government was seen as taking care of problems and taking care of the citizenry.
I’ll be curious to see what this kind of language means for the Trump administration.