Old School Progressivism

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.

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All is Lost

This election, for many Democrats, wasn’t only about a candidate.

Hillary Clinton was not just a candidate but their candidate. Not just a Democratic candidate but the Democratic Party itself. The Clinton New Democrats have defined and controlled the party for decades. And Hillary Clinton has become the face and voice of the party establishment, of the Democratic worldview. Many Democrats, especially women, have looked to her as a leader long before she ran for the presidency.

What ended was an era. It felt like a stake to the heart of what was left of the progressive vision. It was a loss of a promise, a loss of the guarantee that no matter how bad it could feel at times the United States was fundamentally good and getting better. Democrats didn’t just lose an election. Their entire sense of reality was demolished and their vision torn out by the roots.

How could someone like Donald Trump win? It is incomprehensible to these good liberals. Trump stands for everything they fear and hate, the type of old school bigotry-spewing demagogue and misogynist that this country supposedly left behind when we entered this new century. These Democrats see themselves on the side of good. How could they lose? It was supposed to be impossible for someone like Trump to come to power. All the mainstream media, all the experts, all the polling said it couldn’t happen.

Now, having put all their faith in Hillary Clinton, they’ve been profoundly demoralized and publicly shamed. Their entire sense of the world has been shaken. They are asking themselves, what country is this that I live in? Simply put, they are shocked, maybe traumatized even, and they find themselves in a state of mourning. Nothing will ever be the same again. In their anguish and despair, they’ve gathered in public places to comfort one another, to protest, to have the opportunity to speak and be heard. They want to be reassured that they are not alone, that there are others who understand and share their sadness, their fears, a jumble of emotions and doubts.

Those on the outside see it as a strange response. It’s an election, like many elections before. There are always losing candidates and bad feelings among those who supported those candidates. Also, this isn’t the first time a party has been so severely challenged. In fact, this country has faced many periods of worse conditions than this. Objectively, the stolen election of 2000 was a far more important failure, and yet most partisan Democrats were oblivious of its significance at the time (and most remain oblivious). Nor is this as bad as the Whig Party losing power in being replaced by the Republican Party, Republicans losing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for three elections in a row, Richard Nixon’s presidency ending with the Watergate scandal, etc.

We haven’t experienced an assassination, civil war, revolution, coup d’etat, or societal collapse. It was just another election, nothing particularly shocking about that. Elections happen on a regular basis. That misses the point, though. It’s easy to be dismissive. This wasn’t a normal election, in so many ways.

It’s slowly dawned on me how this has impacted partisan Democrats and why that impact has been so powerful. When they look upon someone like Trump and his ‘deplorables’, the good liberals feel disgust, an unmoderated and overwhelming disgust. To be fair, Pew found that 55% of voters in general state that they feel disgust about the campaign. But Pew also found a clear difference in Democrats taking it more personally: “Clinton backers – particularly highly educated ones – have more difficulty respecting Trump supporters than the other way around.”

This disgust response is not a rational assessment of the problems we face but a visceral reaction that knocks their legs out from under them, hits them in the gut, hurts their heart, etc. For many of them, it makes them physically ill, in the way that smelling puke can make you puke. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many Clinton supporters took a sick day after the election.

Why is that?

J. Scott Wagner, in his new book The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives, offers an explanation that seems to fit. In differentiating the two main ideological predispositions, he explains the disgust response (Kindle Locations 4767-4778):

“I think conservative disgust ties in with the strange, strong evidence of conservative strength in the sense of smell, where the disgust response long ago originated in humans. They seem to have a way of “sniffing out” situations, and then use appropriate, mild levels of disgust to set a boundary that doesn’t just max out all at once, like liberal disgust. The emotional reaction is muted. Some research has shown conservatives with broadly higher levels of specific types of brain activity than liberals when disgusted, yet reporting the same perceived level of disgust: this may mean that they’re used to interpreting and dealing with greater impacts from disgusting events without being as emotionally affected.[ 145] It feels to me as if mild levels of disgust are so common for them that they learn to live with it, so that it doesn’t overwhelm them unless there’s a strong reason to be disgusted.

“When I’m around liberals who are disgusted, it’s hard to miss. With conservatives, in situations like business or casual social situations, it can be hard to detect, yet the effects can be dramatic, at least over time. Their politeness often takes the form of being reserved, after all, so what they’re thinking and feeling doesn’t spill out as readily or clearly, even if they’re experiencing disgust.”

Wagner is right about his assessment. And he is right that this fits into the issue of boundaries and boundary types, a topic I’ve discussed with him before in this blog. Liberals can’t simply shut off disgust or compartmentalize it, at least not to the extent that conservatives are so easily able to do. About emotional unpleasantness, liberals “can leave the experience with a much worse feeling than the conservative does; more emotionally affected” (Kindle Locations 3267-3268).

This is because liberals tend toward being thin boundary types. There is less division and distance between aspects of a liberal’s life and experience. This applies as well to perception of time, as the past is never entirely past for the thin boundary type. As such, an election doesn’t just end. Also, the results aren’t limited to the boundaries of politics. Thin boundaried liberals take it personally. I could hear this in the words that liberals spoke after Trump’s election. They immediately jumped to the personal effect they imagined this would have on people they personally know and care about. The potential harm that could follow from bigotry let loose is real to them, as if it has already happened to them personally.

So, it wasn’t a mere lost election. The world they know, feel, and experience is threatened. And the worldview they held no longer makes sense, no longer applies to what this election has shown the world to be. It may not be the literal end of the world, but it is the end of their world, that is to say the world that they have become personally invested in and fought for. It doesn’t matter that, as someone like myself might argue, that the good liberal dream has never been a reality. Nor does it matter that Hillary Clinton was never actually the person they believed her to be. What has been destroyed is a hope and a promise, the sense that the world was moving toward something better.

Naive as it may seem, good liberals genuinely believed in the good liberal vision, no matter how many inconvenient facts critics and doubters pointed out. It wasn’t that the good liberal vision always succeeded and perfectly matched reality. The point was they had good intentions and that, however slow it took, real progress was being made. They saw themselves on the right side of history, a moral arc that bent toward justice. But now they feel as if they’ve been abandoned and all is lost.

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 3/23/13

Here are a few things that caught my attention. Taken together, they almost form a loosely coherent thought-web about the complexity of the left/right spectrum and some interesting examples in contemporary politics, from left-wing states’ rights secessionists to conservatives of the liberal tradition. I’ll share them without any commentary:

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Move over, Texas: In the Green Mountain State, it’s leftists who want to secede.
By Christopher Ketcham

“Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.””

Conservatives Please Read
Book review by Historied of Sidanius and Pratto’s Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression

“I have worked as an executive in the corporate sector for 35 years and felt how powerfully this approach could be used there. The chronic lack of real talent to solve real issues of the business and environment, is very much compounded by issues of dominance and restriction of the search for talent and the education of talent to elite groups who are often clueless about the world. And this book provides a critical thinking 101 approach quite independent of its content.The growing hereditary nature of management succession (think President of the USA)is part of social dominance. The socially dominant send their kids to the best schools and these seem to be structured to restrict critical thinking or divert it into postmodernist irrelevance. This book helps you see such apparently unconnected phenomena in new ways. And it might direct students towards structurally relevant issues of society rather than the marginal. While this book is an obvious resource for the oppressed, I heartily recommend it to members of socially dominant power groups like myself.”

Comment by Andrew on Corey Robin’s post Edmund Burkey on the Free Market

“I’ve always been a fan of SDO theory. It reconcils social dominance and ‘selfishness’ with altruism, solving the riddle by positing that egalitarianism is actually a form reverse social dominance whereby the group overpowers the alphas and thens uses threat of violence and/or humiliation to keep any one member of the group from becoming more power than the other. This pairs nicely with anthropologists’ and of course, Marx and Engels’ observations on the ‘primitive communism’ of early hunter-gathering societies.

“Although many would likely cringe at the suggestion, I feel it’s an actual evolutionary explanation for the differences between leftwing and rightwing politics.”

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?
By Patrick J. Deneen

“There’s a further problem in the contemporary narrative that has been developed by conservatives regarding the course of the Constitution. While the narrative of the Constitution’s corruption by Progressives has been popularized by Glenn Beck, it has largely been developed by scholars who study in the tradition established by the German émigré scholar, Leo Strauss. They largely rely on a significant essay written by Strauss entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” In that essay, Strauss explains that the break with antiquity – particularly classical Greek and Roman as well as Christian thought – was inaugurated by thinkers of “modern Natural Right,” in an incipient form by Machiavelli and then further by Hobbes and Locke. These thinkers argued that a new science of politics was needed, one that was not as resigned simultaneously to a vision of ideal politics based upon the inculcation of virtue, and also a theory of decline that necessarily accompanied those high aims, as that which characterized ancient thought. Building on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke sought to channel the great source of political strife toward productive ends, particularly in the areas of commerce and expansion of human knowledge (modern science). Aided by the insights of Hobbes’s one-time boss, Francis Bacon, the new science of politics was devoted to “the relief of the human estate,” a project that relied upon the new natural sciences for the expansion of human power and mastery over nature. This “first wave” of modernity recognized the inherent imperfectability of human beings – thus, that we have a nature, and that a successful politics can be built upon that nature – and served as the philosophical basis for the American founding.

“The “second wave” of modernity is called by Strauss “historicism.” Like a wave – following upon and deriving its content from the previous wave – this “second wave” took its point of departure from an instability within the first wave. The “second wave” of modernity took the basic insight of the philosophers of the first wave – that nature was subject to human control – and extended this insight to human nature itself. If external nature were subject to human dominion, why not human nature itself? Thinkers like Rousseau, Condorcet, Comte, and later, John Stuart Mill, developed the idea of human perfectibility, of the human ability to master not only external nature, but to improve human nature as well. If philosophers of the “first wave” argued that human nature was unalterable, philosophers of the “second wave” argued that human nature could be improved concurrent with an improvement in the material domain. The concept of moral progress became a central feature in second wave philosophy, a progress in historical time that was believed to culminate in man’s perfection, even ascent to a godlike condition. In America, thinkers like Dewey, Croly and later, Richard Rorty adopted the basic insights of this “second wave” of modernity.

“What Strauss perceived – and what his epigones too often overlook – is that the seeds of the second wave are planted within the logic of the first wave. A theory that rejects the fundamental governance of nature (at least that nature external to humanity) – or natural law – and substitutes this ancient Aristotelian and Thomistic standard for a more utilitarian calculus of interest inevitably jeopardizes any standard and even its own effort to ground its politics on a now more limited understanding of human nature. The “second” wave is embedded in the first wave – that is, lacking a standard by which humans are to be limited, their tendency will be to develop a political philosophy that invites thorough re-creation not only of our environment, but of the human creature. According to the implicit logic of Strauss’s argument, we do better to see that Progressive liberalism is the consequence of “Classical Liberalism,” and not its wholesale betrayal, as many today would like to believe.

“Strauss discerned that it is from the very individualistic basis of liberalism that arose the collectivist impulse of “progressivism,” initially in communism and fascism, but today in what we might call “progressive liberalism.” The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.

“It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.”

The ‘About’ page for the Front Porch Republic website

“The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.”

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto
By John Halpin

“As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.”

The Fall of Beck

As usual, Glenn Beck is in the news for causing outrage, but I there is a difference recently. Many people, including myself, have predicted that it is inevitable that Beck would go too far at some point, if not entirely go over the edge. For the time being, he is still managing to hold onto his sanity, but he has steadily been losing support.

Advertisers have been leaving Beck’s show for a while, but Beck retains his corporate support because the attention he brings still translates into profit for Fox News in general. Plus, as long as he is serving the political purposes of the powers that be within the conservative movement, it’s worth supporting a show that isn’t justifiable in terms of profit. More telling is that recent articles have pointed out that there is dissent within Fox News. Some people working there think Beck is problematic for Fox News and for serious journalism. Management there have Beck on a short leash and so putting him on air is a calcuated risk. Is it paying off?

Certainly, Fox News became wildy successful during Bush’s administration for obvious reasons. They might’ve been fine if they had just coasted on that success, but instead they’ve pushed the fear mongering and hate mongering which has worked for them so well. The problem is that the public is finally getting tired about this kind of media outrage and frenzied bipartisanship… and this is Beck’s personal formula of success. At some point, Fox News will have to cut Beck free or else increasingly lose profits. I think they’ll keep him around at least until the next presidential election. Beck is the GOP’s big cannon. Also, it would be dangerous for them to let him go because then they could no longer keep him controlled and keep him on message.

At the moment, the real force of criticism against Beck is coming from the American public. He is just now getting to that point of going too far. Two issues recently exemplify this.

First, Beck had a recent show where he criticized some of the bastions of mainstream American culture including Bruce Springstein. Beck has become so paranoid that he sees Commies and Nazis everywhere. Many people have shared his general fear of some nefarious problem within our culture, but he will lose support when he pulls his attention away from politicians. Everyone loves to bash politicians. Bashing the Boss is, however, unacceptable. Springstein was for a long time seen as the voice of the working class, the Rock n’ Roll representative of middle America. Beck is treading on thin ice.

Second, Beck had another recent show where he attacked the Christian tradition of social justice as un-Christian. That is a very bad move. Christians are Beck’s base and this gives an opportunity for Progressive Christians to get heard. Jim Wallis once had hope that Bush was being honest when he campaigned on bipartisanship, but of course was disappointed. The GOP has no place for Christians who aren’t fundamentalists. Beck played off of this culture war that Bush ramped up, but people can only take so much of the endless outrage. In recent years, the right has been losing battle after battle in the culture wars. There influence is still great, but the influence of religious left has been growing. Even fundamentalists Christians are starting to question the role of religion in politics and starting to question whether the ends justifies the means.

Beck doesn’t really matter in the big picture. I’m increasingly convinced that he is just a symptom of a deeper problem. The American public isn’t well informed about most issues and they’re easily swayed by hate and fear. As long as that is the case, ideologues such as Beck will pop up whenever our culture becomes gripped by paranoia. It happens in cycles (Strauss and Howe claim it happens in predictable cycles). There was Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s ranting against the same scapegoat/enemies that Beck rants against today. As the economy improves and the memory of 9/11 loses its edge, Beck will lose his popularity and he will just be another dark blotch on American history.

On a less serious note, the best defense against Beck’s brand of fear-mongering is humor and parody. Along with Fox News, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert also rose to prominence during Bush’s administration. Liberals in general have taken note and people like Beck have been rightfully mocked. A high quality example of this is a recent video (link below) that demonstrates the inanity of Beck’s message. Enjoy!

http://beck.cnnbcvideo.com/#