9 Things Progressives Are NOT
Progressives pushed for women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. They generally pushed for a more inclusive, robust democratic community. Today’s progressives are pretty similar—they’re certainly not a movement trying to curtail voting rights or reestablish a thick cultural narrative that excludes elements of the population from community membership.
This is just lazy. It’s like that old Chris Rock bit: “If you’re dating a guy for four months and haven’t met any of his friends—you are not his girlfriend.” If you don’t support the (forceful) abolition of private property, you are not a Marxist. Progressive don’t—so they aren’t.
New rule: Before you call someone a secret Marxist, you’ve gotta go ask an avowed Marxist what he/she thinks about it. Hint: they’re not impressed by “bourgeois” progressivism.
There were plenty of non-believing progressives. There were also plenty of Social Gospel Progressives (Cf. Walter Rauschenbusch, Jane Addams). I’m hesitant to call Monsignor John A. Ryan a progressive, though others lump him into the crowd (though Cardinal George Mundelein probably was). Progressivism’s twenty-first century makeup is pretty similar: capacious enough to include a Niebuhr-admiring president, non-believers, Jim Wallis, and E.J. Dionne.
Here’s a photo from the Progressive Party convention in 1912—count the flags. Check out their platform from that year—there are some bad ideas, but it’s recognizable as a patriotic, American document. Hell, Americana icon Teddy Roosevelt was their nomination for president that year.
5. Technocratic Scientist Wonks:
Like with religion, there’s a distribution here. Herbert Croly was tempted by bureaucratic technocracy. Randolph Bourne wasn’t. John Dewey, progressivism’s leading intellectual, defended democratic deliberation against technocratic “democratic realists” like Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann. If progressivism suffers from this problem again today (and it really does), that’s a consequence of factors other than its ideological content.
Some progressives were (and are) but they were (and are) generally ahead of public opinion on questions of race. A number of progressives—Dewey, Addams, Lincoln Steffens, et al—helped found the NAACP.
7. Economic Naïfs:
Thorsten Veblen, Richard Ely, John Commons, Wesley Mitchell, the Galbraiths, Joseph Stiglitz, et al. You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s nonsense to pretend as though serious economic thought began with Adam Smith and David Ricardo and has been univocal all the way through to Milton Friedman.
Progressive art was—and is—outstanding (and cool). Cf. John Steinbeck, Dr. Seuss, John Dos Passos, Walt Whitman (proto-progressive without a doubt), Upton Sinclair (who was a Marxist, if his works weren’t necessarily Marxist), Edwin Blashfield, etc. The Progressive Era in the United States substantially overlaps with what’s often known as “The American Renaissance.” And nowadays, there’s pretty much no competition when it comes to cool—I’ll take progressives like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Katy Perry (etc) over “cool” conservatives like Meat Loaf, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent any day of the week.
To be fair, there was a brief spate of this during the original Progressive Era, but it was confined to progressives in the GOP (ca. 1913). The Democratic Party’s progressives (then and now) haven’t ever had anything to do with it.