Why Progressives Are Losing the National Debate

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As progressives struggle in the polls, they might look back to their namesakes for inspiration


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Americans are grappling with struggling markets, captured regulators, languishing employment, and rising inequality. Self-identified progressives, mostly found on or to the left of the Democratic Party, have for years made these issues central to their agenda. The moment seems ripe for the popular embrace of progressive policies. Instead, progressives find themselves embattled. "Voters feel ever more estranged from government -- and...they associate Democrats with government," explains Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. The result is that "a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism."

That has not always been so. At the beginning of the last century, the movement from which modern-day progressives take their name capitalized on a crisis of government legitimacy to increase dramatically the scope, scale and responsibilities of government. If progressives wish to recapture popular support, they might reflect on that earlier example.

Progressivism, then as now, was less a coherent ideology than a set of loosely allied and sometimes starkly opposed groups and beliefs. Wikipedia defines Progressivism as "a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action." That captures, with reasonable accuracy, its current connotations. But it misses the more important half of the original progressive project. Progressives did not merely seek to use government as an instrument of reform. As historian Robert Wiebe has argued, they pursued a revolutionary approach to government itself. 

Progressives offered a clear diagnosis of what ailed the body politic: corrupt politicians. They had been captured by party machines and powerful businesses, and labored on behalf of their patrons and themselves instead of the people. Advancing the public interest, it followed, would first require radical, structural reforms of government.

Progressives did not merely seek to use government as an instrument of reform. They pursued a revolutionary approach to government itself.
Deep and abiding distrust of politicians drove reform efforts in two contrasting directions. Many Progressives pushed hard for direct democracy, shifting power to the people and away from their elected representatives. Reformers also sought to insulate government workers from political influence, removing elected officials from the daily administration of government. Together, these reforms promised to strip politicians of much of their power - and hence, their propensity to serve corrupt interests and impede progress. 

Direct democracy, reformers believed, could place a potent check on political power. They advocated the initiative, referendum, and recall. They also pressed for the selection of United States senators by voters, not state legislatures, and the expansion of suffrage. Crucially, reformers tied these structural critiques to practical problems and their solutions. Jane Addams, for example, pressed the case for letting women vote in municipal elections by blaming the dysfunctions of burgeoning urban centers on their exclusion from the electorate. "City housekeeping has failed," she said, "partly because women, the traditional housekeepers, have not been consulted as to its multiform activities." Cleaning trash-strewn streets and polluted water supplies required more than better laws or policies, she implied; it required a better electorate, more directly concerned with such issues.  

Other voices stressed the need for a more modern administration of government itself, patterned on the rationalized bureaucracies of big business. They called for an expanded civil service, appointed on the basis of competitive exams in lieu of patronage. City managers and career bureaucrats would replace mayors and political appointees. Commissions and agencies would assume more responsibilities, and the best, disinterested citizens would be chosen to run them. And, again, these proposals were tied directly to the dysfunctions they were intended to address.

The current progressive movement has, by contrast, tended to promise better policies and improved implementation, while rallying to the defense of government from its critics. It insists that government should do better, but not that we need a better government. Whatever its intellectual merits, this approach has a fatal political flaw: most Americans number themselves among government's critics. They don't think government works terribly well, and they are disinclined to support politicians who do. Voters are increasingly eager to hear accounts of our present crises that offer comprehensive explanations and systematic solutions. Conservatives contend that government itself is the problem, and that the solution is to slash its size and role. That appeals to voters who want narratives that seem scaled to the enormity of the challenges that we face. Progressives offer no equivalently broad diagnosis of government dysfunction, much less an equally compelling remedy.

There are, to be sure, a few rumblings of discontent on the left. The Senate, once again, draws the particular ire of reformers. In December, a coalition of progressive groups released a laundry list of procedural reforms for the upper chamber. Others want to strip it of some of its powers, particularly by reducing the number of Senate-confirmable positions. Lawrence Lessig broadens his critique to include both houses, and advocates comprehensive campaign finance reform as a solution. Economist Paul Romer also blames a Congress that "is for sale at bargain basement prices," arguing that it should delegate the crafting of detailed spending plans to commissions and panels. And Ezra Klein, observing that Congressional gridlock leads to such delegations by default, asks whether it might be "time to admit that this system is broken?"

These proposals, however worthwhile, fail to cohere into a comprehensive critique. Their timidity becomes particularly glaring when they are stacked up against earlier reforms. The original Progressives amended the Constitution four times, doubled the size of the electorate, and invented the modern civil service. Reducing the number of senate-confirmable positions hardly compares. The sweeping reforms of the first decades of the twentieth century, moreover, built broad confidence in the ability of government to serve as a force for good. The narrow reforms mooted at the dawn of the twenty-first seem unlikely to restore that confidence.    

In strictly political terms, the particular reforms may matter less than the narrative they support. Most Americans are convinced that their government is fundamentally broken. And if progressives want to sell the public on the idea that government can solve our problems, they first need to identify, and explain how they will fix, the problems with our government.

Image: Progressive Party Certificate, 1912/National Archives
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Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.

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