Advancing a Free Society

The Anti-Progressive Era

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A century ago America’s Progressive Era was at its height. Its core idea was that government had an important role to play in economic regulation and social welfare. The modern American state had its origins in the Progressive movement.

That state took a great leap forward in the New Deal of the 1930s and the Second World War of the 1940s. And in subsequent decades it has assumed an ever more expansive role in American domestic and foreign affairs. Here is the central theme of twentieth century American political history.

Are we now on the cusp of an Anti-Progressive Era?

Progressivism challenged the all but unregulated economy and the all but nonexistent welfare state of the nineteenth century. It sought to regulate large corporations, passed the first laws to limit hours and improve working conditions, and advocated a host of other social causes, ranging from child labor reform and women’s rights to prohibition and immigration restriction.

This was not a uniquely American phenomenon. Britain’s New Liberals, and the pre-World War One social democratic and socialist parties of France and Germany, were European counterparts (in many respects ahead of the United States) in this broad effort to create more interventionist government.

The First World War and the Great Depression fostered new, more sinister forms of statism: Soviet Bolshevism, Italian Fascism, German Nazism. And the aftermath of World War Two gave birth to totalitarian states in Asia: Mao Tse-tung’s China, Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

The story in the West was very different. The New Deal was the infinitely more benign American response to the Depression. And much of the post-1945 western world settled down to a Long Peace shared by big business, big labor, and big government. The resulting mix of greater democracy, market capitalism, and expanding social welfare made for an ever more prosperous, free, and popular style of governance.

From a broad historical perspective, the rise of the twentieth century American state was a reaction to the inadequacies of nineteenth century laissez-faire. In our own time there is a still nascent, but growing, opposition to the welfare-regulatory-warfare state. Its unifying theme is that government has become too costly, too intrusive, and too inept to be trusted.

This attitude extends far beyond traditional anti-government conservatives. Popular protests against the Great Society and the Vietnam War--very different in their social and cultural sources, but alike in their anti-statism--posed the first major challenge to the new American Leviathan. Then in the Age of Reagan, deregulation and reduced government spending attained a credibility not seen since the 1920s. Bill Clinton’s journey from 1960s liberalism to welfare reform, and his declaration that the age of big government was over, gave still more credibility to the reaction against the twentieth century state.

That reaction, like its Progressive mirror image a century ago, is part of a larger, international movement. David Cameron’s Big Society of more self-(and voluntary) governance, like the New Labor of Tony Blair before him, challenges major precepts of twentieth century statism. Downsizing, the privatization of public services, and a stress on small business as the primary source of innovation and growth, have wide practical and theoretical appeal today, much as the lure of bigness, in industry and in government, had in the century now past.

The backlash against the state echoes, in an inverse way, the rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth century. The Tea Party movement has some similarities to Populism, Progressivism’s socially unrespectable precursor in the 1890s. The strong anti-state message of the 2010 election resembles the popular appeal of Progressivism at its height.

A century ago, state alliances between corrupt machine politics and corporate business interests fed public outrage. Governors promising, with varying degrees of intensity, to take on these unsavory combines came to office in states such as Wisconsin (Robert La Follette), California (Hiram Johnson), New York (Charles Evans Hughes), and New Jersey (Woodrow Wilson).

Today it is state alliances between entrenched politicians and public employee unions that stoke public outrage. Governors promising, with varying degrees of intensity, to take on these unsavory combines have cropped up in Wisconsin (Scott Walker), California (Jerry Brown), New York (Andrew Cuomo), and New Jersey (Chris Christie)--and most substantially so far, Mitch Daniels in Indiana.

For all this, America is far indeed from adopting a small-government model. The active state may well have as much staying power as laissez-faire economic and social policy did in the nineteenth century.

But while history often has long stretches of stasis, it is also capable of abruptly recasting familiar institutions. The New Deal suddenly emerged, with the Depression; America rapidly became an active, militarily powerful world power in the forcing grounds of World War Two and the Cold War.

For all its limits and contradictions, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century marked the beginning of something new and long-lasting in American public life. Today’s anti-Progressive movement may signify that another sea change is under way.