As we await the arrival of our new president and vice president, cabinet members, and the new members of House and Senate…


During the primary campaign season at one point Senator Hillary Clinton was asked about her political leanings (wasn’t she a true liberal as charged by the Right?). Her reply resonated with a number of people:  I am a Modern Progressive, she told the interviewer.  It got me thinking – what’s wrong with being aprogressive…isn’t it the fundamental drive of the American Dream to make “progress” and be all that we can be, to borrow from the great US Army marketing slogan…as a society…and as individuals?


As we consider how (liberal) or (left-leaning) or (middle-of the road) the incoming administration and factions of the new congress might be, I’d like to put the question in  the context of my belief that we are at the moment of dramatic societal change – this is one of the fundamental, once-in-a-generation shift of American politics and culture– from the dominance of right-leaning (more conservative) politics of the 1980s (and things cultural) to the center-left … and maybe even more left than that.


The perilous state of the economy has a lot to with this – consider the several millions of manufacturing and related industrial jobs lost in the US in recent years; the ongoing chaos in the capital markets; the seizing up of banking and business, government and commercial credit markets; the consequences of our military affairs (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan going on longer than the years this nation fought all of WW II); the erosion of all-white dominance of institutions; the increase in the nation’s non-white populations; the foreclosures that are mounting month-over-month in too many neighborhoods (10,000 US homes a day are foreclosed); the growing wealth and income gaps as the middle and lower economic rungs become ever more slippery for American families …as the wealthy get wealthier-still…and more issues than that to address!


Where does Modern Progressivism fit into these issues?


The original Progressive Movement came together more than a century ago.  Under conditions that include several sounding a bit familiar in 2008.  Immigrants were flooding into the US (the late-1800’s waves came from Italy, Eastern Europe, Russia, and other lands) and many of the recent arrivals were living in terrible conditions as they landed and remained in the crowding cities.


The era’s “Robber Barons” (wealthy interests and strong men who monopolized and controlled the railroads, Wall Street institutions, banking, large corporate enterprises, and numerous monopolies, a/k/a the “Trusts”) were under fire for their practices and ways of doing business.  At many levels of society there was growing displeasure about monopolies, price fixing and other practices of the big businesses of the era.


Common factory workplace conditions for many Americans were about the same as [those] social investors today criticize certain US companies for condoning in their overseas supply chain.


When one of the Robber Barons’ companies took a strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, owner Andrew Carnegie took a trip to the British Isles while his hired strikebreakers, the Pinkertons (with the looking away of local and state officials), savagely attacked the workers, injuring many and killing nine.  Union leaders were charged with murder and treason.  The company broke the back of the movement workers to organize and the concept of collective bargaining.  Such was the state of labor-management (or owner) relations as the new Progressive Movement began.


This was the ending of the “Gilded Age” (said author Mark Twain), delightful times for the elites and the wealthy and super-wealthy (and as he penned, an era full of business and political corruption).  For many in big business firms, working conditions were more like those in Charles Dickens’ novels, such as Ebenezer Scrooge (the owner) and Bob Cratchit (his employee), in the scene from that Christmas Eve in “A Christmas Carol.”


Enter the President as Chief Crusader


As the progressive thinkers in the American society reacted to conditions that they believed had to be changed for the nation to fulfill its promise of social and economic equality, in the White House, an [seemingly] unlikely champion took center stage to dramatically change the way things were:  Ambitious, young, action-oriented, and very bright, Teddy Roosevelt had been governor of New York, and was elected William McKinley’s VP in 1900, mostly to get him out of the way of the Republican big bosses. (He had too many radical thoughts about upsetting the system that benefit the wealthy ownership class.) Upon the assassination of President McKinley, “TR” became President of the United States (September 14, 1901). Throughout his presidency he was a dogged, committed crusader — especially against corruption in both the public sector and the private sector.


In the era of giant corporate enterprises rapidly (and rapaciously) consolidating power and influence on a scale never seen before, President Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement provided a very effective counterbalance.  Seeing threats to the American Democracy and the unique capitalistic system of the USA if things weren’t changed, TR took action and the progressive movement grew to support the concepts advanced.  (He was an unlikely leader of reform of the system because he was born into the wealthy class and easily could have been an elitist leader.) He used what he called “the Bully Pulpit” to rally support for change.


As though the pressure building – especially from below – had blown the lid off the American Society, the reforms flowed forth over two decades:


  • Consumer Protection – advocates drove adoption of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act (resulting in today’s FDA protections; many of today’s food supply protections; regulation of medicines, and more).
  • Protection of Workers – workers got the right to organize; the 8-hour workday became the norm; there was protection of worker health (such as in the coal industry where many suffered from black lung disease); unsafe factory conditions began to be eliminated.
  • Child Labor was controlled – eliminating tiny children working alongside adults in industrial facilities.
  • Urban Residents began to be protected – reforms of the day began eliminating crowded tenement housing, which often led to sickness, including widespread tuberculosis; water supplies were regulated and protected, probably the greatest single factor in health advances in the early 20th Century.
  • Education – Progressives encouraged wider access to education for children, especially in the cities, to eliminate crime and the cycle of poverty, and to begin to build a larger, more educated middle class.
  • Political Corruption Battles – included direct election of member of the US Senate; encouraging closed (secret) ballot elections; addressing the power of political bosses in the big cities; addressing voter fraud.
  • Progressives addressed the root causes of poverty – especially urban poverty, with millions of immigrants flowing to port cities, and then crowding in to work in the steadily expanding universe of factories. (The plight of immigrants were top-of-mind for progressives, including encouraging immigrants to move out of over-crowded cities, and address their health, job, education, and other social needs.)
  • Protecting the Nation’s Natural Resources – President Teddy Roosevelt was in the lead here, setting aside about 100,000 acres a day for the future generations throughout his two terms!  He created sanctuaries and reserves of various kinds by executive order. (The National Park System would come about a few years after he left office, in one of the Progressive Movement’s finest moments.)
  • Treatment of the Nation’s Veterans – encouraging health care for veterans, and pensions for military retirees
  • Fair Taxation – Spreading the Burden – the adoption of a progressive / fair tax system (the personal income tax came during the Progressive Era; before that, the primary means of support the federal government included tariffs on goods.)
  • Encouraging Social and Economic Justice – addressing the situations of Native Americans, and tens of millions of immigrants pouring into the USA – your ancestors and mine!
  • Regulating Industry – curbing the runaway power of large corporations; curbing large business monopolies in key sectors; first President Roosevelt and then successor William Howard Taft led the battle to break up large industrial trusts, such as the Sugar Trust, Steel Trust, Beef Trust, and the Oil Trust (the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil Empire was broken into individual operating companies.)


Progressivism – A Broad Societal Movement


Note that what we’re describing here was in ways a political movement, yes, but the progressives were not necessarily organized as a political party movement (such as “the Democratic Platform”).  This was a society-wide, mostly national social movement at many levels of the culture working to make America a better place…a kinder and more caring society…and more inclusive society…yes, a society which encouraged the spreading of wealth beyond the handful of powerful elites who commanded the apportioning of capital, the means of industrial production, and the transport and distribution systems necessary for truly national commerce.


A combination of forces brought progressivism to the center of American life:  as author A.J. Scopino, Jr. writes:


“…Historians agree that in the first two decades of the 20th Century [reformers] employed a scientific approach when addressing social problems,  No longer content to accept and explain the miseries of life through fatalism or sheer luck, progressives were eager to utilize new tools, strategies, methods, and discoveries of new academic disciplines (especially sociology), to correct social maladjustment.


“Examining workers’ wages, living expenses, housing conditions, family size, working conditions, diets, and other data, progressive reformers studied, analyzed, and then offered measures to correct inequity and insure social justice…


“As firm believers in the American democratic process and in American institutions, reformers called on the government to legislate against political, social and economic wrong doing…”


And the Progressives wielded mighty clubs – the era’s hot new media such as mass circulation magazines, as well as daily newspapers (New York City had a half dozen or more) were there outlets.  This was the time of the muckrakers – whose words were eagerly awaited as the uncovered corruption in business and government.  Today’s “60 Minutes” continues the tradition begun a century ago by Ida Tarbell (nemesis of Standard Oil), Upton Sinclair (whose novel about big oil was recently made into the movie, “There Will Be Blood,” starring Daniel Day Lewis), writer Lincoln Steffens, and others.


The progressives brought about a better country with their reforms.  Their work was instrumental, I believe, in creating the conditions that led to the rise of the middle class – the engine of our GDP (2/3 of the US economy).  Millions of Americans were the beneficiaries of the progressive thinking of 100 years ago.


Of course, conditions are different in 2008, aren’t they?  OK, let’s admit we’ve made tremendous progress as a society since the early 1900s.  Thank the progressives for that.


The problems and challenges and issues of our age will be addressed in different ways, it appears, after January 20, 2009.


The early 20th Century progressives were united by a number of forces.  Based on what I have been seeing in recent months – one example was the Obama campaign fervor – this Millennium Generation, approaching positions of influence and power – may revive the spirit of the early Progressive Movement, especially if they unite to bring about important changes.


Stay Tuned to the shift taking place in public opinion, the shift from right to center or even center-left, and the drive for a better quality of life in this great nation.  We may be on the verge of something really exciting – with expanding (not contracting) opportunity for most Americans!  The best that our nation can be…may be just ahead of us.


Your thoughts?


(for more details on the Progressive Movement, read “The Progressive Movement, 1900-1917,” by A.J. Scopino, Jr; 1996m Discovery Enterprises Ltd.)