The Old Progressives Versus Today’s Progressives (First in a Series)

Progressivism is on a lot of peoples’ minds these days (including mine), chiefly because liberals have embraced the name as a way to escape the bad odor that has attached to liberalism since the 1960s. It is a clever way of associating themselves with an older moment in American history–the Progressive Era–that featured bipartisan consensus in many ways, since Progressivism was the property of both political parties, and with the positive-sounding term “progress,” as no one is actually against progress as understood by common sense.
But are today’s “Progressives” actually faithful to the older Progressive tradition they are claiming? I’m going to start doing a short Power Line series on this question, because the answer is not so clear cut. In some ways the answer is certainly yes. Two in particular come to mind: the impulse for centralized political solutions (which means a bigger federal government), and the disregard and/or disdain for the principles of the Constitution and our Founders.
But in other ways today’s Progressives depart radically from the Progressives of a hundred years ago. Two come to mind as we approach the 2012 election season. Teddy Roosevelt and his “Bull Moose” Progressive Party saw themselves explicitly as a bulwark against socialism, and TR and other leading Progressives rejected the language of class conflict. Most of today’s Progressives are stealth socialists, and make class conflict a central organizing principle.
Second, the Progressive movement, and TR’s party in 1912, was suffused with the spirit of Protestant evangelical Christianity, as Sid Milkis points out in his fine book about the 1912 election. The conventioneers sang and swayed to Christian hymns including “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and TR’s famous oration to the convention began with the ringing call that “we stand at Armageddon” ready “to battle for the Lord.” That kind of language at a Democratic Party convention today would get you arrested; no group is more estranged from the agenda of today’s Progressivism than Protestant evangelical Christians. William Jennings Bryan, were he alive today, would be run out of the Democratic Party faster than you can say “Joe Lieberman.”
More to come on this topic. Stay tuned. . .