The Would-Be Progressives

They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era

by E.J. Dionne Jr.
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $24.00

Left for Dead: The Life, Death, and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America

by Michael Tomasky
Free Press, 226 pp., $23.00

Values Matter Most: How Republicans or Democrats or a Third Party Can Win and Renew the American Way of Life

by Ben J. Wattenberg
Free Press, 426 pp., $25.00

1. It’s the Economy, Stupid!

This is the centennial year of what George Will calls “the first modern, meaning frantic, presidential campaign.” With that odd tug people experience toward number mysticism, commentators are looking for portents in the 1896 election—none more weirdly than Will. He finds hope for Dole in William Jennings Bryan’s example: “Do not underestimate the determination of these candidates from the prairies.” He seems to forget that Bryan lost and William McKinley won.1

Ralph Reed, too, looks to Bryan as a model for our times: “There was no greater religious-leader-turned-political-leader.”2 Actually, Reed is reversing the sequence: Bryan was more a political leader at the outset, more the religious leader later.

E.J. Dionne thinks Reed is looking in the wrong party for his 1896 forerunner. In They Only Look Dead, Dionne says that Mark Hanna, running the campaign against Bryan, was the Newt Gingrich of his day—a champion of the “rising forces of industrialism” as Newt now champions the rising communications revolution: “It was left to William Jennings Bryan and a coalition of Democrats and Populists to speak for the hurt and the injustices the new order was inflicting on small farmers and small towns, the people losing out in the triumph of modern capitalism.” Though Bryan lost, he set the Democrats on the road to victory in the Progressive Era.

Jacob Weisberg, author of In Defense of Government, agrees: “It was William Jennings Bryan who, in the campaign of 1896, first committed the Democrats to expanding the domestic powers of the national government.” So does President Clinton. Speaking at Penn State University on May 10, he said: “One hundred years ago, many people’s lives were uprooted but not improved,” making Progressivism necessary to “mend our social fabric.”

The idea that we are in an age of capitalist dislocations calling for a new Progressivism has become a kind of Democratic mantra, most influentially phrased in Dionne’s book (where Clinton found it). But the notion has been around at least since Kevin Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor, published in 1990.3 Well before that, Democrats were drifting toward the term “Progressive” because of the ill repute attached to the term “liberal.” Looking tough at accusations of liberalism, as if they were Gary Cooper facing down Trampas in the saloon, candidates will say: “When you call me that, smile.”

Though Ben Wattenberg agrees with George Will and Ralph Reed that the Bryan campaign was about cultural issues, the people calling for a new Progressivism want Bill Clinton to return to the 1992 slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” They are creating a cult of Herbert Croly, whose The Promise of American Life was published in 1909. Dionne calls Croly “the Progressive Era’s master thinker.” Jacob Weisberg is even more enthusiastic:

Faced with the explosion of private commercial power that so troubled his contemporaries, Croly set himself the task of justifying the kind of public action needed to check it. In so doing, he laid the foundation stone of modern liberalism.

Some Republicans, seeing this revival take shape, made a preemptive strike at Crolyism in a Hudson Institute conference, whose papers were published with a play on Croly’s 1909 title. The contributions to the conference followed the lead of its organizer, Chester Finn, in blaming Croly for a turn to the government as the solution to all problems. In a response to the papers given, one of the participants, Diane Ravitch, said the result of following Croly’s prescriptions was to create an “intellectual class that thinks people are bad and government is good.”4 Besides criticizing “governmentalism,” some of the Hudson Institute papers—especially those given by William Kristol and Paul Weyrich—countered Croly’s emphases on economic regulation with a call for a revived morality (what Weyrich calls “retroculture”).

It is true that the current celebrants of Croly have their eyes primarily on economic dislocation. They join cause with the Democratic Leadership Council’s advice to President Clinton (a former chairman of the Council) to shun “social issues” like affirmative action for women, blacks, or gays, all those matters that have been stigmatized as “identity politics.” Michael Tomasky is the most straightforward in saying that the Democratic Party should return to “traditional class-based politics” as a way of breaking “identity’s stranglehold on leftist politics.” (By “identity” he refers to the emphasis on group identity rather than mere isolate citizenship.) He says affirmative action is not even leftist:

Affirmative action, far from presenting a challenge to ruling elites, is a development with which they are in fact quite comfortable. Why? Because elevating a relatively small number of minorities and women into the professions helps buy off more serious dissent.

This is the old Marxist argument against reform as dulling the appetite for revolution. Michael Lind makes a similar attack in his 1995 book, The Next American Nation, which argues that the Democratic Party was taken over by gender and racial politics in the 1960s and 1970s.5

President Clinton seemed, but only seemed, to be rejecting the advice to stick to economics when he made a fatuous late-night call to Ben Wattenberg, praising the latter’s book for saying values matter more than the pocketbook. In fact, however, Wattenberg recommends politically useful social issues, as opposed to cultural issues, since the former have an economic dimension—crime, welfare, affirmative action. The latter are primarily matters of patriotism (flag burning, requiring the pledge of allegiance, censoring “subversive” speeches or writings) or of sex (gays, abortion, sex education in the schools, free condoms, bans on pornography) or of religion (prayer in schools and at public events). He finds them less useful for electoral strategy.

Others say that President Clinton is in fact moving back toward the DLC under Dick Morris’s tutelage, as part of the Morris “triangulation” strategy.6 These are people hoping that Clinton, who is supposed to have “governed left” after campaigning right, will now veer right again and attack his own base—as he purportedly did in curbing Jesse Jackson’s demands by criticizing the appearance of Sister Souljah under Jackson’s auspices.

So the recommendation of those hoping to resurrect Progressivism seems clear: Stick to economic grievances—stalled income of the middle class, loss of jobs to the global economy, unmerited welfare—and dump the “McGovernite” crazies. After a long stretch of losses on the “identity” issues, economic pressures give Democrats a chance to start over fresh (with one-hundred-year-old issues). They allow Democrats to leap over an uncomfortable recent past to live in a more distant but more hospitable past.

2. It’s the Culture, Stupid?

If a cultural politics is killing the Democrats, why do Republicans claim that they are losing the cultural war? It infuriates Pat Buchanan that Republicans win the presidency, the Congress, state houses, state legislatures, and yet the hated “left” controls the culture. People voted against the Equal Rights Amendment, yet feminism wins continuing victories in the protection against harassment or in the hiring, promotion, and compensation of women. Republicans campaign and win by denouncing “pornography,” yet sexually explicit material is every year more available, from mainstream as well as specialized sources. Gays have become far more open and protected than in the past. Multiculturalism is denounced but not abandoned. Support for legalizing drugs grows.

Buchanan has a point when he says that the campaigns of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush tried to stop such wrenching cultural changes. His attitude can be paraphrased: “How dare you people go on doing what we voted against? Why won’t you abide by the outcome?” He has a touching faith in the power of elections to alter the entire culture. When politics does not dictate cultural choices, he asks for more government power to enforce the outcome of elections on the nation. The federal government is now being called on to tell the states what marriages are, and which ones should be recognized (this despite Republican rhetoric about the “devolution” of power to the states). Buchananites support federal censorship, abolition of abortion, and the exclusion of professed gays from equal protection, the military, and government service. These advocates of a “free market” economy will not let the culture be self-regulatory. The government is needed to protect people from themselves.

But politicians respond to changes in the culture. They do not dictate them. Historic changes of great sweep were reflected on the surface of our politics by the 1970s—changed attitudes toward authority, toward sex, toward education, toward war. Since the Democratic Party was the natural home for this ferment, it suffered inevitable strains. Franklin Roosevelt held North and South together by deferring the struggle with racial injustice. When that was no longer possible Democrats were hurt not only in the South but in labor unions with exclusionary attitudes toward blacks. The emphasis on rights spread easily from the civil rights movement to other minorities—and even to the majority represented by feminism.

This let Republicans assume the unlikely stance of “populists.” Populists were supposed to be opposed to governmental authority. These new populists wanted to invoke authority to crack down on protesters, demonstrators, pornographers, abortionists, gays, drug users. Or, when authority was attacked, it was for favoring “special interests,” drastically redefined to refer not to corporate exploiters (as with the original Populists) but to women, to those on welfare, to those in need of legal aid, to those on death row.

Sixties liberals” in the Democratic Party did not cause these large social disruptions, any more than the Democrats could contain them or the Republicans can wish them away. They are here to stay, and history is on their side in the long run. Women are not going back to their status of three decades ago. Neither are blacks. Gays are not going back into the closet to shut up. White Western culture is not going to regain its monopoly in schools, museums, and journals. It would be odd for Democrats, having paid the cost of the turbulent first gains made in these culture wars, to abandon their leaders just as they prove their staying power. This does not mean accepting every excess of the “new voices,” or every detour into a dead end. It does mean that it would be stupid as well as immoral for Democrats to “turn on their base” as a way of winning elections.

In fact, it is the Democratic Party that has kept up some connection between politics and the rapid changes taking part in our culture. Without them, the separation between politics and culture would be even sharper than it is now, leading to greater disillusionment with a government out of touch with its own society.

Those on the right who notice the disjunction between electoral outcome and cultural fact say that the new permissiveness is just a matter of elite hedonism, adversarial to “real” Americans, “the people.” Ask at the video rental stores if the only people renting porno films are pinko professors (or Supreme Court justices). People who vote for drug control are often parents unable or unwilling to prevent their own children’s use of drugs, the drugs they want the federal government to make disappear with a magic wand. Men inveighing against feminism also want to get their daughters into college. Most of us resemble Newt Gingrich in having friends or relatives who are gay, and whom we do not treat in “real life” the way some want gays treated in the abstract. The same is true for women we know who have had abortions. The culture impinges on us all, not just the few.

Critics of identity politics say it is un-American to treat citizens as members of groups or categories, rather than as individuals—as if an isolated legal individualism had ever been the case in our history. Various people have regularly had special exemptions or advantages just because they were members of a particular group. A 1944 bill called the Veterans’ Preference Act said that veterans applying for federal jobs were to be given five extra points (ten extra if they had been injured) over others, and were to be hired where—even with the additional points—others were tied with them. Modern defenders of affirmative action would never systematize the skewing of numbers in this way.

Some raise the objection that veterans were rewarded for what they did, not who they were. But courts have repeatedly upheld nepotism, the right of a boss to hire a relative over a “better qualified” person, just because of who the nephew was. What of the argument that new “identity” types want preference for what was done to them (e.g., women for centuries of exclusion)? That is our criterion when we support federal disaster relief to people for what hurricanes or floods have done to them.

One could go much farther. For most of our history, people were treated as a group when it came to filling all the important jobs in government, business, the professions, or the academy. The group was white males, and it did not think of itself as singled out for preferences because it was not a part of society, it considered itself the whole, so far as important tasks were concerned—like voting, governing, ruling, and judging for the rest of the culture. Other groups, ethnic or religious, were favored or disfavored in state or local government—WASPs favored here and Catholics rejected; Catholics favored there, Jews rejected. Irish machines ruled in some places. Southerners have favored southerners, and still do. Universities have favored alumni as a group. A politician gives special attention to constituents as a group—in fact, deals worked out for businesses in a politician’s district are defended against quid pro quo suspicions by invoking “constituent service.”

Though treatment by groups is condemned, now, as divisive, most such arrangements were thought of in the past as promoting social cohesion. Immigrants were integrated into American life by mobilizing them and defending their participation in ethnic clusters. Even today, attendance at feminist meetings will impress one with the way women previously sealed off from each other—blacks, Hispanics, working women, professionals, the very pious, the very secular, lesbians, nuns—have found new ties and channels of communication with one another. They build a community rather than tear it down.

Whatever one thinks of abortion as such, its advocates have created an overwhelming consensus in favor of tolerating it (at the least), and the former class divisions—elite women able to get subrosa abortions, the poor and working class deprived of choice—have been broken down, despite continuing Republican efforts to keep this class division by denying financial support to poor women seeking what is available to their rich sisters. Who is the divider here, and who the uniter?

When opposition to affirmative action was advanced in California, that fons et origo of the sappy, liberals feared that President Clinton, all antennae twitching, would give way to the opponents. But it was not an option really open to him. Even Republicans like William Bennett saw the trap this could become. The principal beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women, and nothing can increase the “gender gap” more than for Republicans to be seen as opposing their gains. And Clinton cannot support affirmative action for women, with all the electoral advantages tied to that, and repudiate it for blacks, who need it more and get it less than women do. As McGovern did not create the cultural changes that have affected the electoral environment for Democrats, so Clinton cannot wipe the slate clean and start over. There have been excesses and mistaken applications of the affirmative action principle. “Merit” is an indispensable condition of all hiring—something ignored in the most blatantly group-determined affirmative action hiring, President Bush’s appointment of Clarence Thomas. But abandoning the concept of affirmative action would not take us to some never-realized ideal of pure merit; it would simply return us to favors for the previously advantaged groups.

3. It’s the Economy and Culture

It is a sterile exercise to separate economics from “social” issues. As I have already remarked, abortion has reflected economic status in the past. The feminists who help create more jobs for women cause male anxiety over employment. Coping with the global economy depends, for Patrick Buchanan’s followers, on their sense that economic nationalism is a form of patriotism. Sexual freedoms like divorce, once confined mainly to the well-to-do, are feared when they spread to “the masses.”

One of President Clinton’s trickier recent moves demonstrates how culture and economy affect an issue like welfare reform. It offends the American ethos to see anyone get paid for not working. Oddly, we accept fairly easily the idea of paying farmers not to farm, or workers not to work—in the form of unemployment checks. But to have a permanently unemployed or unemployable class is unacceptable—and understandably so. To have such a class does subsidize dependency in a country where Jefferson made self-support a mark of citizenship. Dependency undermines self-respect.

So President Clinton, like many a candidate before him, promised during the 1992 campaign to get people off the relief rolls and onto the employment rolls. But the Reagan deficit left government cruelly short of funds for new programs (or for old programs), and putting welfare recipients to work is a cruelly expensive proposition. They must be supported (the initial cost, already being paid) while training them for work (a second cost) and finding or creating the jobs to fit the prospective workers (a third, fourth, or possible fifth cost). If jobs are not available when the training is completed, jobs must be moved to the workers, or workers to the jobs. If all else fails, the government must become the employer of last resort, through public works or subsidized industries. All this involves higher taxes, more government bureaus and regulation (to find and qualify the job trainers, assure fair procedures for the businesses offering jobs, and so on).

The voters want workfare, but they do not want to pay for it. They deplore the dole (which is comparatively cheap) while opposing higher taxes and bigger government to change the dole into a federal employment service. What did the President do in this situation? He said he favors experiments in reform, and lent federal support to the one being conducted in Wisconsin by Republican governor Tommy Thompson. The governor has had moderate success in finding jobs for those on welfare—at immoderate cost. He raised his state’s annual welfare expenditures from $10 million in 1988, when he took office, to $58 million last year—and the plans he has for using federal help will add at least 13 percent per year for the program, and very likely more.7

People say they want to abolish welfare because it is not spiritually good for those on it. It is true that the recipients will be moral beneficiaries of such reform. But people have implicitly assumed that getting people off welfare will cut the taxes spent on them—which is definitely not true. No laboratory experiment could better illustrate that than the spotlight Clinton has turned on Wisconsin.

Another way in which the economy, rather than ideology, drives so-called social issues is the growth of “judging by the numbers” in affirmative action cases. In adjudication of discrimination cases, it is said, actual intent to discriminate should be established, not the mere presumption that an employer who has never hired blacks is therefore discriminating. There was one problem with this. To take each case in all its particulars would consume so much time, so many investigators and litigators for the government, that a huge and growing bureaucracy would be spawned—far beyond anything we have seen in agencies like the EEOC (the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission), Clarence Thomas’s former agency.

This was not the first time the government had faced such a problem. Workmen’s compensation laws were difficult to enforce for the same reason—each accident or injury had to be investigated in detail, along with touchy discussion of employer’s versus employee’s culpability. The solution was to appeal to general records rather than to rely on case-by-case scrutiny. An employer was culpable if accidents occurred at more than the average rate. This served the businesses’ purpose as well as the government’s, since neither side wanted prolonged litigation and the intrusive presence of government investigators in the workplace. There were few complaints that “quotas” were being established for workers’ claims in factories that had a bad record. This was, in short, an anti-bureaucratic solution to a problem.

The sociologist John David Skrentny shows that the same thing happened in the case of federal rulings on affirmative action. To judge each case to make sure the employment criteria had been “colorblind” was like trying to establish the exact degree of culpability that went into every harmful effect on a worker. So the government used overall patterns of hiring. This method was not “colorblind”—since it counted blacks hired or absent. But it, too, saved businesses from having to mount an endless defense of each hiring decision, which explains the general acquiescence in this procedure by employers: “Businesses, if left alone, do not seem to mind hiring by numbers.” 8 In fact, Michael Lind and others have attacked businesses’ preference for preferential hiring.9

4. Not Progressivism. Progress.

E.J. Dionne’s construct of a new Progressivism assumes that a series of moves in the past can be replicated today. But the parts being moved are not the same. He limits himself to a mechanical analogy when the chemistry of the bodies to be affected has completely changed. Dionne appeals to Herbert Croly as a guide; yet, as the historian Robert Wiebe pointed out, Croly wanted a permanent and professional bureaucracy to initiate and maintain his reforms. As Croly wrote in 1914:

Thus the experts charged with the administration of these laws would become the official custodians of a certain part of the accepted social program…. Their work in enforcing the law, in watching its operation and in advising its amendment or supplementation would be dignified by an element of independent authority. Representing, as they would, the knowledge gained by the attempt to realize an accepted social policy, they would be lifted out of the realm of partisan and factious political controversy and obtain the standing of authentic social experts.10

Of course, we now have a large bureaucracy—not so permanent or removed from electoral vagaries as Croly wanted, but resented just to the degree that it approaches his ideal.

Our whole world has been changed, not least by the impact of the Progressives themselves. Huge geological shifts have occurred in our society—underground changes whose extent is only hinted at by the high points thrust up to view: the graduated income tax, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, licensing of vehicle operators, regulation of foods and pharmaceuticals, standardization of criminal procedures, environmental codes, state and federal welfare programs, civil rights legislation. All this long process has fed into the things that George McGovern’s critics think he confected and sprang on the nation in 1972. To believe that one can impose an economic solution free from the past by ignoring all intervening “social” or “cultural” changes is an exercise in fantasy.11 It should be said that the most ardent new Crolyites, Messrs. Dionne and Weisberg, do not go quite that far; Michael Tomasky does.

President Clinton has been accused, with reason, of unpredictability, of unexplained shifts or yieldings. Elizabeth Drew said he let himself be “rolled” by the demands of women. It is said that he wavered on a commitment in reconsidering affirmative action for blacks. But surely midcourse correction is necessary in a climate that could lead to an affirmative action aberration like the appointment of Justice Thomas or of Leonard Jeffries to a department chairmanship in a university. It is said that Dick Morris has seduced Clinton into preempting the Republican program on welfare, crime, and censorship. But support for Governor Thompson’s welfare effort is a didactic exercise that may at last bring home to people the truth about “workfare.” The Brady Bill and the assault weapon ban would not have passed through Congress except as part of an anti-crime program. Through his vice president, Clinton has supported maximum openness to the information superhighway. The V-chip for parental control of television in the new era is a defensible and perhaps necessary concomitant to such openness.

Michael Tomasky says the President should dump affirmative action and concentrate on economic realities—e.g., by pushing for a single-payer health system, though he admits it has little or no chance of passage. Such exercises in purity are useful only for things like Republican attacks on a culture they cannot change with political tools, and which they do not change even in their own lives.

It is easy to be consistent, and irrelevant, by calling year after year for “workfare” and proposing no funds to bring it about. It is a touchy matter to maneuver through a period of unprecedentedly rapid and unsettling change. Those pronouncers of a death sentence on Clinton’s presidency after the 1994 election should reflect on how sudden has been the turnabout in many different parts of society. In a time of high winds, one must tack. Merely tactical use of certain positions—even of the new fad for Progressivism—is probably necessary if one is to make progress. > You don’t abandon where you want to go, but you have to tack to get there. You have to one minute go right for the objective, and then at some point when you find the boat is about to tip over, you steer in another direction until the boat regains stability, then once more head toward the objective. You approach it in a series of triangular moves, instead of head-on.

  1. 1

    George Will, “Look Who’s Interesting,” Newsweek, May 27, 1996, p. 82. Mr. Will was effusive over Dole’s resignation of his Senate seat, as if “throwing caution and his job to the winds” had by itself made Dole as flamboyant as the “boy orator” who gave the Cross of Gold speech in 1896.

  2. 2

    Ralph Reed, Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics (Free Press, 1996), p. 44.

  3. 3

    Actually, Phillips saw three ages of capitalist excess leading to a response by government activism—the Gilded Age, followed by Progressivism; the Roaring Twenties, followed by the New Deal; and the Greedy Eighties, followed by—Phillips was hoping for a populism of the right, though not (as it turns out) Gingrich’s kind. See Garry Wills, “The Politics of Grievance,” The New York Review, July 19, 1990, pp. 3-4.

  4. 4

    Renewing the Promise of American Life: Report on the Hudson Institute Conference, December 7-8, 1994, p. 12.

  5. 5

    Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (Free Press, 1995), pp. 161, 179, 302.

  6. 6

    Triangulation” is a misunderstood term. Whatever faults Morris has, he is not stupid enough to think that keeping a man equidistant from two other points is a prescription for anything but isolation. (There is, moreover, confusion about which points one is to imagine Clinton keeping himself away from: Republicans and Democrats? Congress and the people? His own party’s left and right? The DLC and “It’s the economy”? Dick Morris and George Stephanopoulos?) At various times, Morris has made it clear that he is talking of a dynamic process based on the metaphor of a sailor’s tacking in different directions to reach his goal. As Morris said to David Maraniss, referring to Clinton’s performance as governor:

    (Maraniss, First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton, Simon and Schuster, 1995, p. 398.)

  7. 7

    Paul Offner, “Wisconsin Shuffle,” The New York Times, May 28, 1996, p. A17. Further hidden costs in workfare include child care for welfare mothers who find jobs, and health insurance for those who forfeit Medicaid because of employment. See Jacob Weisberg, “Cheese Whiz,” New York, June 3, 1996, pp. 18-19.

  8. 8

    John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 141.

  9. 9

    Lind, The Next American Nation, p. 179. Richard D. Kahlenberg claims that Dole supports affirmative action in the private sector because of pressure from businessmen: “Bob Dole’s Colorblind Injustice,” The Washington Post, June 2, 1996, pp. C1, C4.

  10. 10

    Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (Macmillan, 1914), pp. 360-361. See Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 159, 208.

  11. 11

    Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom point out, in their paper at the Hudson Institute symposium, that Croly paid no attention to blacks—something no political progressive can do now.