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
Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton; drawing by David Levine

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…

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