Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Progressive Era



The progressive era
By Henry C K Liu

(Part 1: A rich free-market legacy - for some)

(Part 2: Long-term effects of the Civil War)

The United States entered the 20th century with impressive concrete achievements in political and economic reform derived from the ideological ferment of the final two decades of the 19th century. Still it has failed to this day to address, much less resolve, several of the fundamental contradictions and problems that have plagued the young nation from the very beginning.

The Civil War brought about the abolition of slavery, but racial discrimination has continued unabated in US society and politics, keeping the nation divided along race lines, largely into two separate economies, two segregated societies and two antagonistic political cultures. Most equal opportunity among the races has been in the form of tokenism. Among those denied equal opportunity because of their race, the common complaint about tokenism is that the mainstream only lets in people who look like us, but not those who think like us.

The race issue
The race issue is now threatening to torpedo the near-certain nomination of Barack Obama, born in the US of an African father and a white American mother, as Democratic candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign. The controversy on the seemingly shocking rhetoric of Reverent Jeremiah Wright, long-time mentor of a young Obama, and recently retired pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, shows not the pastor’s views as extremist as much as how clueless the white mainstream is about the centuries-long anger and frustration the majority of its black brethren are still laboring under.

Wright is not anti-US nor is he against what the nation’s ideals stand for; he is condemning those policies and practices that the US government and society have regularly forced on African American citizens in violation of the moral ideals of the nation. Can any self-respecting American do less?

The mainstream US press has focused, sensationally and out of context, on Rev Wright "God damn America" sermon. Readers can judge for themselves what Wright actually said:
The [US] government gives them [African Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons [to incarcerate African Americans], passes a three-strike law [against African Americans] and then wants us to sing ’God Bless America’. No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people ... God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.
The test is less about Obama as a viable bi-racial candidate for president for being partially a product of the black political culture as much as about whether the United States can finally fulfill the national pledge of allegiance required of every grade school children of "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". The test is whether the US can accept Obama as president without molding him as another empty token of racial harmony.

There is no need for Obama to deny reality or to reject justifiable black rage against racial injustice. Obama’s message of moving on towards a coming together of all races is right on. The issue of racial and religious harmony is of critical geopolitical importance because the president of the United States is also a world leader in a world where over 70% of the population is non-white and 65% non-Christian.

The economic Iissue
The Civil War also destroyed agrarianism to firmly establish Federalism with policies that support economic centralization at the expense of economic democracy. By the end of the 19th century, populism had been co-opted into the two-party political system as progressive factions in both major parties. The subsequent period is known in history as the Progressive Era, led by Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson in national politics, three leaders of distinctly different ideologies.

Continuing the populist movement, early 20th-century progressive reformers campaigned against what they viewed as two related prime evils: growth of political corruption and the disturbing trend of government on all levels to grant, in the name of the national interest, special privileges and protection to organized wealth at the expense of popular wealth. Progressives professed a populist faith in the wisdom of the common people and insisted that good government must safeguard the common interest of all in the nation and respond to the voices of the common people. They worked to eliminate the control of government by political bosses and machines that were in the employ of narrow special interests, and to re-impose high standards of integrity and honesty along with transparency and accountability to make holders of public office more responsive to the general electorate.

Specifically, progressives were alarmed by the unhampered growth of monopolies that routinely resorted to unjust exploitation of farmers and workers. They wanted government to promote the general welfare of all the people and to protect small businesses from predatory assault by big business.

Progressivism then and now
A century later, progressives in 2008 stand for practically all the same reform objectives as their comrades in 1908, even as the specifics and context have changed with time.

Progressives in 1908 were conservative reformers rather than revolutionaries. They wanted to restore to the nation the early founding ideals of democratic government, individual liberty, the rule of law, and the protection of private property rights from predatory invasion by big business and big finance. What progressives wanted was a new set of legislative mandates and regulatory tools needed to preserve these founding national ideals that had been increasingly corrupted by arrogant big business and big-finance mentality in the industrial age. In other words, they wanted socio-political progress to keep pace with techno-economic progress.

Progressives in 1908 did not merely want a rich economy at any cost; they wanted a rich economy not exclusively benefiting the rich elite and created not by making the majority poor, but by preserving fair economic equity among all the people to share fairly the fruits of progress. They did not merely want a strong nation; they wanted a strong nation the security of which did not depend on an outsized military; but on being a "shining city upon a hill", an early self-image increasingly receding from reality a century after the nation’s founding.

"The shining city upon a hill" was an image first invoked decades before the birth of the United States by John Winthrop (1587-1649), who was elected 12 times as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Britain, to guide his new Pilgrim homeland as a communal, non-capitalistic society, drawing from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus had addressed a large crowd:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16)
Republican president Ronald Reagan, echoing previous references by Democratic president-elect John F Kennedy in 1961 and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984, invoked Winthrop’s image in his farewell speech to the nation on January 11, 1989:
The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
Continuing with his sugarcoated Disneyland version of history, Reagan continued:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.
The open doors to the shining city on the hill Reagan had in mind were meant for Soviet dissidents in the context of the Cold War. Pathetically, the current battle cry on the war against "illegal" immigrants by Reaganites is to close all the doors of the wall of the shining city upon a hill. The doors are closed for all practical purposes even for legal immigrants who routinely have to wait several years to get naturalized because of a large bureaucratic backlog. Multinational corporations are complaining that they have to relocate high-paying jobs overseas to skirt US immigration restrictions on highly skilled foreign workers.

The freedom myth
Reagan’s "early freedom man" Winthrop, who incidentally was a British colonial and not a US citizen since he died 172 years before the founding of the United States in 1776, and who, because of his long tenure as governor of the colony, began to assume the undemocratic role of a feudal lord, did not have much good to say about democracy and much less about liberty.

Winthrop saw to the hanging of Mary Latham and James Britton in 1644, both found in adultery, notwithstanding that he also admitted to an illicit encounter with a Native American woman at an abandoned settlement not far from his home. Many volunteers searched for him all night during his unexplained disappearance fearing for the worst, only to find him the next morning not far from home with a fantastic story to excuse his awkward absence from home and family.

New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who brought about much progressive reform on Wall Street to protect small investors, and in the process created more enemies in big finance than he could handle, did not manage to command the same moralistic elasticity four and a half centuries later on a similar matter of personal transgression, even though much of the rest of the world has moved far beyond Puritan morality.

Winthrop, like his Puritan brethren, strove to establish a Christian community that held rigid uniform doctrinal beliefs that brooked zero tolerance for dissidents, leading to his presiding in 1638 over ...


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