Progressivism: The Practical Center

National Progressive Convention, Chicago, 1912

(Analysis.) When we think of the full political spectrum, from pure socialism on the left to unbridled capitalism on the right, we find progressivism at the center – not the left, as is commonly thought. Under socialism, the people own the means of production, and get the benefits of that production. The people’s government plans and manages the production, but, with that power, may become overbearing and self-serving. Under capitalism, corporations own the means of production, and compete to create better products at less cost. The corporate management maximizes profit for the owners, and may form monopolies or mega-corporations that make people pay dearly for products, even basic needs. With progressivism, like capitalism, corporations own most of the means of production, but, like socialism, the people get much of the benefits of that production. Progressivism always aims for the common good, but, unlike socialism or capitalism, its policies are not ideological, but practical. Progressives choose policies based on what has been shown to work, and on scientific study.

In U.S. history, progressive policies took hold when capitalism brought much pain to, and became threatened by, the people. Near its end, the Gilded Age heaped depression on top of dangerous working conditions and skimpy pay. The occurrence of strikes rose from 1000 per year in the 1890’s to 4000 in 1904. By 1911, a “rising tide of socialism” saw hundreds of socialists elected to public office. President Theodore Roosevelt was among the leaders that saw the situation as did the progressive Milwaukee Journal: “[Conservatives] fight socialism blindly … while the Progressives fight it intelligently and seek to remedy the abuses and conditions upon which it thrives.” So the “Progressive Era” began and brought us such gains as workplace safety standards, food and drug purity standards, the national park system, control of corporate monopoly growth, guards against plutocracy and aristocracy via progressive taxation, and, in some states, a total ban on corporations in politics.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, with one-fourth of the work force idled and many thrown out of home, tenants and the jobless organized, self-help movements formed, and general strikes stopped business-as-usual in several cities. Wage cuts prompted sit-down strikes against the rubber manufacturers in Akron, and after the long sit-down strike against GM in Flint was won, a wave of such strikes swept the nation. From this state of affairs came President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which brought us such gains as the Social Security system, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, child labor limits, protection of the worker’s right to unionize, a firewall between Wall Street speculators and regular banking, bank deposit insurance, and Wall Street watchdogs. Also, there came a sharp rise in unionization and the golden age of the American middle class.

That golden age ended around 1980 with the onset of the “Reagan Revolution,” which brought a sharp fall in union membership, and a trend of weakening and reversing progressive gains. Corporations grew bigger and, by a growing system of legal bribery, got more power in government. Lawmakers flattened progressive income and estate tax, and tore down the wall between speculators and regular banking. President Reagan also helped form a big right-wing propaganda system that bent the D.C. “conventional wisdom.” In 2008, these trends climaxed in the Bush Crash and the Great Recession, which, once again, threw many persons out of work and home. And while established progressive safety net programs, such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, cushioned the fall, street rebellion against the capitalist system still arose — this time in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And while a law to rein-in Wall Street passed, banks are jamming up its implementation, and risky derivatives trading and too-big-to-fail banks still go on.

Today, as we still sit in the throes of the Great Recession with a battered and shrunken middle class, faced with climate change, and renewed Wall Street corruption and corporate power, progressives still fight for policies such as Medicare for all, a carbon tax, a stock transaction tax, ending corporate tax breaks for oil drilling and moving jobs and profits overseas, infrastructure funding, and breaking up too-big-to-fail banks. Today, as much as ever, we need to aim for the common good with proven, practical governance – that is, we need the progressive way.


progressivism at the center “Right Is Not Center, But 2010 Resembles 1984” by David Sirota, In These Times, JANUARY 15, 2010

“War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength” – more than a quarter century after those oxymorons were supposed to pervade an Orwellian 1984, today’s media make such newspeak even more preposterous: On economic issues, we are often told that right is center, center is left, and left is fringe.

commonly thought “Left–right politics” – Wikipedia

socialism The Free Dictionary

(Economics) an economic theory or system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community collectively, usually through the state. It is characterized by production for use rather than profit, by equality of individual wealth, by the absence of competitive economic activity, and, usually, by government determination of investment, prices, and production levels Compare capitalism

may become overbearing “Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein; The Monthly Review; May 1949

… The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

capitalism The Free Dictionary

(Economics) an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, characterized by the freedom of capitalists to operate or manage their property for profit in competitive conditions Also called free enterprise private enterprise Compare socialism [1]

make people pay dearly “Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein; The Monthly Review; May 1949

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers’ goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

progressivism “Progressive Traditions: The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America” By John Halpin and Conor P. Williams; Center for American Progress; April 14, 2010

In the famous formulation of progressive thought often associated with the progressive theorist Herbert Croly, this meant using Hamiltonian means (national action) to achieve Jeffersonian ends (liberty, equality, and opportunity). Progressives’ overall goal was to replace a rigid economic philosophy—one that had morphed from its egalitarian roots into a legalistic defense of economic power and privilege—with a more democratic political order that allowed people to flourish individually within a larger national community.

… [A]s a distinctly American response to the nation’s economic conditions and its political tradition, progressivism steered a middle way between the radical ideas of socialism prevalent in some parts of Europe and the unbending hands-off approach of conservatives ascendant in the United States.

In terms of its political values, progressivism throughout the years stressed a range of ideals that remain important today:

  • Freedom, in its fullest sense, including negative freedom from undue coercion by government or society and the effective freedom of every person to lead a fulfilling and economically secure life
  • The common good, broadly meaning a commitment in government and society to placing public needs and the concerns of the least well-off above narrow self-interest or the demands of the privileged
  • Pragmatism, both in its philosophical form of evaluating ideas based on their real world consequences rather than abstract ideals, and in more practical terms as an approach to problem solving grounded in science, empirical evidence, and policy experimentation

Gilded Age “Gilded Age” – Wikipedia

dangerous working conditions and skimpy pay

Wages were not enough to support a family—work was marred by inequities and corruption. Working families could survive only by “ruthless under consumption.” Workers were victims of business cycles—the winds of change swept many away. Piece work and lower wages were introduced to reduce labor costs. Whereas workers in earlier times had worked alongside their employers, now they were separated. Managers of large business rarely had personal contact with workers.

Industrial safety was a large issue: factory work was very dangerous, and it was difficult if not impossible to hold factory owners responsible for deaths and injuries. Around 1900 25-35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries per year occurred on industrial jobs.

occurrence of strikes “A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES” by Howard Zinn; Chapter 13: The Socialist Challenge

rising tide of socialism “A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES” by Howard Zinn; Chapter 13: The Socialist Challenge

It seems quite clear that much of this intense activity for Progressive reform was intended to head off socialism. Easley talked of “the menace of Socialism as evidenced by its growth in the colleges, churches, newspapers.” In 1910, Victor Berger became the first member of the Socialist party elected to Congress; in 1911, seventy-three Socialist mayors were elected, and twelve hundred lesser officials in 340 cities and towns. The press spoke of “The Rising Tide of Socialism.”

saw the situation “A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES” by Howard Zinn; Chapter 13: The Socialist Challenge

… When the Supreme Court said that year that New York’s workmen’s compensation law was unconstitutional because it deprived corporations of property without due process of law, Theodore Roosevelt was angry. Such decisions, he said, added “immensely to the strength of the Socialist Party.” By 1920, forty-two states had workmen’s compensation laws. As Weinstein says: “It represented a growing maturity and sophistication on the part of many large corporation leaders who had come to understand, as Theodore Roosevelt often told them, that social reform was truly conservative.”

The Progressive movement, whether led by honest reformers like Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin or disguised conservatives like Roosevelt (who was the Progressive party candidate for President in 1912), seemed to understand it was fending off socialism. The Milwaukee Journal, a Progressive organ, said the conservatives “fight socialism blindly . .. while the Progressives fight it intelligently and seek to remedy the abuses and conditions upon which it thrives.”

such gains as ibid.

the national park system “THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE – A Brief History” by Barry Mackintosh; National Park Service; 1999

ban on corporations in politics Old Law Could Stop Corporate Dinosaurs – The Paragraph; 2010-01-24

During the Great Depression

The stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States, came directly from wild speculation which collapsed and brought the whole economy down with it. But, as John Galbraith says in his study of that event (The Great Crash), behind that speculation was the fact that “the economy was fundamentally unsound.” He points to very unhealthy corporate and banking structures, an unsound foreign trade, much economic misinformation, and the “bad distribution of income” (the highest 5 percent of the population received about one-third of all personal income).

There were millions of tons of food around, but it was not profitable to transport it, to sell it. Warehouses were full of clothing, but people could not afford it. There were lots of houses, but they stayed empty because people couldn’t pay the rent, had been evicted, and now lived in shacks in quickly formed “Hoovervilles” built on garbage dumps.

sit-down strike against GM in Flint “Flint Workers Sat Down and U.S. Middle Class Rose Up” The Paragraph; September 23rd, 2006

brought us “New Deal measures and institutions” – Citizendium

such gains “History 1111: U.S. History after 1865 – New Deal Legislation – ‘The 3 R’s'” by Professor Catapano; CUNY

sharp rise in unionization “Labor Unions in the United States”; 2010-02-01

golden age ended “How Greed Destroys America” by Robert Parry,; June 28, 2011

Reagan Revolution “Time To Move Away from the Reagan Revolution” by Thom Hartmann; June 28, 2013

sharp fall in union membership “Labor Unions in the United States”; 2010-02-01

system of legal bribery “Post Election Beware the Revolving Door” by David Sirota,; 11/14/2012

There are two types of money that corrupt our politics. After a national election that cost more than $2 billion, most of us know about the blatant kind that floods into politicians’ campaigns, typically with quid pro quo strings attached. This is the most obvious form of legalized bribery — cash goes in, policy positions and legislative favors eventually come out.

As powerful as that money is, though, there’s also a second, equally corrosive form of payoff — the kind that awaits campaign staff and outgoing government officials if and when they enter the world of influence peddling. This more secret form of corruption tends to generate far less outrage than ho-hum rationalizations. For this reason, you almost never hear about it — that is, until the last few weeks, when a series of coincidental revelations provided a rare look at how this dark money really works.

It started with a Government Accountability Office report on how regulatory agencies are facing “challenges” enforcing oil and gas drilling rules. Part of the problem, the GAO noted, is the fact that retaining regulators “is difficult because qualified staff are frequently offered more money for private sector positions within the oil and gas industry.” Translation: regulators are flying through the revolving door, meaning it’s difficult to retain good ones and even harder to convince the ones who do stay to vigorously do their jobs.

This dynamic is often a force even among politicians themselves. Case in point is Bill Clinton, who as president was an architect of financial deregulation and as an ex-president has been paid millions by the financial services industry. Noting this not-so-coincidental chronology, the Roosevelt Institute’s Matt Stoller points out that, “The dirty secret of American politics is that, for most politicians, getting elected is just not that important — what matters is post-election employment.”

helped form “How Reagan’s Propaganda Succeeded” By Robert Parry;; March 8, 2010

In the 1980s, CIA propaganda experts and military psy-war specialists oversaw the creation of special programs aimed at managing public perceptions in targeted foreign countries as well as inside the United States, according to declassified documents at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library.

right-wing propaganda system that bent “It’s the Media, Stupid!” by Robert Parry,; April 26, 2013

[O]ne of the most effective propaganda strategies was to brand honest journalism as “liberal” and to smear honest journalists as “anti-American.” That way many Americans would doubt the accurate information that they were hearing and discard many real facts as bias.

As a journalist for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, I encountered these hardball tactics while covering the Reagan administration as it sought to manage the perceptions of the American people mostly by hyping external threats (from Managua to Moscow) and demonizing some internal groups (from “welfare queens” to labor unions).

Reagan’s men described one of their central goals as “kicking the Vietnam Syndrome,” that is, the resistance among the American people to be drawn into another overseas conflict based on deceptions.

But the key to their success was to gain control of as much of the U.S. news media as possible – through direct ownership by like-minded right-wingers or by appeals to senior news executives to adopt a more “patriotic” posture or by intimidation of those who wouldn’t toe the line.

This combination of factors essentially gave the Right and conservative elements of the Establishment dominance of the news. Like an army that controlled the skies, it could fly out and carpet-bomb pretty much anyone who got in the way, whether a politician, a journalist or a citizen. No truth-teller was safe from sudden obliteration.

Bush Crash “Election Choice: Slow or Speed Downward Spin Into Plutocracy?” The Paragraph; October 31st, 2010

The downward spin sped up in 2001, when the Bush II Republicans came to power, slashed taxes for millionaires, and cut –- and refused to enforce — corporate regulation.2+3 That policy led to a jobless “economic expansion”, based on easy credit and inflating a housing bubble, that left the rich richer and the middle class poorer.4 In 2008, the bubble burst, shedding light on massive Wall Street fraud, and the Bush Crash occurred, throwing many millions out of work and home.

cushioned the fall “Occupy the Safety Net” by Betsy Reed, The Nation; December 14, 2011

… With the SPM [(Supplemental Poverty Measure)], it’s possible to glimpse the many forces dragging people down—such as the price of childcare or the high cost of housing in some areas—as well as the mitigating effects of government relief [see chart below]. The portrait it provides of the Great Recession is illuminating. As the damage from the financial meltdown began to spread throughout the economy, triggering waves of layoffs and foreclosures, the parts of the safety net still designed to respond to need, such as food stamps and unemployment insurance, did what they are meant to do. Between 2007 and 2010, these programs kept 10.8 percent of the population out of poverty, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

Occupy Wall Street About

Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District, and has spread to over 100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally. #ows is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to fight back against the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.

banks are jamming up

still sit in the throes Bureau of Labor Statistics. Underemployment (U-6): Nov’07 8.4%; Oct’09 17.1%; May’13 13.8%

battered and shrunken middle class “Washington Lets Shrinking Middle Class Twist in the Wind” By DAVID ZEILER, Money Morning; March 7, 2013

A study last year by the Pew Research Center found that the middle class – defined as those households earning between two-thirds and double the median income – fell from 61% of U.S. families in 1971 to just 51% in 2011.

Thanks to the Great Recession, which the federal government has for the most part failed to reverse, median household income has dropped by 4.2%, or nearly $2,300 (adjusted for inflation).

And the longer-term trend is no better: Median U.S. household income is down more than $4,000 since 2000.

renewed Wall Street corruption “Influential economist says Wall Street’s full of ‘crooks'” By JOHN AIDAN BYRNE, The New York Post; April 27, 2013

[Jeffrey] Sachs pulled no punches. “What has been revealed, in my view, is prima facie criminal behavior,” he said.

“It’s financial fraud on a very large extent,” the adviser to the World Bank and IMF added. “There’s also a tremendous amount of insider trading — you can even watch when you are living in New York how that works.”

“We have a corrupt politics to the core, I am afraid to say, …”

“I meet a lot of these people on Wall Street on a regular basis right now,” Sachs told the conference, hosted earlier this month by the nonprofit Global Interdependence Center. “I am going to put it very bluntly: I regard the moral environment as pathological. And I am talking about the human interactions . . . I’ve not seen anything like this, not felt it so palpably.”

Sachs said these same people on Wall Street are out to make billions of dollars, and believe nothing should stop them from doing that. “They have no responsibility to pay taxes; they have no responsibility to their clients; they have no responsibility to people, to counterparties in transactions,” he said. “They are tough, greedy, aggressive and feel absolutely out of control in a quite literal sense, and they have gamed the system to a remarkable extent.”

Medicare for all “Healthcare for All/Single Payer Mission” – Progressive Democrats of America

carbon tax “Stop Global Warming / Environmental Issues Mission” – Progressive Democrats of America

stock transaction tax “AFR Statement of Support for ‘The Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act'” – Americans for Financial Reform

ending corporate tax breaks “The Deal For All” by Congressional Progressive Caucus; 26 November 2012

The Deal for All resolution, H.Res 733, which additional Members will cosponsor through the end of the year, advocates four key policies that have built the middle class, expanded the nation’s economy and must play a significant role in any future budget negotiation:

  • (1) No cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits;
  • (2) Must contain serious revenue increases, including closing corporate tax loopholes and increasing individual income tax rates for the highest earners;
  • (3) Significantly reduce defense spending to focus the United States Armed Forces on combating 21st century risks; and
  • (4) Promote economic growth and expand economic opportunity by including strong levels of job-creating Federal investments in areas such as infrastructure and education, and by promoting private investment.”

breaking up too-big-to-fail banks “Too-Big-to-Fail Takes Another Body Blow” By MATT TAIBBI, The Rolling Stone; May 1, 2013

Last week, on April 24th, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Louisiana Republican David Vitter introduced legislation called the “Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act of 2013 Act,” or the “Brown-Vitter TBTF Act” for short. The bill is a gun aimed directly at the head of the Too-Big-To-Fail beast.

During the Dodd-Frank negotiations a few years ago, Brown teamed up with Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman to introduce an amendment that would have physically capped the size of the biggest banks. The amendment was bold and righteous but was slaughtered on the floor by a 61-33 margin, undermined by leaders of both parties – 27 Democrats voted against it.

Brown-Vitter offers a different and, in a way, more elegant solution to the problem than Brown-Kaufman. Rather than impose size limits, it simply insists that banks with over $500 billion in assets maintain higher capital reserves than are currently required. Companies like J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America will have to keep capital reserves of about 15 percent, about twice the current amount.

The bill only has such tough requirements for just those few megabanks, which sounds unfair, except that the aim of the bill, precisely, is to level the playing field. Right now, the biggest U.S. banks enjoy a massive inherent market advantage in that they’re able to borrow money far more cheaply than other banks, because everybody on earth knows the government will never let them fail and will always bail them out in a pinch, making their debt essentially U.S.-government guaranteed. … This bill would essentially wipe out that hidden subsidy and make the banks bailout-proof.

As soon as Brown-Vitter was introduced, a very interesting thing happened. The Independent Community Bankers of America, or ICBA, issued a press release boosting the bill. “ICBA strongly supports this legislation,” the release read, “and urges all community banks to join the association in advocating passage of legislation to end too-big-to-fail.”

* * *

By Quinn Hungeski,, Copyright (CC BY-ND) 2013

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9 years ago

Speaking of too-big-to-fail banks, Bank of America was recently penalized for improper practices during its foreclosure sweep. In at least one known case, a person who handed back a property in lieu of going through the grueling foreclosure process (and thus saved the bank some $50,000 in foreclosure costs), was eventually paid $300 as a result of a lawsuit against the bank. She had never been offered, as required by law, the opportunity to take advantage of the HAMP program to reduce her mortgage debt before having foreclosure proceedings filled against her.

Thanks, as usual, for calling a spade a spade.