John Nichols: What Is A Progressive? Straight Out Of Wisconsin History

“You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders

By John Nichols
The Progressive (3/14/16)

The most absurd assertion in the media coverage of the 2016 Democratic presidential race—and that’s a high bar in a year where media coverage has been monumentally absurd—is the suggestion that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been arguing about who is more progressive.

Sanders and Clinton are not arguing about who is more progressive. That would require them to have a shared definition of progressivism. They don’t.

They are speaking different languages that happen to use the same word. I understand this because I have watched the evolution of the word “progressive” from an expression of political radicalism to an expression of political caution.

My great-grandfather was a member of the movement that, more than a century ago, defined progressivism as a radical response to traditional and establishment politics—first in Wisconsin and then nationally.  As a campaigner for Robert M. La Follette, he understood progressivism as La Follette did.

La Follette called the progressive movement into being with a remarkable 1897 speech in which he decried politics “dominated by forces . . . that thwart the will of the people and menace representative government.” La Follette identified the forces: “corporations and masters of manipulation in finance heaping up great fortunes by a system of legalized extortion” and elected officials who become the pawns and partners of the corporations.

Equal rights and equal responsibilities

To restore equal rights and equal responsibilities, La Follette called for a movement that would upend not just political pawns but corporate power. He warned that politicians who accepted the money of corporations and wealthy campaign donors would always do the bidding of corporations and wealthy campaign donors. “Do not look to such lawmakers to restrain corporations,” said La Follette. “Do not look to such lawmakers to equalize the burden of taxation. Do not look to such lawmakers to lift politics out of the ways of darkness.”

Rather, he proposed to “make one supreme effort” to beat “the money power” and to establish a system where the people might choose economic and social justice over corporate domination.

La Follette proposed a “progressive” political movement that had as its purpose fundamental change. The people who made that movement, people like my great-grandfather, took that message to the farmsteads, crossroads towns, and county courthouses of rural Wisconsin. And they won. They gave progressive Republicans control of the governorship and the legislature, and those progressives aligned with the Milwaukee Socialists to enact changes so bold and so sweeping that Wisconsin became known as a “laboratory of democracy.”

They had to battle milder reformers, particularly former President Teddy Roosevelt, for the “progressive” label. But the distinct brand of progressivism that La Follette advanced came eventually to be well understood nationally, and well supported by activists for economic and social justice, and for peace. When La Follette stood in opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, and against the munitions merchants whom progressives decried as war profiteers, he did not stand alone.

When La Follette bid for the presidency in 1924 as an independent progressive, he won 17 percent of the vote and laid the political and intellectual groundwork for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” FDR acknowledged as much when he came to Wisconsin a decade later and declared, “People know also that the average man in Wisconsin waged a long and bitter fight for his rights . . .  against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows.” Progressivism, said FDR, “set up against all selfish private interests the organized authority of the people themselves through the State.”

This was the understanding of progressivism that inspired Bernie Sanders as a young student of radical history, and that he has frequently brought back to Wisconsin as the featured speaker at the annual Fighting Bob Fest organized by labor leader and gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey and his fellow stewards of the La Follette tradition, including this magazine. Sanders talks about La Follette and the New Deal, about the intersections of old-school progressivism and democratic socialism, and about a politics rooted in constant values that extend from past to present. “You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive,” says Sanders. “But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive.”

That is an expression of the old-school progressive faith. But it is not the only understanding of progressivism in American politics.

Betrayal of Clinton’s New Democrats

In the 1980s, when Democratic politicians began to fear the word “liberal”—which FDR, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson had embraced—they started referring to themselves as “progressives.”  They were not embracing the classic definition of the word “progressive,” let alone the progressive positions La Follette and his allies advanced. Rather, centrist Democrats such as Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh developed a corporate-funded “Democratic Leadership Council” (which the Reverend Jesse Jackson referred to as “Democrats for the Leisure Class”); they called themselves “New Democrats” to distinguish themselves from those who embraced the strong-government vision of FDR and they called their favored think tank the “Progressive Policy Institute.”

These “New Democrats” used the word “progressive” but they were absolutely at odds with the values and ideals of anti-war, anti-corporate progressives like Wisconsin’s La Follette and Nebraska’s George Norris; with the Wisconsin Progressives, the Minnesota Farmer-Laborites, and North Dakota Non-Partisan League members of Congress who in the 1930s forced FDR and  “New Deal” Democrats to move left, and with heirs to the older progressive tradition like Senators Gaylord Nelson, Wayne Morse, and George McGovern.

While old-school progressives continued to oppose corporate power, neoliberalism (especially as it was expressed in the form of trade deals such as NAFTA), and militarism, the adherents of this new version of “progressivism” promised “Third Way” cooperation between corporations and government. They identified as “pro-growth Democrats” who backed Wall Street–favored “free-trade” pacts and an interventionist foreign policy. Like Hillary Clinton and Britain’s “Third Way” Prime Minister Tony Blair, many of these DLC “progressives” supported the Bush administration’s moves toward war with Iraq. Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall warned as the war developed that “Democrats need to be choosier about the political company they keep, distancing themselves from the pacifist and anti-American fringe.”

Anti-war presidential candidate Howard Dean described the DLC, which sharply criticized him in 2004,  as “sort of the Republican part of the Democratic Party.”

Last year, as the Sanders campaign began to show strength in the polls, DLC and Progressive Policy Institute leaders griped about “the extremes of American politics propelled by anger.”

“There is no question that the prevailing temper of the Democratic Party is populist: strongly skeptical of what we like to call capitalism and angry about the perceived power of the moneyed elite in politics,” Marshall told The Guardian, as part of an article on New Democrats “sounding the alarm over the party’s leftward march…”

Hillary’s progressive mirage

Hillary Clinton has adopted the fluid, contemporary variation on the definition of “progressive.” “I am a progressive who gets things done,” she said at the Democratic debate in Durham, North Carolina. “The root of that word, progressive, is progress.”

That definition allows for ideological and political flexibility. Clinton may well believe that the open-ended definition of progressivism, which has been used in recent years by so many prominent Democrats, is the true definition of what progressivism is now.

But Sanders disagrees. He retains the old-school progressive faith of La Follette, who warned more than a century ago that “the corporation of today has invaded every department of business, and its powerful but invisible hand is felt in almost all activities of life.” Just as La Follette spoke of “the old fight” between a privileged few wielding crony capitalist power and the great many holding true to the American ideal that all men and women are created equal, Sanders takes the long view.

“Let’s be honest and acknowledge what we are talking about,” Sanders says. “We are talking about a rapid movement in this country toward a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected or who does not get elected. That is not what this country is supposed to be about.”

What this country is about, he says, is a timeless progressive vision:  “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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