In the early 20th Century, progressive political movements spanned America’s political spectrum. Both Presidents Woodrow Wilson, a democrat, and Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, claimed to be Progressives. It was a time when progressive activists believed that it was possible to improve the human condition and that the power of the federal government could and should be used to bring about necessary changes.
Progressive elements looked to science as an example of the human ability to improve the understanding and manipulation of their world. Pointing to science, progressives argued that humanity had the same ability to investigate the social and political world to search for ways the federal government could better society. Out of their efforts came such legislation as anti-trust laws, income taxes, and the Pure Food and Drug Act to name a few. No clear date marks the end of the Progressive Era, but the end of World War I is often used.
Although the Progressive Era ended about 100 years ago, today’s political landscape is populated with activists that wrap themselves in the progressive mantle. Who today call themselves progressives? They are rabid socialists, and they are smart enough to reach back in time to claim the “progressive” name that makes them sound better than they are.
The early 20th Century Progressives are identified by two major characteristics. First, they were champions of public policies that they believed fostered positive change to cure social ills. Secondly, they also work under the assumption that the best tool to effect positive political change is the federal government.
As to the first characteristic, today’s progressives claim they want to see positive social change. As to the second, they see big government and centralized authority as the path to attaining the power they crave. However, those characteristics are shared by special interest groups all along the political spectrum. All common interest groups lobby their governments to attain what they would claim is positive change. In a practical sense, any political movement can claim the label “progressive.” It is a nice marketing brand to call one’s political activity progressive, but the label “progressive” is a marketing tool similar to claims that a product is “new” and “improved.” In the end, the progressive label is so ambiguous that it begs the question if it has real meaning beyond image building.
Today’s progressives are in reality big government advocates who are trying to escape the word socialist. So far they have succeeded in appropriating the progressive label as a way to peddle the idea that they hold the promise for real positive change. Progressives trot out their slogan of wanting positive change frequently to paint their image as good people pursuing noble goals. If the word progress has a positive connotation, then the progressives’ ideas are positive by association. The implication then suggests any cost to the individual in the loss of freedom must be smaller than the benefit of the goal. The social benefit outweighs the social cost. Therefore, the progressives argue the proposed change should be accepted.
The early Progressives wanted to overcome the problems resulting from urbanization, industrialization, political corruption, and immigration. Today’s progressives have different priorities. For example, the Democratic Socialists of America support the Green New Deal, universal rent control, and the end to mass incarceration. To those progressives, positive social change is built on policies that historically resulted in less freedom and economic security. Also, returning a greater number of criminals to the streets means reduced personal safety for law abiding citizens.
Another example is the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America. Its long list of positive social change includes open borders, the end of capitalism, “end to military and police aggression,” free “college education and beyond,” and “humane housing for all” to name a few of their demands. They conveniently fail to provide the reader with ideas on how to pay for their wish list and how their proposed policies will be implemented.
The progressives’ preferred tool for implementation is government fiat. Stated another way one can say progressives’ push for change through enforced public policy and the power of the state. It is a command and control model. Progressives believe that society can move to positive change only if government forces reluctant individuals to accept progressive proposals. Within the progressives’ model for good government is the inherent belief that individuals must give up any freedom that impedes necessary change. In reality, progressives are descendants of those who believe the management of government should be left to intellectual elites. They are what political scientists call “statists.” Their philosophy goes back to Marx, the divine right of kings, and all the way back to Plato’s philosopher kings. However, the concept of a benign dictator rarely has succeeded.
Placing the power to herd society’s masses into the hands of political activists who believe they have the wisdom and skills to build a utopia leaves the individual with little protection. An early forerunner of progressives, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, illustrates the danger: “Now the citizen is no longer judge of the risk to which the law wills that he be exposed, and when a prince has said to him, ‘It is expedient for the State the you should die.’ he ought to die. Because it is only under this condition that he has lived in safety up to that point, and because his life is no longer a favor of nature, but a conditional gift of the state.” A progressive community can easily become a society where individuals live or die at the whims of bureaucrats.
Rousseau’s statement illustrates that under a progressive framework the central authority is primary. The same framework would forbid competing ideas and activities. Government force would be used to eliminate freedom of expression in order to protect progressive agendas. The voice of the individual that did not fit the progressive mold would be muzzled. The right to freedom of association would be eliminated. The creative nature of the human activity would be carefully scrutinized for any threat to government power.
Unlike Rousseau’s France, America has no prince. The question becomes who decides what is expedient for the state and what speech would be allowed. The progressives claim they know what is needed. They also believe in their own moral superiority which lays the foundation for using their stated ends to justify their chosen means. The history of human tyranny has shown where that can lead.
Progressive proposals overlook at least four realities—perhaps intentionally. First, the type of socialism they advocate has failed everywhere it has been tried and more people have been murdered in the name of socialism that any other political philosophy. Why will their socialism be any different? Secondly, if power corrupts and progressives want more power centralized in the federal government, what plans do progressives have to prevent corruption? Thirdly, progressive proposals will require entirely new bureaucracies and government programs. How will progressives ensure that those shepherding society through their proposed positive changes will be truly wise and capable bureaucrats and policy makers? Lastly, how will progressives prevent society’s “free riders” (such as people who prefer to live on welfare when fully capable of productive work) and rent seekers (politically connected people who lobby for laws that benefit themselves at the expense of tax payers)?
Progressives are big-brother socialists. They are under the same hard-core socialist umbrella as Fascists and Communists. They are not progressive but regressive and would return America to the time before the American Revolution when Americans were subjects instead of citizens. They crave the role of a divine monarch with an iron fist to ensure loyalty in thought, word, and deed. Ironically, the political, social, and charitable groups that adhere to classic American values should be the ones using the label progressive. There is nothing preventing those groups from calling themselves progressive right now, and there is nothing preventing us from calling today’s so-called “progressive liberals” the regressive tyrants (rabid socialists) they really are.