|It is no secret that we are living in a second Gilded Age—another era, like the first, of corrupt rule by plutocratic elites. What is less clear is how to end it. Without assuming that one can draw simple “lessons” from history, we might begin by exploring how we ended it the first time, by discovering how reformers redeemed democracy—or at least some semblance of it—from crony capitalism. How did the Gilded Age become the Progressive Era?
At the core of that transformation was a widespread revulsion from plutocracy, a desire to promote a larger public interest—a reassertion of commonwealth against wealth as a standard of value. A hundred years ago, this agenda animated millions of Americans. A clear majority of the electorate considered themselves “progressive.” But the word was elastic enough to contain everyone from Eastern patricians to Nebraska wheat farmers and small-town attorneys in Georgia. Walter Lippmann was a progressive, but so were William Jennings Bryan and Pitchfork Ben Tillman. The progressive notion of “the public” was as shadowy and ubiquitous as the contemporary politician’s notion of the “middle class.”
The most popular contemporary version of progressive reform—at least inside the Beltway—puts Theodore Roosevelt at the center of events, leading insurgent Republicans against the party’s Old Guard, consolidating progressive gains during his presidency, and passing the baton to his successor William Howard Taft—and then, frustrated by Taft’s persistent conservatism, running for president as the candidate of a new Progressive Party and losing to another progressive, Woodrow Wilson, in 1912. This is the story retold by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her thoroughly mediocre book. The narrative is easily assimilated to contemporary centrist wisdom about the need for a bipartisan Third Way, an alternative to the endless bickering of Republicans and Democrats. On this view, progressive reform was commanded by metropolitan elites with a sense of noblesse oblige—Roosevelt epitomized the type—men who translated the public interest into the emerging idiom of managerial expertise, who found neutral technicians to staff the regulatory commissions that would (the reformers hoped) cleanse capitalism of its excesses. This benign managerial vision, according to the centrist narrative, is what we need to revitalize contemporary public life.
No one can deny the importance of noblesse oblige to a healthy political culture, or discount its steady disappearance in our own time. But a focus on Roosevelt and the Republican Party obscures the origins of progressive reform, as well as the most persistent sources of its strength. The effort to tame unbridled capitalism originated not in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt but in the rural Midwest and South—in the Populist movement of the 1890s. It was absorbed and carried forward by the populist wing of the Democratic Party. Under Bryan’s leadership, the Democrats took a left turn in 1896; they remained committed to a progressive agenda until World War I. Bryan epitomized the rural roots of reform: like other populist progressives, he proposed ending special privilege through statutory regulation (passing laws against corrupt or monopolistic practices and jailing the people who violated them) rather than discretionary regulation (giving expert commissions the power to decide how best to manage corporate malpractice). Populist progressives recognized from the outset that an expert commission could be captured by the very industry it was meant to regulate. They were more realistic about power than the managerial progressives. […]
Blast from the Past. At Daily Kos on this date in 2003—Blair steels himself for 2-front war:
|Bush claimed he had nine, or at least eight votes in the UN Security Council. He lied. He said he would force a UN vote to force countries to "show their hand". He lied. As the US and UK come to terms with their massive diplomatic failure, both countries turn to building legitimacy for their invasion.
In the UK, Blair is steeling himself for the resignation of Robin Cook and Clare Short -- an icon of the Labour Party left. And the rebellion amongst Labour Members of Parliament is growing, with more MPs ready to vote against Blair when he introduces his war resolution.
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