Is progressivism in danger of being locked out of power in the U.S. government? Democrats can legitimately complain about America’s malapportioned Senate, as well as Republican voter registration laws that are motivated in some cases by a desire to disfavor likely Democratic voters. But the idea that progressivism will soon be locked out of power if the Republicans retake Congress and the White House, unless new states are added to the Senate or voter registrars are banned from checking whether voters have fraudulent or stolen identity documents, ignores the real sources of power in modern America. In the contemporary United States, progressives increasingly resort to trying to persuade voters and to win elections only as a last resort, when nondemocratic avenues of social change—judicial rulings, presidential decrees, or policies adopted by giant corporations and multinational banks—have failed to impose progressive policies.
By “progressive” I do not mean “the left” in general. There are a number of distinct and often warring tribes on the political left. By “progressive” I am referring to college-educated social engineers who seek to reconstruct American and global society according to this or that theory of the ideal world.
In this sense, Medicare for All is a social democratic proposal, not a progressive proposal. Imposing variable taxes on food to “nudge” people to eat their vegetables instead of burgers and fries is progressive. Outlawing race and gender discrimination is liberal. Mandating busing for racial balance in the 1970s and race and gender quotas in every organization today is progressive. Source-neutral carbon taxation to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is a neoliberal policy. A complex, 30-year plan specifying the exact proportions of renewables in the U.S. energy mix in 2050 is progressive. Egalitarians want to redistribute power and wealth and then let newly empowered ordinary people do as they see fit; for their part, neoliberals want to allow individuals and firms to decide how best to meet government-set goals. Technocratic progressives, on the other hand, are control freaks who want to concentrate power in an expert elite that will make the right decisions for the rest of us.
This type of progressivism originated in the 19th century in Germany, which had the first Progressive Party (Fortschrittspartei). Its social base consisted of mandarin bureaucrats and professors, so-called “socialists of the (endowed) chair” (Kathedersozialisten). They agreed with Marxists and various liberals that reforms were necessary, but preferred to carry out reform from the top down through an alliance of elite thinkers with political and commercial power brokers. Quasi-democratic, authoritarian Imperial Germany under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, pioneered the modern welfare state in forms that reinforced rather than subverted corporate and class hierarchies.
Before World War I, British and American scholars often studied in the leading German universities and returned to their Anglophone homelands as converts to the creed of top-down social reform. Some of them like Woodrow Wilson had misgivings about Prussian militarism. Still, American Progressives a century ago, and their New Liberal counterparts in the United Kingdom, shared with their Teutonic preceptors a deep distrust of mass democracy and parliamentary government. For American Progressives, legislative democracy was an evil to be circumvented by direct democracy devices like initiative and referendum, or by transferring power from legislators to nonpartisan administrators like city managers and career civil servants.
Most of the institutions that constitute the social base of today’s technocratic progressivism in America assumed their modern forms during the societywide managerial revolution around the 1900s. The great professional associations—the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Bar Association (ABA)—were organized, and law schools and medical schools were established. American colleges and universities, previously rather ramshackle and generalist institutions, were remodeled along the lines of the then-novel German research university. Credential requirements were increased to price out the working classes, and ethnic and racial quotas were imposed to keep academically talented Jewish, Italian, and Black Americans out of the Ivy League, which was remodeled as America’s Oxford or Cambridge.
The managerial revolution transformed business and philanthropy as well. National and multinational corporations had to be run by bureaucracies whose managers were supplied by university schools of business. Tycoons like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford endowed the (still-existing) nonprofit foundations established in their name, which, through grant-making, exercised an ever-growing influence over the topics that were and were not studied and discussed in the universities and the media. “Scientific philanthropy” was reorganized along bureaucratic lines and had its own corps of nonprofit managers.
The creepy mix of hysterical moralism and pseudoscientific expertise that is familiar among today’s woke activists and academics was present from the beginning in German-style technocratic progressivism in the United States. As the historian Dorothy Ross has shown, Woodrow Wilson and other leading progressive academics and reformers tended to be the children of upscale mainline Protestant ministers. There has been a natural segue over the past century from Social Gospel Protestantism to Social Justice secularism.
From the beginning, America’s elite technocratic progressives sought to use the state and other managerial institutions for top-down social engineering. Many of them, like much of the early-20th-century intelligentsia, believed in “scientific” racism and eugenic sterilization of “the unfit.” Among these was Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, which grew out of the eugenics movement. The flagship publication of the American foreign policy establishment for the past century, Foreign Affairs, resulted from a 1922 merger with the Journal of Race Development. Other causes of Progressive Era social engineers included urban and regional planning and resource conservation (later known as environmentalism).
Although most early Progressives were northern Republicans, many of them were disillusioned by the party’s domination by business and some joined the New Deal Democrats. The crisis of the Great Depression initially excited many technocratic progressives, who saw it as a chance to realize their dream of remaking America from above as a planned society and a planned economy. Stuart Chase, the progressive intellectual who coined the term “New Deal,” was enthusiastic about Soviet-style multiyear economic planning.
But as Ellis Hawley showed in The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly (1966), what he called “the planners” were soon disappointed to learn that Franklin Roosevelt and the Southern Democrats who dominated Congress had no interest in reconstructing the United States as a technocratic utopia run by Ivy League eggheads. The New Deal coalition included some progressive technocrats, but politically it was an alliance of urban machine politicians with working-class constituents and small-town politicians from the South and West. The unions and the farm lobby got much of what they wanted, but the planners got little out of the New Deal except for conservation policy and national parks.
Flash forward to 2021. Today’s Democratic coalition would have been unrecognizable to FDR or even to Lyndon Johnson. There is ethnic patronage, to be sure—today’s Democrats depend on Black and immigrant voters, the way the New Deal Democrats depended on white Southerners and Euro-American “white ethnics” in Northern cities.
But the once-powerful farm interest is gone, thanks to the technological progress that has shrunk the number of Americans needed to produce all the food and fiber the United States needs, with extra to sell abroad. With help from automation, offshoring, and mass immigration, corporate America has destroyed the once-powerful private sector labor unions. At the same time, New Democrats like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama turned the Democrats into a friendly vehicle for businesses and banks. As the white working class has streamed out of the Democratic Party, college-educated white professionals and managers who would have been moderate Republicans a few decades ago have streamed in. These affluent, white, suburban, former Republican voters handed Biden his victory in 2020, even as the Democrats lost substantial numbers of working-class Hispanics, Blacks, and Asian Americans.
In the post-farmer, post-labor Democratic party, the two most powerful groups are the neoliberals backed by America’s corporations and banks, and the technocratic progressives, who are more interested in top-down social engineering than in empowering working-class people of all races and views.
While the Democratic neoliberals like Elizabeth Warren are often recent converts from the moderate wing of the old Republican Party, the technocratic progressive strain has been around since the New Deal. From the 1950s until the 1990s, however, the technocratic progressives were marginalized by old-school Democratic machine politicians like Tip O’Neill of Boston and Jim Wright of Fort Worth. Deprived of influence during the second half of the 20th century, the technocratic progressives lived on grants and dwelled in exile in their own cultlike nonprofit and university subcultures—the environmental movement, the urban planning and mass transit movement, the eugenics-to-reproductive rights movement—and raged against unplanned, consumerist, sprawling America and the rule of the masses, much like their political ancestors among the Progressives of the 1900s.
Unexpectedly—and by accident rather than design—the neoliberal turn in public policy in the last generation has given the elite’s technocratic progressive subculture a degree of influence that it never possessed in its youth in the Progressive Era or in its middle age in the New Deal era.
Two historic events have empowered technocratic progressives since the Reagan and Clinton years. The first is a Niagara of money pouring into nonprofits and university programs funded from the outside. Old-timey egalitarians on the left may lament the upward redistribution of income to Silicon Valley and Wall Street billionaires and their wives and ex-wives, but technocratic progressives with noneconomic causes have been among the major beneficiaries. Technocratic crusades that struggled for funding in the 1950s and 1970s, like urban densification and environmentalism, or which did not take shape until recently, like gender activism, today need only hold buckets out the window to catch falling donations from major corporations, banks, and IPO plutocrats.
The other unanticipated event that has empowered the old and new progressive social engineering cults has been the success of neoliberal Democrats and Republicans in deregulating and privatizing telecommunications, finance, and other essential industries, transferring power from democratically elected or supervised public officials to self-regulating corporate and financial managers. This transfer of power from public to private was not carried out in the 1990s and 2000s to empower progressive intellectuals and activists in the nonprofit sector and university campuses. Indeed, both Clinton and Obama tried to distance themselves from the cultural left. The neoliberal program of shifting social power from the democratic state to private managerial elites was done to enrich the individual and corporate donors of neoliberal Democrats and Republicans, and also to enrich politicians themselves like Clinton, Gore, and Obama, who were rewarded for their service to the business and financial communities with help in building their own personal fortunes after they left office. (Fewer than 100 days after leaving office, Obama made a speech to the Wall Street bank Cantor Fitzgerald for $400,000.)
But the transfer of wealth and power to a small number of large corporations and banks created opportunities that technocratic progressives based in the vastly expanded NGO and academic sectors have learned to exploit.
Large commercial institutions have always been risk-averse and subject to political pressure campaigns, whether from the left or the right. To avert bad publicity, like protesters sent by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), many large corporations adopted affirmative action programs following the civil rights revolution. Other companies in the late 20th century responded to more or less blatant shakedowns by green NGOs by making donations to approved environmental organizations and causes.
Today this has gone into overdrive, as we see from the corporate largesse showered on the Black Lives Matter movement and corporate promotion of transgender ideology—a cause unknown even to most liberals half a decade ago. As Joel Kotkin argues in The Coming of Neo-Feudalism (2020), pro-business neoliberals and social engineering progressives—rival factions in the Democratic Party as recently as the 1990s—have settled into a comfortable arrangement, like the aristocracy and clergy in medieval Europe. As long as the aristocracy donates to the clerisy and submits to its moral direction, the clerisy will not question the aristocratic order and will look the other way as the lords pillage the peasants.
This neofeudal deal between the corporate and financial managerial elite and the NGO-academic intelligentsia has become clear in the past few years. A decade or two ago, many Democrats would have been shocked that a social media firm like Twitter would censor a president, no matter how obnoxious. But many of the ascendant technocratic progressives in the Democratic coalition are eager to supply major U.S. corporations with blacklists of individuals and organizations to censor on YouTube and Amazon and to suggest Republican states for corporations and banks to boycott. The authoritarian DNA in America’s technocratic progressive subculture, inherited from the long-ago marriage of the mandarin progressives and monarchical bureaucrats of Bismarckian Germany, is more evident than ever.
American technocratic progressives have always preferred to impose their social engineering plans without the need for trying to persuade ignorant voters and their grubby, corrupt representatives. In the first half of the 20th century progressives looked to a European-style high civil service as a method for realizing their goals while circumventing Congress. When a Congress dominated by rural representatives and urban immigrant machines refused to create an all-powerful federal bureaucracy, America’s disappointed technocratic progressives put their hopes instead in activist federal and state judges, leading to the age of judicial lawmaking on made-up pretexts that began in earnest with the Warren Court and which continues today. More recently, both Democratic and Republican presidents have made increasing use of executive orders to ram through partisan policies that cannot get through Congress or state legislatures.
In the last decade, in addition to judicial rulings and executive orders, progressive technocrats have found a new tool for authoritarian, undemocratic policymaking: the policies of corporations and banks. Why bother trying to get Congress or a state legislature to pass a bill requiring corporate boards to have rigid quotas for women, minorities, nonheterosexuals, immigrants, or whoever—which is arguably illegal—if you can persuade major banks not to fund any businesses that don’t have board quotas? You can skip all the tedious stuff—you know, making your case to the public, getting your proposal into a party platform, and assembling a legislative coalition. Just win over a few major bank executives, and you’ve imposed your pet social engineering policy on much of America without any public debate or votes by elected officials.
This kind of nondemocratic technocracy is really plutocracy in disguise. After all, who funds the NGOs of technocratic progressivism? Rich people, foundations endowed by rich people (living and dead), and corporations and banks, for the most part. So whenever you read the phrase “public interest group” or “social justice organization,” you should substitute it with “billionaire-or-corporate-funded social engineering bureaucracy.”
All of this raises the question: Why bother with elections at all? Why not just let progressive NGOs funded by the rich set the political agenda, and then have it imposed by corporate and bank policies on the American people?
Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose there is a movement in the next decade to legalize polyamory. Under our present system, this can be done by entirely nondemocratic methods. Let me explain.
I have chosen the subject because it is one I am agnostic about. If anything, I would lean toward legalizing polyamory. Demagogic conservatives scapegoat gay marriage for destroying the traditional family, but long before gay marriage most Americans were cohabitating before marriage and treating formal marriage as a technical and symbolic ratification of an existing union. Moreover, if two men or two women can get married, it is hard to come up with a reason why four men and four women cannot marry each other.
In practice, polyandry—multiple husbands with one wife—has almost never existed, and in premodern Nepal it existed only because of peculiar property rights and ecological conditions. Polyamorous communes tend to collapse quickly because of jealousy, so the most stable form of plural marriage has been polygamy, blessed by some strains of Jewish and Muslim theology and some Christian sects. Against polygamy, feminists can argue that it degrades women. Others might point out that many rich and powerful men in the modern United States already have informal harems or engage in serial polygamy.
But let us set aside the merits of polyamory in any form and focus on the task of imposing it on the American people without legislation or democratic debate. The process would begin with billionaire donors and foundation program officers at private conclaves agreeing to make polyamory the next big reform. Once the money faucet was turned on, various nonprofit groups hiring underemployed college graduates desperate for office cubicle jobs would spring up like mushrooms after rain—People United for Marriage Plurality (PUMP). Consultants would be paid to coin slogans and acronyms that can be repeated and retweeted: Plural Marriage Now (PMN).
Next would come the mainstream media articles and TV debates: “Has the Time Come for Plural Marriage in America?” Historians of Mormon polygamy and the Hebrew patriarchs would dash toward TV cameras and fight for op-ed space. Children’s book authors would try to catch the wave with My Three Mommies.
Bills in favor of legalizing plural marriage would be introduced in progressive Democratic states like Massachusetts and California, if not Mormon Utah. The democratic debate about plural marriage would not last long. Indeed, after a few weeks of controversy the progressive publication Vox might announce in its typical fashion that “The Debate About Plural Marriage Is Over.”
Federal legislation to legalize plural marriage nationwide would stall in Congress, however, and only a third or half of the states would have enacted their own legislation. At this point, the Supreme Court would step in. The federal judiciary is nominally divided among Democrats and Republicans, but they are almost all “liberaltarians”—socially liberal, pro-business, and anti-organized labor—and plural marriage would be coded as a liberal social issue of the sort popular in their social circles. So even with a “conservative” Republican bench, a majority of Supreme Court justices would find that federal and state laws against the recognition of plural marriages violate—well, they violate something. The 14th Amendment, maybe, or the right to bear arms. Maybe the clerks can find a constitutional pretext or two.
Once the Supreme Court made plural marriage the law of the land—on the basis of a constitutional right or natural right that nobody except the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and some stoned hippies in communes even knew existed—the brief window of democratic debate and legislation would be over. A day after the Supreme Court decision, corporate HR departments would make questioning the sanctity of plural marriage a firing offense. On university campuses, professors and students who questioned plural marriage would be disciplined for “hate crimes.” Books and podcasts critical of plural marriage might vanish from YouTube and Amazon, and critics of plural marriage might find their bank accounts suddenly closed and their online payment incomes demonetized. If state legislatures or city councils tried to resist plural marriage, major corporations would announce boycotts against them until the citizens and their elected representatives gave up and voted the way the top 100 corporations told them to vote.
My point is not that plural marriage would be bad. Remember, I am agnostic on the subject and lean toward legalizing it. My point is that in a democratic society, public policy revolutions—even the goods ones that we support—should come about as a result of a long process of democratic debate and legislative compromise. Major social innovations should not be imposed from above by executive order, judicial ruling, or corporate boycott and blacklist. Other than the business dress of the perpetrators, that kind of thing is the equivalent of a military coup d’état.
Unfortunately, many zealous American progressives in the 2000s—like their predecessors in the 1900s—do not agree. For technocratic progressives, democracy is not a way to solve social problems. Democracy is an obstacle to social justice that should be circumvented whenever possible.
Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.