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What Is Progressivism?

The dream of a utopia administered by technocrats

B. Duncan Moench
December 02, 2020
Library of Congress
Prohibition poster, 1917Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Prohibition poster, 1917Library of Congress

Twenty years ago, few Americans identified as “progressive.” Ralph Nader’s first Green Party presidential campaign changed that. Naderites needed a way of distinguishing themselves from the followers of the establishment Democrat Al Gore. In searching for a way to explain their politics to others they reached back to a term whose roots went back to the early 20th century.

In current American leftist discourse, “progressive,” its sister term “liberal,” and their distant cousin “socialist” all tend to overlap in general use. So it shouldn’t be surprising that all three terms are poorly understood by their opponents and adherents alike. Even admirable populist critics of America’s establishment left like Thomas Frank and Glenn Greenwald miss what progressivism truly represents and the key, degrading, historical role it has served in the development of American political culture. 

Progressivism originated as an Anglo-American alternative to socialism and populism in the late 19th century. More specifically, progressive political culture was a way for the Gilded Age’s new self-styled “cosmopolitan” wealthy elite class to feel good about fighting for reforms of America’s laissez faire economic structures—but, in a manner that didn’t threaten the larger Anglo-liberal tradition, or the Protestant moral norms it relied upon.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, as railway workers, brutal Pinkerton “security” forces, and even battalions of the Army battled it out in violent clashes, the reform tradition in the United States took shape in two distinctly American modes: populism and progressivism. Populism was a bottom-up movement of Middle American struggling farmers, poor working folk, and tradesmen frustrated with a late-19th-century banking and monetary system they saw as “rigged” against them. Progressivism took off as a movement of the guilt-laden offspring of coastal industrialists who looked down their noses upon the Middle American populists and the “Jays” of their “hay seed” “bumpkin” culture.

Where populism was a rural revolt against the overweening power exercised by big cities over the rest of the country, progressivism was an urban movement led by a well-educated, urban, coastal elite, which was top-down in conceptions and mannerisms. While the radical element of this new progressive class identified with what they thought of as the “other half of society” (what we would today probably call the “marginalized” or “underprivileged”), it’s important to note that progressives did not necessarily wish to give voice to the poor or the suffering. Instead, progressive intellectuals sought to elevate themselves as spokespeople for the downtrodden, on terms that cemented the grip of their own class on power.

Rather than a break or interruption in the WASP chauvinism that characterizes most of the country’s political culture, progressivism is little more than a peculiar variation of it —and wokeism is merely a new version of progressivism, updated for the secular mode of the “anti-racist” age.

Woodrow Wilson—the former professor and president of Princeton— endures as America’s quintessential progressive politician. His antipathy for the class politics of populism was so great that despite a (highly beneficial) alliance with William Jennings Bryan during the 1912 election, he continued to loathe populists because, in his mind, their organizations (and ideas) were tinged with “socialist” elements. Populists were “resisters of modernity” and enemies of “progress” who refused to properly understand the inevitability of the new order of globalized trade and mass market consumption.  

Few better illustrate the latent Protestant utopianism of progressivism’s “Social Gospel” philosophy than the influential reformer Richard Ely, founder of the Christian Social Union. On some level, Ely’s thought was as economically radical as any American progressive. However, his radicalism took the form of advancing the need for a new “collective Christian ethic” to “heal the breach between capital and labor”—as if this divide in interests were a small familial wound that could be salved with a few intense Bible study sessions. Ely called for economic reforms in child labor, recognition of unions, but also focused his rhetoric on ushering reforms that began with the social sphere and then moving to the economic—the exact reverse of the populist, Marxist, and European social democratic outlook.

While churches had their place in the progressive effort to transform society, Ely believed that the enormity of state power was required to promote the correct “collective Christian ethic.” Scholar Eldon Eisenach sums up: The progressives regarded “the state as an educational and ethical agency.” For the progressive, utilizing the state’s power, was indispensable in promoting “human progress.”

It is no accident that contemporary progressives understand universities as the central outlet to spread—and enforce—their new pseudo-secularized woke religion. The original progressives, as Eisenach notes, “saw the university as something like a ‘national church’—the main repository and protector of common American values, common American meanings, and common American identities.”

Unlike populists, who wanted state intervention in the economic sphere to help supply them with the means for personal and social autonomy, progressives wanted aggressive state intervention into the social sphere that would deprive working people of individual choices—for “their own good.” Progressives—then as now—understand “social justice” as occurring through moral reform within the self, but believe this personal transformation must be directed by morally enlightened elites wielding state power to prohibit the masses from engaging in “bad behaviors.”

Progressive temperance advocates therefore happily joined forces with the early-20th-century American religious right to tell Germans, Italians, and the “new” immigrants of Eastern Europe they needed to move away from their “festive” and “drinking” cultures toward the Puritan discipline of Anglo asceticism. Progressives thoroughly believed if “drink” was outlawed these new immigrants would no longer struggle to keep the lights on, domestic violence would disappear, and their adorable little children wouldn’t have to work in wretched conditions where Jacob Riis could take lamentable photos of them that made elites sad.

In our secular, post-Protestant age, contemporary progressives likewise seek to morally shame the working classes and working poor into thinking their behavioral choices and retrograde beliefs are responsible for the country’s hardships. However, in a blindness inherent to the movement, today’s progressives patently refuse to acknowledge that most working class and working poor “people of color” are mostly socially conservative. The disjuncture between the avant-garde social values of today’s progressives and the targets of their empathy is exemplified in the new refashioned spelling of Latinos and Latinas as “Latinx”—a boutique academic term that is rejected by or else unknown to the vast majority of people to whom it is supposed to apply. Woke identitarian progressivism offers non-BIPOC or LGBTQ+ persons (the far majority of the population) a nightmarish denial of their individual experiences and hardships. Progressives are then shocked when the targets of their derision become angered, and further pathologize them. 

Class condescension and a paternalistic attitude to the laboring classes lives at the core of progressivism, both in its early 1900s origins and its 2020s “woke” offshoot. This moralistic bias informs the confident declarations from educated professionals clustered in hub cities that the only reasons Middle American “Trump supporters” have for opposing mass immigration is xenophobia and racism. Progressives at The New York Times point to graphs created by neoliberal economists that show low-skill illegal immigrants do not in fact replace, or compete with, established American citizens for jobs. They offer these graphs never acknowledging that the field of economics, like most in the so-called “social sciences,” is one where nearly any thesis can be “proven” by pairing a skewed data set with the “right” assumptions. Why would anyone, except of course a bigot or an ignoramus, question the knowing class?

Progressivism is a mindset driven, if not ruled, by the technocratic impulse. The foundation of the progressive critique of laissez-faire liberalism arose largely due to late-19th-century American intellectuals’ envy of Kaiserreich-era theories of the German state; the American system of elite, research-centered higher education originated as an imitation of the German model. During the Gilded Age, jaunting off to Germany for a stint of graduate work was a key rite of passage for many American intellectuals, and most of the key figures of the progressive movement received at least part of their education in Germany. During an era when very few Americans attended higher education, more than 9,000 Americans studied at German universities—nearly 2,000 in 1880 alone.

From their experiences in German classrooms, many progressive intellectuals gained exposure to the country’s mandarin model of civil service scholars—professors and university-trained experts to whom the Prussian government looked for advice when crafting social, economic, and political policy.

Young, impressionable progressives looked enviously upon these technocrats and believed that they could recreate the Prussian mandarin model at home.

Today’s woke progressives demand Americans recognize cultural differences but never accept any differences in outcome.

Yet when brought stateside by American intellectual upstarts, the economic interventionism (and direction) of their German counterparts took a backseat to social interventionism. Lacking a full understanding of their own Anglo-liberal tradition—and its uniqueness—they also had a tenuous relationship to both individualism and constitutional rights. As Eldon Eisenach notes, “in all cases, a rights-based language of constitutional law, economic freedom, and political democracy is firmly rejected” in the progressive mindset.

Eisenach’s insight into the progressive fondness for state-backed technocracy helps explain the easy transition Barack Obama made in 2010. First, he argued for the so-called “public option,” which would have brought the still (mostly) laissez faire private health care market closer to that of most other industrialized countries. However, when confronted with health care providers’ resistance and some resistance from tea party voters to “death panels,” the president quickly removed the statist portion of the plan and instead pushed the burden of a new, entirely market-driven program onto consumers in the form of an individual mandate to purchase slightly more regulated private coverage. Here lies the progressive reform mindset in a nutshell: envy of the economic statism of European social democracy paired with a mentality there’s nothing truly wrong with the American liberal tradition that can’t be solved with a bit of expert tinkering, plus behavioral controls.

Unlike populists and socialists, progressives did not embrace the language of class conflict when protesting large proprietorship capitalism. They did, though, concur with Marxists’ love affair with expansive state power. Progressives had no complaints about working people answering to elite-controlled institutions and organizations as long as those institutions agreed with their preferred sensibilities—just like contemporary progressives like Obama and Kamala Harris have never had any qualms taking millions from Silicon Valley lobbyists and “entrepreneurs,” who, like the politicians themselves, boast the requisite elite credentials. 

The real problem with America, contemporary progressives believe, doesn’t lie in the system that makes their families and friends rich. It lies within the uncouth behaviors and general immorality of the undereducated Americans whose lives they must rationalize. The “racist” police, the “sexist” and “homophobic” rubes saying nasty things to their coworkers or on Twitter may not have much wealth or capital, but their class standing is much less important, according to the progressive mindset, than the power conferred by their white or male “privilege.”

In the progressive model, counteracting the thought crimes and behavioral failings of American heartlanders provides the mandate for their coastal superiors to monopolize power while pushing economic inequality to the periphery of legitimate social concern. Clinton- and Obama-style progressives would gladly usher in a world where everyone is employed at the woke Amazon-ExxonMobil-Kraft-Apple-Disney megacorporation complex. Even if most workers are systematically disempowered by this setup, there’s still justice in such a future as long as the corporate executive committee is allotted equitable “representation” to “marginalized” identities and the full range of gender expressions.

Walter Benn Michaels, the accomplished literary scholar and author of The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality argues that affirmative action serves one central purpose: allowing wealthy white liberals to feel good about their privileges. What’s the fun in winning the supposedly meritocratic game if you know it’s rigged in your favor? Every “Black” and “brown” face wealthy and well-connected white elites see next to them in an Ivy League classroom, corporate boardroom, or academic committee meeting lets them know that the system is just—and that they earned their own places based on their merits. As for the poor, the vast majority of whom are white, if they wanted a better future they could have “studied harder in school” or, as Rahm Emmanuel recently put it, “learned to code.”

The recent emergence of a fashionable American socialist movement only made this point even clearer in 2020 as much of the energy behind Bernie Sanders was diverted from populist economic concerns into culture war theater for upper-middle-class radicals. American schools might be incorporating pop versions of “radical” critical race theory into their curriculum, but they sure as hell aren’t educating kids on the history of the labor movement (or, for that matter comparative political thought). As Michaels asks, what wealthy corporation—or university (these days it’s easy to confuse the two)—wouldn’t rather respect their employees cultural and identity “differences” rather than pay them a living wage accompanied by substantial benefits or job security?

The Civil Rights era changed how Americans dealt with class, but only slightly, and in ways that have arguably done more to obscure the economic realities of American life than illuminate them. Fifty years hence, race and class have become blurred in the progressive mind. All “whites” have privilege. All “POC” are marginalized. These assumptions take the consideration of race and class outside the realm of the individual and therefore outside the normal orientation of Anglo liberalism. Because of this deviation, it’s tempting to think of today’s “anti-racism” as a substantial shift that takes progressivism far afield from its origins. In fact, the enforcement of a racialist hierarchy has been a key component of the progressive ideology since its birth.

Progressive leaders and intellectuals like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Ely on some level held to the so-called “germ theory” made popular in 18th-century America. Germ theory advanced the idea that democratic thought was less an individual or even cultural choice but more a biological trait originating with the late Roman-era German tribal communities. As Reginald Horsman writes, in this understanding, the concepts of self-governance that the American revolutionaries fought for could be traced to mythical German forests that had served as “collective destination for Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other tribes that invaded the Roman Empire.”

Germ legend, for that’s a more appropriate label than “theory,” traced the origins of democratic thought not to Athens, the Protestant Reformation, or even the Enlightenment (all of which might be more logical as points of origin) but, instead, to the ancient Goths of Germany, who brought the idea with them to post-Roman Britain—thus making the Anglo-Saxons of America the true inheritors of democracy’s “germs.”

Herbert Baxter Adams, the influential purveyor of Anglo-Saxon superiority in the late 19th century, served as Woodrow Wilson’s supervisor at Johns Hopkins. There, he oversaw Wilson’s scholarly investigation of the origins of the democratic governmental form, eventually published in 1889 as The State (Adams supervised Richard Ely’s doctoral work as well). Wilson’s investigations included only “Aryan races” because they were the only ones presumed to contain the appropriate racial inheritance needed to construct a “free” system of government.

While the progressive generation saw a racial kinship with the Germans they still saw their own “Anglo Saxon race” as a full two steps more racially advanced. This presumption is littered through much of the literature of the time, but scholars and historians have missed it because they impose contemporary “whites” versus “POCs” concepts on a historical period that operated outside that binary.

If we recognize this racialist origin point of progressive thought, the inverted KKK ideology of the new woke hierarchy can be understood as the overzealous expression of a core identitarian precept of progressive thought. In an attempt to repent for the country’s past sins, today’s woke progressives have taken the KKK’s notions of Saxon superiority that Woodrow Wilson and most of the 1910s progressives upheld and turned them upside down. No longer is the “Saxon” race thought of as on top. Instead, today’s woke progressives insist upon intersectional QTPOC supremacy and a bizarre, anti-intellectual—and thoroughly racist—notion that all Americans without European ancestry have inevitably been marginalized and therefore are entitled to governmental recompense. BIPOC and LGBTQ “traits” now fill the same role as the mythical blond-haired, blue-eyed Saxon forest dwellers did in the germ theory of the original progressives.

In the Gilded Age, progressives were enamored with tales of how the Germanic tribes fought off the Romans and provided humanity with its greatest stage of political development: democracy. Like those mythical Saxons tribes of old, today’s anointed racial and gender identity groups—especially when found in their exoticized intersectional form —are heralded for their unique ability to lead civilization to its supposedly inevitable future. Here, democracy takes a backseat as ideals of representational correctness are made paramount.

In the woke version of the state of nature, all ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and genders would, if not for systemic racism and bias, be found equally in all job categories, educational admissions, and government offices. Aggressive diversity, equity, and inclusion practices are carried out in the name of anti-racism and similar ideologies with the aim of restoring society’s supposedly natural, uncorrupted state.

Today’s woke progressives demand Americans recognize cultural differences but never accept any differences in outcome. Representational correctness has become the greatest unifying orthodoxy among elites—so much so that even right-wing institutions and think tanks today refrain from confronting the utopianism that lies beneath it. No one wants to be called a “racist”—and woke progressives use the threat of this charge to bully opponents into submission.

Between 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump improved his electoral performance with every major ethnic and gender voter category except white men. Why? As evidenced by California’s recent rejection of affirmative action Proposition 16, many poor and working-class Americans of “color” are not fooled by race-based preferences supposedly carried out on their behalf. They know their kids are not getting into Berkeley or Stanford, much less on the path to becoming the next Barack Obama or Kamala Harris. To most poor and working-class Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, progressive “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs come across the same way that “prohibition” did in the early 20th century—a gigantic, paternalistic social experiment waged by elites and invoiced to those of meager means, whose consequences the American bourgeoisie will itself avoid.

The increasingly aggressive—and probably often illegal—race- and gender-based hiring and admissions programs now common across college campuses are sold as the answer to everything that’s wrong in today’s monopoly heavy oligarchic America: police brutality, wage stagnation, rapidly declining enrollment in the humanities fields, you name it.

Of course, none of these failures will be remotely improved by such an approach. Rather, these programs will only serve to further alienate America’s poor and working classes from the nation’s so-called progressive left. Who knows how to effectively fill out an application for a grant, fellowship, or merit scholarship using critical race theory panache—the working poor? New immigrants learning to speak English? Uh, no.

The supposedly valiant character of “allyship” provides a means for wealthy European American elites to claim to speak for everyone else while maintaining their role as master of ceremonies. When the working poor protest that they too face hardships and structural disadvantages, they can be conveniently condemned as racist enemies of progress.

Now well into its second act, progressive racialism serves the same function it did in the Gilded Age: Hiding class and regionalist prejudice beneath cultural battles. Smiling darkly in the shadows lurks America’s unspeakable injustice—an economic system that is generous to the rich and cruel to the poor.

B. Duncan Moench is Tablet’s social critic at large, a Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy’s Segal Center for Academic Pluralism, and a contributing writer at County Highway.

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