With the end of the Cold War, and the victory of democratic market-capitalism over Marxist-Leninist socialism, Republicans were set free to concentrate their fire on dismantling the remaining legacies of Progressivism in America. I refer to Republicans, rather than conservatives, because there is nary a Republican political figure in the country today who sincerely adheres to classic conservative values. And when I talk about Progressivism, I’m referring to the movement that went by that designation (in fact seemingly invented it) in the first two decades of the twentieth century—not the putative progressivism of today that, while struggling valiantly to be born (or reborn), is still deep inside the womb.
Political science scholar Robert Putnam, in a forthcoming book called The Upswing, credits the original Progressive movement with initiating a process of reform that set the country on an upward course of steady improvement, in virtually every important area of American life, for most of the century. This trajectory, he argues, was ultimately reversed by fundamental changes in the social order that emerged in the mid-1960s, then accelerated in the succeeding decade, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in November 1980. (Putnam’s book will be reviewed in TNR’s October issue.)
The holy grail of the Progressive movement, Putnam submits, was an egalitarian community—or one as close to egalitarian as the modern world would permit. Walter T.K. Nugent, in his 2009 book Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction, elaborates the point: “Progressives agreed on many issues, most fundamentally on the conviction that there is such a thing as society and that everyone was a member of it, and that a common good affected everyone and should be sought in every available way. In this, their outlook contrasted with the rampant individualism and self-seeking that preceded them in the Gilded Age.” Putnam argues that the years between 1965 and 1980 laid the foundation for a second Gilded Age in America.
In Putnam’s view, Ronald Reagan did not therefore inaugurate the era of overweening greed and social disintegration in which we find ourselves today. Rather, he was the first avatar of a corrupt culture already in an advanced stage of gestation. His most lasting positive accomplishment, to the extent he was really responsible for it, was the end of the Cold War. In 1992, however, after Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, laid only ambiguous and equivocal claim to his legacy, Democrat Bill Clinton came into office, bringing with him “an updated version of early 20th century Progressivism, with its suspicion of ideology and heavy reliance on technocratic expertise,” as Joshua Micah Marshall explained in the September 2003 issue of the Washington Monthly.
Clinton’s updated Progressive outlook harked back to a different legacy—that of the innovative approach to policymaking nurtured at the University of Wisconsin in the early twentieth century, under the aegis of Wisconsin’s Progressive Republican Governor Robert M. La Follette. Nugent writes that this group of Progressive intellectuals “looked at society not simply as collections of isolated individuals but as organisms: people, economies, social groups did not live in isolation. Therefore, policies should be based on empirical evidence, evaluated and sifted by experts in sociology, political economy, and allied sciences, who would then devise programs and policies that government would effectuate for the benefit of the social organism.” Indeed, University of Wisconsin professor Edwin Witte was instrumental in crafting and passing Social Security during the New Deal.
This was not, to say the least, the approach to government favored by Newt Gingrich, who was elected speaker of the House of Representatives in 1994. Gingrich and his colleagues at the vanguard of the Republican Revolution promoted a set of policy priorities antithetical to classic Progressivism. They believed that “society’s problems could only be solved through a radical reordering, both of government in Washington and of America’s relationship with the world,” Marshall wrote, and they called for measures such as “tax cuts to drain money out of the Beltway; radically scaling back regulation on business; pulling America out of many international agreements.” Marshall observed further that “the Gingrichites were not pragmatists but visionaries and revolutionaries. They wanted to overthrow the existing structure of American government, not tinker with it.”
Gingrich’s ideology anticipated the substance of both the George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump presidencies; indeed, in mapping out the impact of the Gingrich insurgency, Marshall was critiquing the George W. Bush administration. Bush, in line with Gingrich’s views, pursued “an expansive and militarized unilateralism aimed at cutting the U.S. free from entangling alliances and international treaty obligations,” Marshall wrote. This new direction for post–Cold War American foreign policy, which laid the groundwork for the Iraq fiasco, anticipated Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Accord on global warming and his scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal. In parallel fashion, the Bush administration’s circumvention of EPA guidelines for industry foreshadowed Trump’s wholesale abandonment of them. Both presidents mounted full-scale assaults on the social safety net—Bush with his misbegotten attempt to privatize Social Security, Trump in his relentless campaign against the Affordable Care Act.
Marshall’s piece was entitled “The Post-Modern President,” referring to the French school of thought holding that there is no such thing as objective scientific inquiry or even a stable, discernible reality. It became clear that this same view of the world permeated the Bush administration when an official bragged to journalist Ron Suskind that Bush’s advisers were creating their own reality in Iraq; Suskind’s source tellingly contrasted their approach with that of liberals who inhabit a “reality-based community.”
We now have a deranged president who literally creates, and re-creates, his own phantasmagorical reality one day to the next—at no small mortal peril to the rest of us. That is a measure of the distance Republicans have taken us from one of the glories of the Progressive tradition.