Principles of a Modern Progressive Movement

Bernie Sanders at Lecture

“I’m not a liberal, I’m a progressive,” Bernie Sanders told a high school student in 2003 as he spoke to an assembly about the importance of civic engagement. He added, “There’s a difference.” Twelve years later, he was gearing up to run for president of the United States. He told progressive Democrats, “I have never accepted this nonsense about red states and blue states—in every state of the country there are people who are struggling, and they are on our side. Don’t accept that division. We are the vast majority of people.” Progressives say they might not agree on every subject, but they cite many common interests as human beings and Americans. “Most people want big money out of politics,” Sanders said. “Most Americans do believe that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, and want a national healthcare program.” Sanders also said the majority of Americans believe the current minimum wage is not enough.

Progressives, Sanders included, say the American government has, over the decades, failed to represent the American people. Zachary Boren of The Telegraph wrote an article in 2014 in which he claims the U.S. government does not represent the interests of the majority of American citizens. Instead, says Boren, our country is ruled by the powerful and the wealthy. He believes the U.S. is dominated by its economic elite. Boren cites a peer-reviewed study that is presently being taught at our universities. The study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, says in part, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Sanders is concerned. He said, “I am worried that we are moving toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of people are not satisfied with controlling most of the wealth. They want to control the government too.” The concentration of immense political power in the hands of a wealthy few is not new in American history.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK Speech

Martin Luther King, Jr. also wanted to fight inequality. He said, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” He added, “Since the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.” It would seem King’s concern was not limited to blacks. He said, “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income.” He said America’s obsession with the Vietnam War overshadowed the nation’s numerous domestic problems. King added, “We need to put pressure on Congress to get things done. We will do this with first amendment activity. If Congress is unresponsive, we’ll have to escalate in order to keep the issue alive and before it. This action may take on disruptive dimensions, but not violent in the sense of destroying life or property: it will be militant non-violence.”

King said he was frank enough to admit that if the non-violent campaign he put forth did not generate some progress, people would likely engage in more violent activity, including possible guerrilla warfare in the streets of America. He said, “In any event, we will not have been the ones who will have failed. We will place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. If that power refuses to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it will have failed to live up to its promise to insure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to its citizens. If this society fails, I fear that we will learn very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.”

King quoted Scripture, noting that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the third and fourth generations. He said, “Nothing could be more applicable to our situation. America is reaping the harvest of hate and shame planted through generations of educational denial, political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation of its black population… We have, through massive non-violent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony. We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history. All of us are on trial in this troubled hour, but time still permits us to meet the future with a clear conscience.”

Progressive Principles

The period of U.S. history from the 1890s to the 1920s is usually referred to as the Progressive Era, which was a period of intense social and political reform aimed at making progress toward a better society. Progressive Era reformers sought to harness the power of the federal government to eliminate unethical and unfair business practices, reduce corruption, and counteract the negative social effects of industrialization. During the Progressive Era, protections for workers and consumers were strengthened, and women finally achieved the right to vote.

The worldview of Progressive reformers was based on certain key assumptions. The first was that human nature could be improved through the enlightened application of regulations, incentives, and punishments. The second key assumption was that the power of the federal government could be harnessed to improve the individual and transform society. These two assumptions were not shared by political conservatives, who tended to believe that human nature was unchanging, and that the federal government should remain limited in size and scope. Interestingly, this mirrors the fight we’re seeing today progressives/liberals and conservatives, especially during the mid-term elections.

Today’s Progressive Agenda

What many of us now consider dangerous and stupid ideas of the past, progressives see as useful in the present. Even liberal historians usually label as disastrous two major decisions made by Franklin D. Roosevelt: the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens following Japan’s attack on U.S. Naval Forces at Pearl Harbor; and the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937—better known as FDR’s “court-packing scheme.” In the latter, FDR wanted desperately to put shackles on the U.S. Supreme Court in order to stave off its interference in FDR’s implementation of the New Deal. He was bothered by the thought of “waiting around” until a justice or two died or retired, so he dreamed up the idea of a new (additional) justice for every sitting judge who had reached the age of 70 years, 6 months, and had not yet retired. In theory, he could pack the court by bringing the total number of justices to fifteen.

Progressives also wish to nullify federal laws by carving out spaces exempt from federal protection. Democrats tried it and failed in the South Carolina nullification crisis of 1832-33 when they sought to render void federal tariff laws. Of course, the soon-to-be Confederate States were more serious, and in 1861 Southern Democrats said federal laws no longer applied to them. Accordingly, this idea of nullification helped spark the Civil War. Governor George Wallace is infamous for his blocking entrance to the University of Alabama in defiance of court-ordered integration. Why am I bringing this up now? That’s because 19th century nullification is at work in the nearly 500 cities that have declared themselves “sanctuaries,” saying they will not comply with federal immigration laws. How do you suppose these city governments would react if conservative cities were to declare federally-protected abortion rights, gun laws, or the endangered species act null and void within their city limits?

Help Wanted White Only

Another dark tradition from America’s past was the institutionalization of segregated spaces on the logic that the victims of discrimination did not deserve the protection of their freedoms under the Constitution simply because of the color of their skin. Yet once again the progressive Left has returned to its roots for inspiration and implemented an entire array of discriminatory practices. Special landscapes on campuses where particular races cannot enter are called “safe” rather than “segregated” spaces. Entry is entirely predicated on outward appearance—although how one’s genealogy is assessed ad hoc poses the same challenges as it once did for the racists of the Old South who came up with the ‘one-drop’ rule (i.e., even one drop of African blood means you are black).

The First Amendment

Freedom to Speak Freely

The Left has resurrected an entire host of once discredited ideas from the nation’s past that reveal the new progressive ethos and remind us why those practices were odious in the first place. A new drive to limit free speech is underway, not just on campuses but also on social media. The effort is almost entirely progressive-driven. We’re told that Christians cannot speak in public about Jesus Christ, or say “Merry Christmas” to patrons of their businesses. We cannot place nativity scenes on courthouse lawns. Someone living on a hillside above town who wishes to display a lighted cross for the Christmas Season is forced to take it down. Further, progressives are trying to steal our right to speak out against the dangers of Islamic extremism, claiming it amounts to hate speech.

Hate itself is not a crime. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate crimes, which can also encompass color, or national origin, are overt acts that can include violence against persons or property, violation of civil rights, conspiracy, or certain “true threats,” or acts of intimidation. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that either criminalize these acts or impose a harsher punishment when it can be proven that the defendant targeted the victim because of the victim’s race, ethnicity, identity, or beliefs.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, however, protects speech no matter how offensive its content. To be clear, the First Amendment does not protect behavior that crosses the line into targeted harassment or threats, or that creates a pervasively hostile environment. But merely offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level, and determining when conduct crosses that line is a legal question that requires examination on a case-by-case basis. We cannot necessarily legislate hate out of our lives, especially in a free democratic republic. Politicians cannot fix this country. Only its citizens can figure out what went wrong and do something about it.

A recent federal court case, Matal vs. Tam (2017), heralded the following opinion:

“Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express “the thought that we hate.”

America is not America if we allow the progressive agenda to gag our opinions. Again, merely offensive or bigoted speech is protected speech. It has to be. What we cannot allow is targeted harassment or threats. Maxine Waters (D., 43rd District of California) has taken to the streets inciting progressives and liberals to seek out and harass any Republican leaders or cabinet members who are shopping or dining in public places. She said, “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Did you get that? They’re not welcome anymore in America where they are free to vote how they see fit, work for whomever they wish, and say what they believe to be true.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Democrats, both in the North and the South, had been the party of the old plantation. They had fought hard to protect the plantation through the Civil War and had largely successfully blocked Republican Reconstruction. Far from repenting of their long legacy of bigotry and enslavement, the Democrats—especially in the South—were scheming for ways to restore and reinvent the plantation in the twentieth century. Wilson was part of this scheme—a Virginia Democrat who as a young boy had watched in horror as Union armies occupied the South. This had a deep impact on his worldview. American Democracy, in Wilson’s eyes, was not an American creation; rather, it was a racial legacy dating back to the ancient German Teutonic tribes, whom Wilson dubbed the “Aryans.” Wilson credited most achievements in the area of government and social development for democratic self-government, which was essentially an Anglo-Saxon product. Wilson, in short, was an early apostle of the nineteenth century movement to invoke science on behalf of white supremacy.

In 1901, Wilson published an article in the Atlantic Monthly in which he made the case for the segregation laws that the Democratic Party was at the time enacting throughout the South. Free blacks, Wilson argued, were “unpracticed in liberty, unschooled in self-control; never sobered by the discipline of self-support, never established in any habit of prudence… insolent and aggressive; sick of work, covetous of pleasure.” Obviously they needed segregation, Wilson concluded, because otherwise they would be “a danger to themselves as well as to those whom they had once served.”

Wilson was almost single-handedly responsible for the national revival of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that had been defunct since the 1870s. Wilson also segregated the federal government and promoted vicious schemes of forced sterilization of racial minorities. These schemes later surfaced during the reign of Hitler and the Nazis. Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, said that Wilson was “the most racist president of the twentieth century.” He notes the following regarding modern usage of the term fascist:

“In short, ‘fascist’ is a modern word for ‘heretic,’ branding an individual worthy of excommunication from the body politic. The left uses other words—’racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘homophobe,’ ‘christianist’—for similar purposes, but these words have less elastic meanings. Fascism, however, is the gift that keeps on giving. George Orwell noted this tendency as early as 1946 in his famous essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’ The word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.”

Concluding Remarks

Progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because, in the eyes of a progressive, progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it. Progressivism contributes to the polarization and paralysis of government because it makes compromise, which entails accepting less progress, not merely inadvisable but irrational. Even when progressives choose their targets strategically—Hillary Clinton, for example, called herself “a progressive who likes to get things done”—the implication is that progress is the fundamental goal and that its opponents are antagonistic to social progress. Progressives believe because progress is an unadulterated good, it supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation, same-sex marriage, and abortion. Who hasn’t heard it said that conservatives are stuck in the past?

Where liberalism seeks to reduce economic injustice, progressivism’s goal is to eradicate it. Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognized this difference between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which he always supported—as exemplified by his opposition to Clinton-era welfare reform—and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which he sympathetically criticized. The New Deal alleviated poverty by cutting checks, something the government loves to do, although liberals and conservatives typically argue over the size of the checks. The Great Society partook more of a progressive effort to remake society by eradicating poverty’s causes. The result, which most progressives are unwilling to admit, was the diversion of resources from welfare and jobs to “community action” programs that financed political activism.