The Radical “New Progressivism” in American Life

Posted on April 10, 2016

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It’s sometimes hard loving history. Instead of the here and now, and what’s around the corner, you love to go back and see what happened in the past. Indeed, given the lackluster character of today’s presidential aspirants, it is in fact a lot more fun, and instructive, and even edifying to see who ran for and won the presidency in times past, people like Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt for example. And you can throw in Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan in relatively modern times.

Let me really be upfront here. For sure the Donald, Hillary, Bernie and the rest of the cast do not inspire by much of what they say and do. And even more astounding is the level of lying that goes on in the election rhetoric. We deal with that in a separate column.

What struck me as plain ignorance on the part of all the political candidates, and apparently on the part of their advisers–who all need to take a refresher course or two on American history–is how they have characterized the very liberal positions on government in society by such candidates as Bernie Sanders as a gross departure from the past, the new “progressivism” in American life, distorting the true nature of our politics and society. Bernie is portrayed as not only a socialist—which he is—but a person who is determined to destroy free enterprise, laissez faire economics, the engines that made this country great.

And, so, as I read a joint biography of William Howard Taft A(1857-1930) and Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I once again am reminded by Kearns Goodwin, a very good historian, that progressivism and the intercession of the government into the business of individuals is nothing new. Teddy Roosevelt was “trust busting” a hundred years ago, long before the Barack Obamas and Bernie Sanders were even dreamed of by their parents.

What’s a trust? I’m afraid that many reading this column may have only a passing acquaintance, a distant and fading star in their memory of History 101. It has nothing to do with depending upon someone. A trust in the language of Teddy Roosevelt’s day was a business organization that monopolized power and resources in a particular area.

At the end of the nineteenth century, as the age of the robber barons shook itself out, the tendency to merge competing enterprises—railroads, mines, steel making, oil production, etc.—seemed to grip the imagination of the great entrepreneurs, like the John D. Rockefellers, James B. Dukes, Andrew Carnegies, William Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgans, and others. They viewed unbridled competition as basically inefficient engines of their endeavors and began to consolidate the competition into more highly organized enterprises, the beginning of the great monopolies, most often brought together in complex organizations called trusts.

Not only were the trusts more efficient engines of capitalism, they also tended to narrow the immense wealth-making power of the economic trusts into the hands of a few, nicknamed the Robber Barons because of their wealth and the way they got it, often trampling the competition, driving their competitors into the ground, creating a life for themselves of wealth and leisure based on the brilliant, but often ruthless, manipulation of capital, labor, and the new technologies fed by the inventiveness of Americans.

Their wealth, and its display, eventually drew the attention of many Americans who witnessed a small percentage of the rich population get immensely rich on the backs of laboring America, often first generation immigrants at the bottom of the economic barrel. The grime and poverty and squalor of the working classes eventually awakened Americans like Teddy Roosevelt to the gross inequalities in American life which promised so much for so many, but was not delivering on the promise.

Early in his career as a public figure, largely in New York before he assumed some higher offices in Washington until finally landing in the president’s office when William McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt, then Vice President, was catapulted into the White House, Roosevelt was awakened to the inequality of life in America, where power and wealth was skewered towards the few. The old promise of America as a home where opportunity beckoned and all could rise from their circumstances seemed to be circumscribed by the trusts and the failure of the government to exercise any control over them. And so was born the progressive movement, largely a Republican phenomenon but shared by many like-thinking Democrats, to level the playing field a bit. Break up the trusts, regulate the worst of the great monopolies, like among the railroads, and restore some semblance of free competition to all who wanted to compete.

Roosevelt was not a fanatic in his “trust busting,” since he counted many of the great leaders of capitalism among his friends, or, at the least, friends of friends. But Teddy was a force to be reckoned with. Where he perceived a wrong, he went at the solutions doggedly, not only moving the government into new areas of regulation, but making things right across many activities. He introduced the first regulations of food and drugs when he got wind (perhaps literally in his many trips around the country) of how the meat packing trusts were poisoning the American people with shoddy practices, he promoted the preservation of America’s forests through new national parks and forests, and when he had to, he met the trusts and monopolies head on, like breaking a massive coal industry strike in 1902 that threatened to plunge the country into the cold. But he did this by bringing the greatest financial capitalist in the country, J. P. Morgan, into the solution, working always toward his ends, but always looking for the compromise.

So what was Teddy’s legacy? One, perhaps frivolous but not so in the eyes of generations of American kids, was the famous “teddy bear” named after him from a hunting incident.

When challenged, Roosevelt said he could do anything as long as it wasn’t explicitly prohibited by the Constitution. This was not only his right as president, but it was his duty. His goal was not to strip the wealth and power from the trusts, but to reduce their ability by their monopolies to deny others access to the competition. And when he perceived evil practices that hurt fellow Americans, he used the government to make corrections. The first food and drug reforms came after he heard about how hot dogs were made in the meat packing plants of Chicago. Rumor has it that he never again ate a hot dog, nor would I if I knew what went into them.

He liked the label “progressive,” since it implied a concept that was important to him. He wasn’t interested, like modern progressives and socialists, in legislating equal access by all to the wealth generated in the country. Her it is folks, dip in. He was interested in equal opportunities, denied by the great monopolies and trusts. He was, in fact, playing the role of a national conscience, and he loved the role and his enthusiasm was contagious.

His detractors vilified him, but he was elected in 1904 on his own merits, and then promoted his good friend and fellow thinker, William Howard Taft, for president in 1908, and Taft was elected.

I think Roosevelt’s legacy should be recalled. He believed in the American dream. While born with a silver spoon in his mouth, to modest wealth and social prominence, he worked all his life to overcome his shortcomings and be the man he knew he could be. He had his shortcomings; don’t we all. But he viewed people with immense optimism, if they were just given a chance.

Published as “Little is New with ‘New’ Progressives”  in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, March 27, 2016