by Martin Harris
From your grade-school years, when American History was actually taught, you’ll recall that the Founding Fathers hoped for an electorate without “factions” but in the event, they (we) ended up with Whigs and (briefly)Tories, and upon the vanishing of the latter because of Yorktown, the Whigs then split into Federalists on the Right and Democratic-Republicans on the Left, differing not so much over “social justice” and similar modern constructs as over government-investment-in-infra-structure and the encouragement of manufacturing (Hamiltonian Federalists) versus emphasis on yeoman farmers and minimal government (Jeffersonian D-R’s). A half-century or so later, the modern Republican Party became the first “new” Party, emerging in the 1850’s as the basis for an anti-slavery-expansion doctrine, but the ensuing Civil War was originally about tariff collection, by military force and invasion as needed, as Prez 16 specifically promised (threatened) in his First Inaugural Address, which also included the Lincolnian promise not to interfere with existing slavery. Thirty-some-odd years later, the Progressive Movement was the second, responding to major trends in immigration, urbanization, and ensuing political corruption with promises of beyond-mere-Party-cronyism enlightened governance by the “best and brightest” (themselves, of course) bringing superior intelligence, intellect, understanding, and technocratic skills to the new scientific exercise of government, on behalf of all of us less-good and less-bright who require that we place absolute trust in their superior discretionary judgments, in their devoted service to us, their less-well-endowed (in multiple respects) constituency. It wasn’t just a new domestic movement; on the global scale, such Progressives as Great Britain’s Rudyard Kipling espoused the same set of noble motives, using his poetic skills to describe their deeply-felt obligation to improve all of us: “the white man’s burden” to bring civilization wherever it was insufficiently (in their view) less well advanced.
From its Wisconsin beginnings, the Progressive Movement had two constituencies: the smaller but the more controlling being the upper-middle-class members of society and, particularly, the higher-education “academy”, a linkage illustrated by the original close links between the Progressives and the State university system, where, for a while, even the legislative drafting of bills took place. The vastly larger and more requiring of control was, supposedly, all of us in the less-well-endowed 90%, the middle and lower classes then acquiring greater importance as American society shifted from a predominantly rural-agrarian base to a predominantly urban-manufacturing base and the original Jeffersonian notions of broad equality shrank into owners and renters, managers and labor, leaders and followers. The early Progressive promises of cures for urban corruption (think Tammany Hall in New York City and the Pendergast Machine in Kansas City) were aimed primarily at the newly-enlarged voter numbers in urban wage-labor, what today would be called the middle and lower-middle classes. And most of the promises, after corruption-removal, were economic: wages, living conditions, education, the beginnings of “welfare”. Think Progressive Jane Hull and her Hull House in the Chicago slums during the (elsewhere) Gilded Age. The turn of the 20th century was a time when average income per family was $750, and food, clothing, and shelter took, respectively, 43%, 14%, and 23%. It was the need to meet this economic challenge from the Left which induced Republican presidential candidate William McKinley to campaign, for the first time, on a similar pledge: his slogan in 1896 was “the full dinner pail”.
And yet, in both long-term and short-term statistics, the pattern which has emerged since Progressive ascendancy in the early 20th century has been one of, contrary to the previous century-plus of relative economic stability, sharp increases in national debt, sharp decreases in purchasing power of the dollar (it now take more than $20 to purchase the equivalent of $1’s worth of goods in 1913, the year of the Federal Reserve’s founding) and, more recently, stagnation in household earnings, reduction in household savings, both short- and long-term, and increases in an entire range of living costs, some recognized by the conventional measures of inflation (think higher-ed tuition, medical costs, and housing rentals) and some not –or maybe not-yet (think food, fuel, services) all of which have combined to cause, for the first time in American history, sharp decreases in household net worth and sharp increases in population percentages receiving various forms of transfer-payments and welfare. In two major discretionary areas –Progressive John Maynard Keynes’ stimulus-(deficit)-spending concepts, and Progressive Ben Bernanke’s decision to inflate the dollar by 2% annually, the hardest-hit have been the middle- and lower-middle –classes. Those in higher wealth and experience categories (their peers) have more easily moved their wealth to gold, land, equities, even “art” and antiques, which explains why earnings and wealth are now more unevenly distributed than at any time since the (decried by them, of course) Roaring Twenties. In short, the major constituencies of the Progressive Movement (now a nearly-full-fledged political Party) the middle- and lower-middle-classes, are the ones which, quite unlike its intellectual/leadership constituency, have been least-well serviced, as measured, not by its promises, but by its actual results. Or perhaps they (we) have been appropriately-well-serviced, if you think of the English verb in its older barnyard agricultural sense.