The New Progressivism and its Two-Tier Electoral Base

by Martin Harris

Highly-skilled (professional) historians will probably reject this Humble Scribe (amateur) historian opinion, but it does seem that the American Left was once much more middle-class-oriented than it has recently become. Recall Jefferson’s many comments on the importance of the yeoman farmer-tradesman; Jackson’s reasons for distrusting, and eventually ending, the two Banks of the US; and the Lafollette Progressives, along with the Bryan Populists, claiming to champion middle-class farmers, businessmen, and newly-urban households against an entire range of trusts, interlocking directorates, corrupt urban governments –think Tammany Hall in NYC, the Pendergast Machine in Kansas City, the Cook County Machine in and around Chicago– and corporate monopolies like Rockefeller’s in kerosene and then Insull’s in electricity. Even before State Highway Departments across the nation became governmental heroes for getting the wheels of commerce and travel out of the mud in the post-WW1 years, State Public Service Departments became governmental heroes for regulating what Insull called the “natural monopolies” of power distribution, with 43 States establishing the modern templates for service areas, consumer rates, investor returns, and so on, pre-WW1. Progressives had a large part in these efforts, which explains why Prez 26, Theodore Roosevelt, built his political strategies on such matters of importance to a newly-burgeoning urban middle class, in an era when the basics of life –food, rent, utilities– took up almost all of a household’s disposable income, and, indeed, more than a single wage-earner could bring home, as the 20th century opened. Here’s a quote with 1901 stats from “One Hundred Years of US Consumer Spending”, published by the Dep’t of Labor in 2006: “Yearly household income averaged $750…several earners contributed… unemployment was 4%… 42.5% went for food… 19% owned a home, while 81% were renters…” and so on. “Annual expenditures averaged $769”, the study says; no answer to the obvious question. Income and particularly housing stats reflect lower-middle-class economics at best, a time when the move-to-the-suburbs was just beginning, although mostly, at first, with the upper-middle and above income and wealth cohorts.

It’s commonly-recited wisdom that no Prez did more to maximize that move than #32, with three initiatives which enabled low-skilled labor, renters in walk-up tenements, to climb the socio-economic ladder to trades, professions, home ownership, and financial stability: the GI Bill of Rights for college education, the VA loans for home mortgages, and the first of what later become the Interstate Highways, enabling commuting from new suburbs to old downtowns, where the jobs still were. That was another Democrat /Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, the force behind the New Deal’s various initiatives, most of which couldn’t have been more conducive to middle-class upward-mobility strivings. From the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation created in 1933 to assure new savers and wannabe home-owners that their money was safe, to the various measures in the 1937 and later Agricultural Adjustment Acts to insure that non-farmers would be protected from “undue food price increases” the then- dominant Left (D-voters took 46 of 48 States in 1936) saw the non-farm middle-class as its natural constituency, even as it categorized the upper-income classes as led by “malefactors of great wealth” and started new welfare programs for the underclass only with considerable caution, restraints, and safeguards. And the middle class, newly-expanded, duly rewarded the Democrat-Progressive Left with its votes, although there were, apparently, jokes about apartment-dwelling urban Democrats who moved to the new treed, lawned and private-house-dominated suburbs and became Republicans.

But, electoral stats now show, the Left’s new constituency-list is not comprised any more of an upwardly-striving lower-middle and middle-class: instead, it’s made up of a range of minorities, some demographically-ethnically defined, and some socio-economically defined. In the former group, blacks and Hispanics always appear, Asians and Native Americans sometimes do; in the latter group, younger (presumably lower-income and wealth) single women are always cited, as are all ages of upper-income and -wealth persons of strong Leftist-ideological viewpoints, sometimes wryly labeled as “Patrician Socialists”. At some risk of over-simplification, the former group might be characterized as those with financial dependence on (and therefore loyalty to) government via re-distribution or jobs, while the latter group is divided between those with such financial dependence and those without it, but with financial support for, and thus frequent business favors from –think “green power”– a friendly government. Recent elections have shown that this minorities-list can overpower, electorally, a basically middle-class constituency, with its inherent propensity for growth in personal savings, individual education, and career advancement. It’s not by accident that newly-blue States like Vermont are anti-growth, anti-upward mobility, anti-success in property and wealth accumulation which creates less voter dependence on the expansive and expensive government of which the new Progressives expect to remain in full charge. The code word is “sustainability”; of course, the trends of massive socio-economic growth championed by Prez 36 aren’t, by definition, infinitely “sustainable”. If allowed, they pose endless challenges to the in-place (Prog) power structure.

To discourage such upward mobility as earlier Leftists like FDR notably encouraged, all the usual suspects in cost-of-stay governmental policy increases have been embraced: taxes, regulation, utility costs, business climate, “sprawl” prevention, dependency-attraction, and so on, but none overtly declared. All of the above can be seen in States like Vermont. At the Federal level, comparable policy destroys savings growth, stagnates and even depresses middle-class earnings, uses deliberate inflation to devalue the currency, and now proposes various new “wealth tax” incentives –think the house-sale-profit tax just revealed to reside within the new health care law, or the new caps on retirement savings plans. It’s a semantic irony that the new Left has a phrase –disparate impact– which they use when any favored minority is statistically under-represented in some employment sector or produces less-than-equal test scores in school- or job-promotion contexts, and the fault is automatically assigned to the test design and not the test-taker. But an observer can just as easily see “disparate impact” in governmental policies which selectively suppress middle-class aspirations because that voter bloc would be more predictably troublesome, thrifty and self-reliant, than the cohorts whose votes can be reliably bought with cash-or-kind transfer payments –one part of the new two-tier electorate– or with governmental favor and/or participation –the other part. Not surprisingly, Vermont’s once-solid middle-class has been leaving: shrinking school enrollments and low unemployment numbers show the stats. Unspoken Prog reaction: “Good: our long-term governance strategy is working”.