Why Do Bad History Books Win Us Over?

Writing in The Atlantic, Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens reflect on the recent History News Network poll on the least credible history books in print. (See our post on this poll here).

The authors attempt to explain why “historians” such as David Barton and Howard Zinn are so popular. Certainly politics is part of the appeal, but there is more.  I will let Beneke and Stephens explain:

In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it’s as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren’t conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton’s hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn’s unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.

Is it Possible to Be a "Progressive Catholic?"

Patrick Deneen does not think so.

The Georgetown University politics professor (soon to be a Notre Dame politics professor) believes that the phrase “progressive Catholic” does not make sense. He makes this argument in a very insightful piece that critiques his colleague E.J. Dionne’s use of terms such as “progressive Catholic” and “social justice Catholics.”

It seems that Deneen is right when he suggests that the social teaching of the Catholic Church does not “map” very well on our current political landscape.  I have always wondered about this–both as a former Catholic and as a student of American religion.

Why don’t I ever hear so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Catholics defend the Church’s teaching on abortion and gay marriage?  In the last year or so I have spent some time with administrators and professors at Catholic universities and colleges who sound no different on these moral questions than any liberal academic. They all talk a good game on the “social justice” front, but they are rarely proactive in discussing the Church’s position on some of the issues that have become talking points for political conservatives.

And why don’t I ever hear conservative Catholics, such as those of the First Things variety (where Deneen published his piece), talk about social justice issues.  Instead, they extoll the virtues of capitalism, defend a pro-life position on abortion, and rail against gay marriage and stem-cell research. I rarely  hear them speak about poverty, the role of government, or other issues that have become talking points for political liberals.

Deneen’s piece is helpful on this front.

A taste:

The labels themselves are inappropriate, particularly that of “progressive Catholic”—a combination that is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, yet a label that Dionne uses again and again to describe his approach to the Catholic faith. The Progressives were theologically millenarian, even Arian, believing that salvation could be achieved through human effort and especially through the twin avenues of science and politics. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch were self-described critics of the past and hostile to tradition. John Dewey equated Christianity and democracy, believing that democracy had become the new means of ongoing revelation, and in which the teacher should seek to bring about the kingdom of God—progress advanced in the classroom could accelerate the coming of the millennium on earth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” Catholicism is an accumulation of tradition, including a magisterium that does not waver from the fundamental truth as divulged in the teachings and life of Jesus. It is a faith that traces itself back through apostolic succession to its point of origin with Jesus’s commission to his apostles to go forth and spread the Word. It is a faith that is populated by constant remembrance of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints, who are remembered in every Mass during the Eucharistic prayer. While Catholics look forward to the future with hope, they do not invest their hopes in perfection of the City of Man. If Catholics are anything, they are not “progressives,” and to import the political term for the description of Catholics is to collapse the Church into a political program that cannot be reconciled to the Catholic worldview.

If less pernicious, Dionne’s other preferred form of self-description—“Social Justice Catholic”—appears only to endorse the Church’s charitable work on behalf of the poor, with a heavy preference for government’s role in that effort. But is the Church’s efforts on behalf of the dignity of every human life—born or unborn—any less a part of its commitment to social justice? Is not the defense and preservation of the family a central focus of social justice? Should not we understand the Bishop’s opposition to the HHS mandate, and preservation of the Church’s ministry without needless interference by the State, also to be a part of social justice? Dionne seems to define social justice to be activities that conform solely to the platform of the Democratic Party, but, here again, American partisan positions map poorly onto the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Thought. His portrayal of “Social Justice Catholics” as distinct from “conservative Catholics” is a disfigurement of the fullness of Catholic teaching.

The Spirit of 76 vs. The Arc of History

Joseph Ellis has a thought-provoking op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times on the the founding fathers, the big vs. small government debate, and the arc of American history.

He shows that today’s small government, tea-party, libertarian types have Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence on their side, but those who defend active or “expansive” government can claim the framers of the Constitution, Lincoln and the Civil War unionists, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Ellis writes:

This brief tour of American history, which could be extended to include Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society, reveals that modern-day conservatives have “the spirit of ’76” on their side, as well as the power of Jefferson’s original formulation of the American creed. Liberals, on the other hand, have the arc of American history on their side, which until the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to have the final word in the debate. After all, who could imagine a successful political movement requiring the revocation of two centuries of American history? Barry Goldwater, who campaigned for president in 1968 on just such a radical agenda, received only 38% of the vote.

While realistically this is still so — unless American voters are prepared to dispense with Medicare, Social Security, the Federal Reserve Board and even our existence as a sovereign nation-state — at least rhetorically conservatives have a narrative advantage. That is, their story of individual freedom and tyrannical government enjoys a privileged place in the lexicon because of its association with our political origins.

As a historian of those origins, I can tell you that there were dissenting voices back in the summer of 1776, most notably George Washington and John Adams, who regarded Jefferson’s dream of pure self-government as a preposterous illusion. Washington even thought that we almost lost the war for independence because of the refusal of the states to provide sufficient support for the Continental Army.

But the dream has proved remarkably resilient because it depicts any conspicuous expression of government power as an alien force and sanctifies the sovereign individual, standing tall against oppression. Even though that story line has been anachronistic for more than a century, it has levitated out of space and time to become a fixture in American mythology, never to be underestimated as a political weapon, especially when wielded by the party out of power….

If Ellis is correct (and I think he is), then libertarians should stop claiming the Constitutional framers, Washington, Adams, and Lincoln as their own.  Instead they should be claiming the libertarian vision of Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, if Jefferson did not have a God problem (he did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, etc…) he would be the perfect founding father for libertarian conservatives.

BUT WAIT!…it now appears that Jefferson actually did NOT have a God problem after all.  He has been officially baptized by David Barton!  As a result, the small-government conservative movement now has a patron founding saint–someone who was libertarian in politics and a supporter of government’s role in promoting religion.

BUT WAIT AGAIN!  How could Jefferson, a libertarian who wanted government to stay out of our business, have supported government’s active role in promoting religion in the public square?  Isn’t the promotion of religion an example of active government–a violation of the libertarian creed?

How do Christian libertarians balance their commitment to limited government with their desire for government to legislate morality and religion?

Who is Saul Alinsky?

Newt Gingrich has been trying to disparage Barack Obama by calling him a “Saul Alinsky radical.”  I am guessing that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters have never heard of Saul Alinsky.  But that doesn’t matter to Newt.  As long as GOP primary voters know that he was an evil socialist and community organizer then everything will be OK.  And after all, Newt is a self-proclaimed “historian,” so what he says about historical figures should be believed.

Over at The New Republic, Michael Kazin introduces us to this so-called “radical.”  Here is a taste:

Saul Alinsky often called himself a radical, but his career as a community organizer had thoroughly traditional foundations in grassroots democracy and institutional religion. Indeed, it was built with the active support and resources of key figures in the Roman Catholic Church. (The same faith, incidentally, to which Newt converted in 2009, joining his wife Callista, who grew up Catholic in Wisconsin.)

In the late 1930s, Alinsky launched his first project in the Back of the Yards, a multi-ethnic, working-class, mostly Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Bernard J. Sheil, the city’s auxiliary bishop, championed the new Back of the Yards Council and encouraged local priests and leading parishioners to take part. Sheil, founder of the Catholic Youth Organization, helped set up Alinsky’s network of local organizers—the non-profit Industrial Areas Foundation—and convinced financier Marshall Field III to bankroll it. 

During the 1940s and early 1950s, Alinsky worked closely with another influential priest, Monsignor John O’Grady, director of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. O’Grady liked Alinsky’s focus on mobilizing local people to help themselves and introduced the “radical” to a parish priest who was working with young Puerto Ricans in a poor neighborhood near the University of Chicago.

The Monsignor and the Jewish troublemaker got along so well that Alinsky began to work with O’Grady on the older man’s biography. The book was not completed, but the outline made clear that the two shared a strong critique of modern liberalism that would be congenial to many conservatives today: “…the New Deal was important, it was good…yet it carried an opposite side to the shield, in terms of a gravitation of power and the establishment of enormous bureaucracies which were evil.” Americans should turn, instead, wrote Alinsky, “to grass roots organization and decentralization.” 

As Alinsky knew well, O’Grady’s thinking drew from the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity,” which the Church began to develop in the late 19th century as an alternative to social change directed by powerful nation-states. Subsidiarity holds that social problems should first be handled by the smallest, most local authority in existence. As Pope Pius XI wrote in a 1931 encyclical: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.”

Over the Front Porch Republic, Russell Arben Fox affirms Kazin’s piece. 

Mormons and Progressive Politics

Take heed, Glenn Beck.  Your church has been “progressive” for a long time.

Today’s New Republic (website) is running a fascinating and very informative (at least to me) piece on the way that the Church of the Latter Day Saints responded favorably to the early 20th-century Progressive Movement.  The author is Matt Bowman, a young American religious historian who is becoming the “go-to guy” of late for all things Mormon. Bowman connects Mitt Romney’s politics to this progressive longstanding tradition of Mormon progressivism.

Here is a taste:

But the political polarities that dominate American public discourse today are of relatively recent vintage, and there is a particularly Mormon version of classical American progressivism to which Mitt Romney stands heir. These progressives believed that effective organization and the promotion of virtue went hand in hand; they are two manifestations of a single commitment, and the former can indeed promote the latter. In a nutshell, these progressives believed that public organization can promote a moral imperative, that technocratic bureaucracy can in fact change lives for the better.

The Mormon affinity for American progressivism dates to start of the twentieth century, when the movement itself began. Advocates of the early twentieth-century progressive movement eschewed partisan commitments in favor of expertise, education, and a clear-eyed confidence that trained bureaucrats and voluntary associations could perfect American life. They created the Federal Reserve, the eight-hour workday, the NAACP, the women’s suffrage movement, Prohibition, and dozens of other laws and organizations designed to solve social ills and instill American society with middle-class values of democracy, industry, and education. Progressives were not merely bureaucrats; they were, in their way, utopians, combining practical problem-solving with a faith that bureaucracy could promote virtue.

In these years, after decades of persecution and retreat, Mormons were hungry for entry into mainstream American life. In the progressive impulse of the early twentieth century, they found some of their own ideals. In progressive proclamations of a stable and harmonious society, they heard an echo of their dreams of Zion. They saw, in progressivism’s aspirations to moral uplift, the mirror image of Joseph Smith’s rejection of original sin; and both progressives and Mormons believed in the unlimited possibilities of human potential.

Mormon leaders threw themselves into the progressive project, embracing the notion that organizations could instill virtue in human beings. In 1913, for instance, the church formally affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, a quintessentially progressive organization founded on the notion that participation in a quasi-military hierarchy and group activities would teach young men self-discipline. In the same decade, Mormon leaders endorsed the Prohibition movement, and influential progressive leaders like William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt passed through Salt Lake City to commend the Mormons for their organizational talents and their embodiment of the American virtues that progressivism taught.

Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

I don’t seem to remember last year’s Messiah College American Democracy lecture being like this.

The speaker was Emory University historian Patrick Allitt and the venue was a large tiered classroom on campus that held 110 people.  The hallways outside the campus were not swarming with campus police, high-level campus administrators, and college public relations staff.  I did not have to sit in an “overflow” classroom where the lecture was shown on closed-circuit television.

Things were different this year because the speaker was Francis Fox Piven, a political scientist and activist who back in January was attacked by radio and television host Glenn Beck for her liberal views on a host of issues related to the voters rights, the alleviation of poverty, corporate America, health care, and civil disobedience.  Her most significant article, written with her late husband Richard Cloward in 1966, proposed that, to quote the New York Times, “if people overwhelmed the welfare rolls, fiscal and political stress on the system could force reform and give rise to changes like guaranteed income.”  Beck was also not happy with a January article in The Nation that encouraged unemployed people to stage mass protests. 

Messiah College took a lot of heat for inviting Piven to speak. Conservative alumni could not understand why a Christian college would invite her to campus.  Those who represent the college’s historic commitment to peace and non-violence could not understand why Messiah was inviting someone to campus who favors violent protest as a form of social change.  And then, on the day before the event, which also happened to be an admissions open-house day in which the college was filled with hundreds of prospective students and their families, the college administration removed posters advertising Piven’s talk.  This decision drew criticism from liberal students on campus and was featured on the front page of the local newspaper.

Frankly, I thought Piven’s lecture last night had some historical problems, but it was generally OK.  Some of the things she said were controversial, and her gratuitous swipes at the Tea Party (she called them racist, susceptible to propaganda, and unable to cope with change) took something away from her argument, but in general she was trying to channel a vision of American life that has been around for a long time.  If Glenn Beck had not made a big deal about her views, and if she did not get death threats from Beck’s followers, this event would have been similar to last year’s talk by Allitt.

Let’s look more deeply at what Piven said last night.  She began by defining democracy.  Democracy, she argued, requires universal suffrage, the right to organize and defend individual rights, a government that must respond to the voice of the people, and a commitment to all votes being equal regardless of race, class, gender, wealth, etc…  I am not sure how anyone could understand this theoretical definition of democracy to be controversial.

Democracy, Piven said, is about “personhood.”  For my Messiah College readers, this idea of “personhood” is quite compatible with the notion that we are all created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  In fact, Catholic social teaching uses very similar language to describe the “human person.” (Although they do not advocate violence to defend such personhood).

Piven then took us on a journey through American history, arguing that democracy has always been contested and has always posed a threat to propertied elites in power.  While I don’t buy her progressive view of the American Revolution as an economic civil war (there were a few times where I thought I had gone back in time and was listening to Charles Beard giving a lecture on The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), she is right to state that many propertied elites at the time of the American Revolution feared democracy and did what they could to limit it.  This is why John Adams called Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (which called for a democratic-republic) a “poor, ignorant, malicious short-sighted, crapulous mass.”  In fact, Piven sounded a lot like Paine–America’s first true “radical.”  (Pedagogically, her talk was wonderful!  I had just taught Common Sense the day before!)

Piven’s interpretation of the relationship between the newly created states and the United States Constitution was lifted directly from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic.  (In fact, she cited Wood on at least one occasion).  She mentioned the radical, democratic nature of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (although she failed to mention that this so-called “radical Constitution” also limited office-holding to those who were Protestant and believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament–a problem that progressive historians who sing the praises of the Constitution have yet to confront) and then showed how the framers of the United States Constitution attempted to squash the democratic fervor of the states by limiting the role that the “people” would play in electing Senators, choosing a president, and selecting Supreme Court justices.  At times I thought Piven was stealing lines from my United States History survey course in which I make the exact the same argument.  (I trust my job is still secure, although I hope that Glenn Beck is not reading this post).

She then argued that the election of 1896 was the turning point when the Republican Party joined the robber barons and leaders of industry to disenfranchise African-Americans and working-class ethnics.  Echoing historians like Philip Foner, she suggested this unholy alliance between Republicans and industry was the reason why the United States was never able to establish a strong democratic-socialist or labor party.  (Just before publishing this piece a colleague reminded me that it was actually the progressives themselves who did the disenfranchising).

In conclusion, Piven railed against corporate interests and the Tea Party.  She challenged her audience not to be taken in by media propaganda.  And she endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, of which she has participated.  During the Q&A session she called for the elimination of the Electoral College, talked about the Tea Party’s “uneasiness” with demographic changes taking place in America, and claimed that she believed in non-violence but sympathized with mass movements that responded to the “violence” of losing their homes and being hungry.

At times she sounded like Thomas Jefferson, especially when she said that democracy required “eternal vigilance.”  There were even some indirect references to Jefferson’s statement that every generation needs to engage in periodic revolution as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

In the end, Piven may be a “radical,” but there is nothing that she said last night that we cannot find somewhere in the American tradition.  In fact, her talk was pretty predictable. In this sense, her ideas were not very new or radical at all. 

You can agree or disagree with Piven’s politics, but a college campus–even a college campus like Messiah College–should be a place where her ideas should be discussed and engaged.  I enjoyed being part of that process and I look forward to today’s “talk back session.”

What Might a Non-Progressive History of Western Civilization Look Like?

Twenty years ago the late Christopher Lasch chronicled America’s addiction to progress and provided an alternative vision of American life.  The book was called The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics.  It was a masterpiece of scholarship and cultural criticism and it got a lot of liberal progressives very angry.

I have read The True and Only Heaven several times.  It is a book I return to quite often.  In fact, a couple of things have come up in the last few days that have led me to once again reflect on Lasch’s prophetic tome.

Yesterday I posted about and endorsed Catholic University’s decision to ban co-ed dorms. I thought I would get some backlash from a few of my more progressive readers, but so far my e-mail account, Facebook wall, and blog comments page have been void of criticism–either of me or Catholic University.

But while my progressive readers have been quiet, most progressives in the blogosphere have not.  The Left’s outrage over this decision, and the attempt by a George Washington University law professor to sue Catholic University, are deeply rooted in a progressive vision of American history.  While some progressives might be upset with the whole concept of same-sex dorms, what is particularly scandalous to them is the fact that a university that had previously allowed co-ed dorms has now decided to eliminate them.  This is so scandalous because it is perceived as a step backward–an unenlightened decision that contradicts what some believe to be progress.  To suggest, based on religious tradition, that young men and women are different enough to be housed in separate spaces, or that their  moral convictions might be strengthened by such a move, is antithetical to a progressive mindset that perceives morality in less traditional ways.

I thought about Lasch again when I read William Lind and William Piper’s provocative essay in The American Conservative.  The authors lay out what they call an “alternative” history of the West.  What might the story of Western Civilization look like, they ask, if the narrative was driven by faith, reason, and the failure of progress, especially in the 20th century?

Lind and Piper’s “alternative history” is not without its problems, and Georgetown political philosopher Patrick Deneen notes a few of them, but I think such a historiographical project is worth doing and I am appreciative to Lind and Piper for giving it a shot.  Lasch would be happy.

William Cronon Weighs In On Wisconsin’s Labor Woes

William Cronon, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of important books like Changes in the Land and Nature’s Metropolis, offers some historical perspective on the things happening in his home state.

Here is a taste:

NOW that a Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked a state law that would strip public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights, it’s worth stepping back to place these events in larger historical context.

Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.

Wisconsin was at the forefront of the progressive reform movement in the early 20th century, when the policies of Gov. Robert M. La Follette prompted a fellow Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, to call the state a “laboratory of democracy.” The state pioneered many social reforms: It was the first to introduce workers’ compensation, in 1911; unemployment insurance, in 1932; and public employee bargaining, in 1959. 

Read the rest here.

Revolutionary Founders

Alfred A. Knopf recently sent me an early copy (uncorrected proof) of Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, edited by Alfred Young, Gary Nash, and Ray Raphael.  (Eric Foner has an afterword).  It will be available in mid-April.

I have yet to read it, but a quick glance tells me that this is a major collection of neo-progressive historians of the Revolution.  Authors include T.H. Breen, Colin Calloway, Seth Cotlar, Woody Holton, Jill Lepore, Jon Butler, James Kirby Martin, Richard S. Newman, Jeffrey Pasley, Sheila Skemp, Alan Taylor, Terry Bouton, and David Waldstreicher.

Here is the publishers blurb:

In twenty-two original essays, leading historians reveal the radical impulses at the founding of the American Republic. Here is a fresh new reading of the American Revolution that gives voice and recognition to a generation of radical thinkers and doers whose revolutionary ideals outstripped those of the Founding Fathers.

While the Founding Fathers advocated a break from Britain and espoused ideals of republican government, none proposed significant changes to the fabric of colonial society. As privileged and propertied white males, they did not seek a revolution in the modern sense; instead, they tried to maintain the underlying social structure and political system that enabled men of wealth to rule. They firmly opposed social equality and feared popular democracy as a form of “levelling.”

Yet during this “revolutionary” period some people did believe that “liberty” meant “liberty for all” and that “equality” should be applied to political, economic, and religious spheres. Here are the stories of individuals and groups who exemplified the radical ideals of the American Revolution more in keeping with our own values today. This volume helps us to understand the social conflicts unleashed by the struggle for independence, the Revolution’s achievements, and the unfinished agenda it left for future generations to confront.

I hope to get to this volume very soon.

On Dylan and Feingold

Yes, you read that title correctly.  Bill Kauffman, writing at The American Conservative, sings the praises of both Bob Dylan and Russ Feingold.  He even squeezed a couple of paragraphs on Springsteen into the piece.

Kauffman connects Feingold to the reforming spirit of midwestern progressives such as Fighting Bob La Follette:

When the Masters of War—“even Jesus would never forgive what you do”—requested the presence of American sons at the blood orgies of 1917, 1941, 1950, and 1964, it was the Upper Midwest, with its Non-Partisan Leagues and retro-Progressives and Sons of the Wild Jackass, that brayed, “No!” Where are their offspring? I don’t mean to be impertinent or importunate, Dakotas and Minnesota and Wisconsin, but we look to you for La Follettes and Nyes and McGoverns and you give us Al Franken and Ron Johnson? Turn off the goddamn television, would you please, and turn on Wisconsin!

Feingold had his flaws but he was the only member of the Senate with the guts to vote against the Patriot Act. As Jesse Walker of Reason writes, he also “voted against TARP, was decent on the Second Amendment, and was one of the rare liberals to reach out to the Tea Parties instead of demonizing them.” He was neither red nor blue—each a scoundrel hue.

Senator Feingold quoted Dylan in his concession speech: “My heart is not weary /It’s light and it’s free /I have nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me.” Dylan closed our concert with “Ballad of a Thin Man,” rasping, “Something is happening here /But you don’t know what it is /Do you, Mr. Jones?”

I’m no more perceptive than Mr. Jones, but one thing is all too clear: the Upper Midwest, historic home of the American peace movement, has come down with an awfully bad case of laryngitis. And it’s gettin’ dark—too dark to see.

Hating Woodrow Wilson

Tea Partiers like Glenn Beck have it out for Woodrow Wilson and his progressive politics.

The New York Times asks: “Why is Woodrow Wilson singled out and not, say, Theodore Roosevelt, who in popular history is far more associated with the Progressive cause? What in the current political climate is continuing to fuel the criticism of Wilson”

A panel of noted thinkers, historians and biographers weigh in on this question.  The panel includes Jill Lepore, John Milton Cooper, George H. Nash, and Thomas West.

Why Populists Hate Liberalism and Have Always Hated Liberalism

For whatever reason, today we have wondered a bit out of our comfort zone here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Yet I find all the stuff our there on Progressivism to be so interesting I can’t stop posting about it.

William Hogeland has a very thought-provoking piece at the Boston Review on the populism of the Tea Party and how the movement’s disdain for liberalism is not unlike the disdain for liberals that characterized the populism of the late nineteenth century.

Populists have always attacked “the elites’ dismissal of ordinary people’s judgments, determinations, and desires.”  Hogeland warns us not to fall into the same trap as Richard Hofstadter and others who simply dismissed the populists as “paranoid” and “anti-intellectual.”

He concludes:

…history suggests that American populists’ rejection of liberalism is a matter of principle, not of interest. Liberalism has long defined itself from a position of expertise and wisdom that it justifies as meritocracy, and for which it keeps reflexively congratulating itself. Whether lampooning populist farmers as rank yokels, or giving way to a thrilling panic about coast-to-coast violence, or patronizing millions of people’s supposed misguided tropisms, or even, like Lepore, subjecting right-wing enthusiasms to the reflective, nuanced consideration identical with today’s high-quality journalism, liberal claims to a monopoly on knowledge may be even more undemocratic than conservatives’ policies for distributing wealth upward. In America the deadlock between liberalism and populism may be unbreakable.

Debating Progressivism

Yesterday I linked to an article by Georgetown graduate student Conor Williams that challenged the Right’s view of the Progressive Movement.  At the end of that post I took the side of Williams and suggested that there is much about the Progressive Movement that could be tied to historic American values.

In the comments section of that post, Jonathan Den Hartog called my attention to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ronald Pestritto that argues that Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, and others are correct when they say that the Progressive Movement ran counter to the beliefs of the founders.  I encourage you to read Pestritto’s article, but in the meantime here is a taste:

Whatever I or anyone else thinks about Mr. Beck’s programming or political views, on one central historical issue he is correct: The progressive movement did indeed repudiate the principles of individual liberty and limited government that were the basis of the American republic. America’s original progressives were convinced that the country faced a set of social and economic problems demanding a sharp increase in federal power. They also said that there was too much emphasis placed on protecting the liberty of individuals at the expense of broader social justice. So did this make them socialists—a charge frequently leveled by Mr. Beck? 

Fair enough.  As I mentioned briefly in my last post on this subject, I have no overwhelming desire to carry water for the Progressive Movement.  I am also one of the last people qualified to jump into a debate over the relationship between the Progressive Movement and its relationship to the American founding.  So I will appeal to the experts here.

But I have read a tiny bit about American socialism and have been  influenced in my historical thinking on these matters by Nick Salvatore’s biography of Eugene Debs, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  Salvatore convinced me that one could make a pretty good historical argument that American socialism, at least the Debs variety, drew upon ideas that were deeply embedded in the American tradition. 

Can someone help me sort this all out?

Defending Progressivism

Conor Williams, a graduate student in government at Georgetown University, offers a historical corrective to the recent disparagement of the Progressive Movement by conservatives.  Here is a snippet:

So what does American progressivism mean? Start with what it’s not. The Right has long claimed that the Left represents a radical departure from traditional American understandings of individualism, liberty, equality, and justice. Just as those at Tea Party protests demand their country back from usurping politicians, conservative intellectuals have taken to maintaining that American progressivism somehow betrays the American political experiment, feeding right-wing charges that progressives are unpatriotic or out of step with the rest of the nation.

This position rests upon poor intellectual history and strained interpretations of progressive principles. The most substantive of their charges are based on small or irrelevant moments in progressive thought or history taken out of context, while their wilder charges are based on pure rhetorical frustration. Simply put: progressives are not nihilists, nor are they opposed to the American Constitution, nor are they socialists with a utopian faith in inevitable progress. Nothing could be further from the case. Let us take up each of these charges in turn…

He continues: 

Hope for the future only suggests that the future may have something better in store. To be a progressive is to believe that we can address present difficulties, and that creatively facing them is preferable to resignation. To be a progressive is to admit that dogmatic certainty has no place in a complex world with many moving parts, and that the best we can offer each other is a commitment to engage, experiment, and reevaluate our choices. American progressives are committed to working within the American tradition to solve problems prompted by changes to the American community. They argue for political change on the grounds that it is suggested by core commitments from the American past. Progressives argue that what was once considered fair or just may no longer be honestly seen as such.

For example, during the civil rights movement, progressives claimed that equal political treatment of all Americans was a core principle in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s Preamble, and its fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, even if the United States had in practice allowed racial segregation. This was a rejoinder to those who believed that such political problems could be solved by applying inflexible rules or by blind adherence to antiquated interpretations of natural rights. It should come as no surprise, then, that Obama’s attempts to reform significant elements of the political status quo are prompting such feverish attacks from opponents. In essence, they want desperately to believe that new problems can be solved in old ways: without change, and certainly without innovation. The interconnectedness of America’s many political problems—extensive military commitments, a struggling economy, and a growing deficit, foremost among them—makes it clear that still more substantial political reform, and imaginative projection of national ideals, is needed.

Progressive politics are founded upon a commitment to the dialogue and debate necessary for constantly refining the national project. Progressives envision democratic politics as an ongoing and committed conversation, where policy choices must be defended with considered reasons and compelling proof. It is in this vein that President Obama provides an inspiring example; in the face of unabated criticism, extremist hatred, and obstructionism, he has remained committed to discussion of the facts most relevant to the issues of each day.

You can disagree with everything that the Progressive Movement stood for (and as readers of this blog know I have some serious issues with too much “progress.”  I am a bit of Laschian in this regard), but don’t demonize Progressivism until you fully understand it. As Williams shows, one could make a legitimate historical argument that progress is deeply rooted in the American tradition.