The Progressives: It’s NOT a New Ideology

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One of the most irritating things for somebody who loves history is just how little history Americans know. We suffer from collective amnesia. It’s a cultural thing since we tend to be a forward-looking nation. One that has forgotten large parts of our history. Some are really bad parts, like slavery, how women had to fight for voting rights, the whole mess over civil rights.

Then, of course, there is the genocide of first Americans. We really make a point not to remember. Or for that matter, there is the war with Mexico in 1848, which under modern definitions was part ethnic cleansing, part aggressive war. Incidentally, in Mexico, it is a story that has not been forgotten, and one reason for the ever-present mistrust towards the United States.

Most Americans do not know we have had two active ethnic cleansings in the 20th century, and the only reason they remember the Japanese internment is that there is an active effort to remember.

Then there is the whole progressive movement of the early part of the 20th century. Americans believe the term, and activism is a new thing. It is not. There is a parallel, which came as a reaction to the Gilded Age, which saw a few things happen.

Labor got a boost in organizing against terrible working conditions and towards a minimum wage. It was on May 1st of 1886 and many people were killed in Chicago. Some were arrested and tried for organizing people. They were anarchists, who were charged with throwing an explosive device. The fact that they were framed is part of the story. However, the Haymarket affair is remembered around the world, but not in the United States. This is the origin of May Day parades elsewhere.

Strikes were common since life in the late 19th century was very hard for workers, around tenement buildings in New York, Chicago, and other northern cities. This was also the time of heavy immigration and the beginnings of a reaction to it. Immigrants were portrayed as aliens who could never become Americans. They were Catholics from Poland and Ireland. Then there were the Eastern European Jews and the Italians. This was a time when you could find a lot of papers in foreign languages, and those immigrants did not speak English, nor read for the most part. The streets of the United States were full of ethnic neighborhoods, full of signs in different languages and people speaking in foreign languages.

We have similar neighborhoods today, though the community papers and the signs are in a different set of languages. Living conditions in some of our poor neighborhoods, full of immigrants, are far from good, just like we saw in the late 19th century. For example, City Heights in San Diego is such a neighborhood. These may not be tenements, but they are at times far from safe for human habitation. Poverty is part of it, and so are landlords taking advantage.

Then, like now, white supremacy started to take off, with attacks on immigrants and African Americans alike. We saw the KKK and other pro-American Nationalist associations take hold if they ever left. They would peak in the years before the Second World War, where Nazis filled Madison Square Garden.

It is in that environment that a new movement took shape and then took over American politics. It was the progressive movement, which you could see in Hull House, among other places. But it soon spread to politics.

We need to define the progressive movement. It was a middle-class movement, with an intent to make these immigrants… Americans. They were into teaching people a common language: English. It was the origin of the pledge of allegiance, fun fact, it did not include under God. And it was the impetus behind many things that these days are under threat. Among them, the earliest forms of food regulations. These came after the national scandal caused by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

The changes were bipartisan. Teddy Roosevelt was one of the best-known politicians of the progressive era. And the change that they knew was needed, was not supposed to be sudden, or major. Like today, many of its exponents were for slow, but steady progress, not radical programs. The latter were scary to the middle class, they still are scary to the middle class.

The last of the progressives was Herbert Hoover. We may not like to see it this way, but he was part of that movement, and his presidency led to the radical changes of the New Deal. The slow steady change was replaced by radical (by the standards of the age) policies. They were meant, and did the job admirably, to save Capitalism from itself. The first of the New Deal presidents was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he was a portrayed by Republicans (and some Democrats) as a radical socialist.

The fact that we have this pattern repeating itself should not be surprising. When people forget their history, they tend to take terms that sound cool. They will also repeat the same mistakes because Americans refuse to learn from history.

We are at the cusp of change because the alternative is not nice. Why Republicans (and some Democrats) are piling on the term Green New Deal. They remember what the original program did, and how Republicans and some Democrats have been trying to go back to the pre-1932 days. The Green New Deal is closer to what Franklin Delano Roosevelt planned with the Second Bill of Rights of 1944. It will also change the social contract and the nature of the American economy. It will, once again, expand the role of government.

Like the progressives of yore, many of the current generation prefers private, mostly private, with some public partnerships. This is to a point the heart of the Affordable Care Act. So are Charter schools, because we believe (an article of faith) that the private sector is better at these things.

But, but, what about the Squad and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez! I hear you, but she is closer to a New Dealer than a progressive. The same goes for Bernie Sanders, who has said this in the past. He wants to return to the New Deal, not the progressive movement.

This is why it is critical to know the history and understand what terms actually mean. No, when Joe Biden says he is a progressive, he is not stealing a term. He is using it in the correct historical context, a slow but steady program of progress that makes the middle class comfortable. These days that middle class is the great-grandchildren of those immigrants who spoke many languages and were not considered white. These are the same great-grandchildren who in many cases are voting against the same kind of changes that benefited them at one time.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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