Skip to main content
Progressivism

Capitalism is not a political philosophy. Conservatism, including its Reaganesque variety, is inadequate. And Trumpism was (and is) a disaster. To my mind that leaves progressivism as our only meaningful alternative.

First, just a few brief sentences on the destructiveness of Trumpism. Then a look at why capitalism and conservatism are insufficient. And finally, why progressivism should be our national lodestar.

Trumpism was destructive primarily in that it allowed, in fact even furthered, environmental devastation, including in regard to our climate. Secondly, Trump's lack of coronavirus leadership caused hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. Thirdly, and one cause of the first two failures, was that he did not act to further the common good, but only for what he perceived as his own self-interest.

Unlike socialism, which can be both an economic and political philosophy, capitalism lacks an overall political viewpoint. One of capitalism’s chief advocates, Milton Friedman, once wrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” And sociologist Daniel Bell stated that capitalism had “no moral or transcendental ethic.” Politically, capitalists can be progressive, support dictators, or be somewhere in between.

Unlike socialism, which can be both an economic and political philosophy, capitalism lacks an overall political viewpoint.

Recently, after Georgia passed legislation to make voting more difficult, various companies and organizations like Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Major League Baseball and Atlanta sports teams the Falcons and the Hawks criticized the law for some of its anti-democratic restrictions. One might be cynical and say they did so because its more profitable for them at least to seem democratic, but there is nothing inherent in capitalism that makes capitalists anti-democratic. 

But, on the other hand, there is nothing that prevents capitalists from supporting a dictator like Hitler. One scholarly work on the Nazi regime notes, “Of all of Germany’s socio-economic groups the business community . . . assisted the Nazis most in seizing power. . . . There can be no gainsaying industry’s role as chief gravedigger of the Weimar Republic. ‘Fascism,’ as Franz Neumann has rightly observed, ‘arose out of the need of economic power holders . . . to suppress the democratic movement which aimed at utilizing political power for the rational and social structuring of the economy.’” As writer Erica X Eisenhas written, capitalist firms like “Krupp, IG Farben, Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, and elsewhere . . . . had planned, profited from, and above all else made possible the Nazi war machine and its genocides.”

Nor were all U. S. companies innocent of helping the Nazis. In his IBM and the HolocaustEdwin Black accused IBM of being especially culpable: Aided by IBM’s punch card technology, “Hitler was able to automate his persecution of the Jews. . . . IBM technology was used to organize nearly everything in Germany and then Nazi Europe, from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor. . . . IBM and its German subsidiary custom-designed complex solutions, one by one, anticipating the Reich's needs.”

In his review of Black’s book, historian Richard Bernstein states that Black “does not demonstrate that I.B.M. bears some unique or decisive responsibility for the evil that was done.” In making his case, Bernstein quotes Black’s own words, “Of course, IBM was not alone in its lucrative dealings with the Third Reich. Many American companies in the armament financial, and service arena refused to walk away from the extraordinary profits obtainable from trading with a pariah state such as Nazi Germany.”

And indeed IBM was not alone. Standard Oil, Dow Chemical, DuPont, and General Electric (GE), for example, had substantial dealings with German companies such as Krupp and IG Farben. To cite just two cases, GE made a deal with Krupp regarding tungsten carbide, a metal-hardening agent used in producing armor-piercing ammunition; and Standard Oil shared data with IG Farben regarding its synthetic rubber research.

Initially, the Nuremberg Trials were to prosecute chief the heads of such firms as Krupp and Farben, but as international political considerations and fear of communism started to outweigh war crime concerns, political pressures ended up reducing trials and sentencing. According to Eisen, “the judge presiding over the Krupp trial dismissed all charges of crimes against peace, arguing that it was simply the duty of a company board to pursue profit”; and in the Farben trial, many of the defendents “were found not guilty of all charges,” and others received sentences that were (in the words of the lead prosecuting attorney) “light enough to please a chicken thief.”

From Nazi days (and even well before) to more recent times, capitalism’s lack of a “moral or transcendental ethic” has been apparent. For just two recent examples, look at the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill and the later Purdue-Pharma-induced opioid crisis.

Unlike capitalism, conservatism is a long-standing political philosophy. But it is inadequate because it has always been flawed by its lack of sufficient concern for minorities, the poor, and oppressed. The statement of former conservative, Max Boot in his The Corrosion of Conservatism“Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the whole history of modern conservatism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism”—may seem extreme to many conservatives, but there is much truth in it.

That is not to say that before the recent caving in of too many conservatives to Trumpism that there were not positive elements in their political philosophy. Seven years ago on this site, in my “Why the Right Is Not Always Wrong, I mentioned my appreciation of some of the ideas of the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke: “What I appreciate most about Burke’s thinking is his view that social and political life should be based not on abstract ideas and ideology, but on historical continuity, human nature, common sense, compromise, and practical wisdom, that is, what works, what fits with what. In urging the British government to be conciliatory to the American revolutionaries he declared: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others.”

In that same essay, I mentioned favorably a few ideas of Russell Kirk (1918-1994), a great admirer of Burke and sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism.” For example, “Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .[but] the prudential politician . . . is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.” And in a 1956 work, he wrote, “Every year, we become still more the slaves of creature-comforts and effortless amusements. Our whole economy—indeed, our very foreign policy—is calculated to endorse and increase this appetite for material goods, and we are urged to consume everything, at the greatest possible rate, lest the structure of our society come tumbling down about our ears. . . . The advertising-man whips us on; permanence and thrift are ridiculed as obstacles to progress; and no class is spared.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Because I also agree with Barack Obama when he wrote that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics,” I also agreed with Kirk’s emphasis on “the regeneration of the spirit and character” and “the restoration of the ethical understanding.”

Besides Burke and Kirk, my essay mentions other conservatives and conservative ideas that have some merit. And as much as many progressives disliked Ronald Reagan’s conservatism—and still think it contained racist elements—most of us think he was better than Trump. In recent years I have commented, with admiration, on some of Trump’s conservative critics, especially David Brooks (see here and here.)

But now, after four years of Trump and too many conservatives having gone over to him, conservatism is in disarray. Some conservatives, like author (e.g., of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion) William Voegeli in a 2019 essay, believe that the conservative task “is not to liberate conservatism from Trumpism,” but to “elaborate a conservatism for the 21st century that integrates Trumpism by absorbing what Donald Trump’s nomination and election have revealed—about America and about the shortcomings of the conservative movement and argument prior to his entry into politics.”

Still others, like David Frum and David Brooks, stung to the core by Trumpism, seem to have strayed far from their previous conservatism. In 2019, or example, Brooks in his “The Case for Reparations” argued in behalf of Black reparations, and in 2021 stated that despite his concerns about massive government debt, he thought that Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan (also referred to as his infrastructure plan) was “worth it,” partly because “the economic story of America over the last 50 years . . . [is] that we have built a gigantic funnel that has funneled money and resources and wealth to highly educated people in large metro areas, [and] this plan funnels money to all the people who are not in those categories. And so I think it rebalances our society in an important way.” Boot has urged center-right voters like himself to become “Biden Republicans.”

Thus, today with conservatism in disarray, progressivism seems more necessary than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has once again demonstrated the need for strong federal government action, and that the old conservative, including Reaganesque, emphasis on “states’ rights” is inadequate. The George Floyd case and many other recent racial developments also clearly demonstrate that conservatism offers no positive solution to our centuries-old racism.

Thus, progressivism yes. But what kind of progressivism? The term can mean different things to different people. So here, I offer an updated version of what I wrote for LA Progressive eight years ago in my “What Is Progressivism?” Back then I provided some background to its historical roots: progressives were most notable in the 1890-1914 period, which is sometimes labeled the Progressive Era. That progressivism was a diverse movement “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a countercalculus of the public weal [well-being].” In general, the progressives did not attempt to overthrow or replace capitalism, but to have government bodies and laws constrain and supplement it in order to insure that it served the public good.

Jane Addams

Jane Addams

The diversity among progressives was demonstrated in many ways including in 1912, when the radical reformer and pacifist Jane Addams seconded the nomination of the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt as the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. 

Progressive U. S. reforms included (in 1913) a progressive or graduated federal income tax (16th Amendment), and they also reduced corruption in city governments, limited trusts and monopolies, expanded public services, and passed laws improving sanitation, education, housing, and workers’ rights and conditions, especially for women and children. Progressive efforts also helped pass pure food and drug laws and create the National Park Service. Some Progressives like Jane Addams, who in 1889 established Chicago’s Hull House to aid the poor, also worked hard to secure the vote for women, which was not achieved in presidential elections until 1920.

With the election of three consecutive Republican presidents, progressivism retreated until the election of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) in 1932, who, while combating the Great Depression and leading the U. S. in World War II, renewed the spirit of the earlier movement. 

On progressivism eight years ago I wrote that “the goal of progressivism should be to further the common good based on proper virtues or values including practical wisdom, which aids us in prioritizing them properly and then working effectively to further them in the socio-political arena.” Among the values progressives should embrace and value, I listed love, compassion, empathy, peace, hope, optimism, the proper mix of realism and idealism, humility, tolerance, a willingness to compromise, humor, creativity, passion, courage, sticktoitiveness, and a love of beauty.

I also stressed the non-ideological and pragmatic nature of progressivism and gave historical examples of individuals who demonstrated these and other progressive values. For example, Jane “Addams eschewed ideological ties for herself. . . . She never entirely accepted any ideological position. Demonstrating her pragmatism, she avoided political labels but variously aligned herself when it meant advancing the cause of social progress.” FDR “was more interested in creativity than consensus. He did not mind competition and rivalry within his administration; he rather encouraged it . . . . One consequence under the New Deal . . . . was a constant infusion of vitality and ideas.” Naturalist and co-founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir wrote in 1908: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. [For example,] our magnificent National parks—the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. . . . Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gainseekers, —mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.”

Muir was a conservationist and environmentalist, so too (as Douglas Brinkley has emphasized in books on Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt) were the two Roosevelts. But environmental concerns were not as central to progressivism a century ago, as they must be today in our age when dealing effectively with climate change has to be a major progressive goal.

Two other areas were today’s progressives have to do a better job than earlier progressives did—see Robert Putnam’s The Upswing (2020)—is in regard to gender and racial equity. In addition, during recent decades our tax system has become anti-progressive, moving us in the opposite direction from that pursued by earlier progressives.

One final field of concern for today’s progressives should be crafting a progressive foreign policy. It’s an area that earlier progressives did not emphasize much but, as the Brookings Institute noted in 2020, was stressed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. They pushed “a distinctive progressive foreign policy that cuts the defense budget, ends military interventions, reforms the global economy, and confronts authoritarianism and networks of corruption around the world.” As Sanders said regarding the USA and China: “Instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year collectively on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change.” 

walter moss

Walter Moss

Although it was Joe Biden, not Sanders or Warren, who became our president, he has furthered some of the progressive goals mentioned above. And we progressives, in a non-dogmatic, pragmatic manner as outlined above, should continue to nudge him in our direction, the one most fitting for our times.

Walter G. Moss