Having contributed about 65 essays to the LA Progressive (LAP) and Hollywood Progressive (HP), it’s about time to clarify, for myself and others, what progressivism means to me. As a historian (more than 20 of these essays first appeared on the History News Network), I approach it first from a historical viewpoint.
A Historical Perspective
Daniel Aaron in Men of Good Hope: A Story Of American Progressives (1951) begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the real prophet of the progressive tradition.” He then moves on to abolitionist reformer Theodore Parker (1810-1860) and others. But most historians write of Progressivism as emerging later, in the final decades of the nineteenth century. One reliable historical work describes it as starting in Europe and the United States as 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].” It 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. In the United States the 1890-1914 period is often labeled the Progressive Era.
In pursuing social justice and more equality, Progressive U. S. reforms included (in 1913) a progressive or graduated federal income tax (16th Amendment). 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.
U. S. Progressives were a heterogeneous group that included journalists and other writers, politicians, and a wide variety of activists and other civic-minded citizens. They were so diverse that they included Addams, a radical reformer and pacifist, and the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt. When the latter, after serving as a Republican president for most of the first decade of the new century, ran as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912, Addams seconded his nomination at the party’s convention.
This diversity is an aspect of early Progressivism that I find appealing. Not only are all sorts of reformers of this era considered Progressives, by one historian or another, but some of the Progressives themselves highly valued diversity and flexibility. One astute essay on Addams notes that her “Hull-House welcomed speakers from a variety of political positions, whether the residents agreed with those positions or not. To foster this openness, Addams eschewed ideological ties for herself and for the Hull-House community. In this manner, although she was sympathetic to many of the arguments of socialists, anarchists, feminists and various Christian leaders, 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. On many occasions, Addams and Hull-House were criticized for not clearly associating themselves with an ideological camp.”
One of the outstanding Progressive politicians of this era was the Wisconsin Republican governor and later U. S. senator (1906-1925) Robert M. La Follette Sr., who was chosen by a Senate committee in 1959 as one of the Senate’s five greatest senators. In 1924, a year before his death, he was the Progressive Party candidate for president. In 1909 he founded La Follette’s Weekly, which in 1929 changed its name to The Progressive, a name it retains until the present. According to the magazine’s web site, La Follette intended it to be “a magazine of progress, social, intellectual, institutional,” whose goal was to be “winning back for the people the complete power over government —national, state, and municipal—which has been lost to them.” The site maintains that “the views of the magazine have remained remarkably consistent over the years.” At present it describes itself as “a monthly leftwing magazine of investigative reporting, political commentary, cultural coverage, activism, interviews, poetry, and humor. It steadfastly stands against militarism, the concentration of power in corporate hands, and the disenfranchisement of the citizenry. It champions peace, social and economic justice, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights, a preserved environment, and a reinvigorated democracy. Its bedrock values are nonviolence and freedom of speech.”
These values are ones that most progressives of the last century would embrace. But how they are interpreted leaves plenty of room for disagreements. Because I have not followed The Progressive as closely as I have LAP, I’m not sure exactly how much diversity was and is tolerated in this century-old publication. But I do approve of an open-minded approach to differing viewpoints, such as that displayed at LAP. Publisher Sharon Kyle and editor Dick Price describe themselves simply as “progressive activists and anti-racists.” They declare that LAP “articles advocate progressive positions and policies but conservatives are also welcome to read and comment. . . . The LA Progressive exists to provide a means of expressing progressive viewpoints and to champion the causes that promote the betterment of society particularly the lives of the dispossessed and powerless.” This mix of progressive advocacy and open-mindedness seems just about right to me. My own essays have received both favorable and unfavorable comments, and that’s the way it should be on any non-dogmatic blog.
One of the first contributors to La Follette’s Weekly was the poet and later Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. I have written several essays on him. These essays and others on individuals I consider wise and progressive (e.g., Anton Chekhov, William James, Mark Twain, Dorothy Day, Andrei Sakharov, E. F. Schumacher, and W. H. Auden) tacitly reflect my view of what progressivism is and should be—rather than providing links to all such essays, the longer of which contain extensive citations, interested readers may find a complete listing here. Although sometimes mentioned as a Progressive writer, Sandburg is often left off of the list. He deserves, however, a solid place on it, for he embodied many of the progressive values I shall emphasize below.
In 1909 some of his “Dear Bill” essays, under the name of Charles Sandburg, appeared in summer issues of La Follette’s Weekly—“Ye Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Make You Free” appears right under the weekly’s title, an inscription ironically enough later chiseled into a wall in the main lobby of the CIA building. Sandburg’s essays, in the form of letters addressed to a mythical Bill, reflected his progressive and socialist views of the time.
Not all of the “Dear Bill” essays appeared in La Follette’s Weekly, and one of them was published in 1908 as a separate pamphlet entitled “You and Your Job.” In it he wrote, “I say that a system such as the capitalist system, putting such obstacles as starvation, underfeeding, overwork, bad housing, and perpetual uncertainty of work in the lives of human beings, is a pitiless, ignorant, blind, reckless, cruel mockery of a system.” He stated that “one reason I’m a Socialist is because the Socialists were the first to fight to abolish child labor, and today the Socialist party is the only one that has dared to declare in its platform that it is unalterably opposed to child labor, and that it will do all in its power to remove all conditions that make it possible for human beings anywhere to be underfed and overworked.”
He also thought that the socialists were correct to back women’s suffrage. In an article, he wrote “woman is a human being and the equal of man” and added, “In giving women the right to vote, men will but honor themselves, and build toward a greater civilization.” In another article of the same period, he wrote that “the real knights nowadays are working to save womanhood from the miserable wages paid in sweatshops, factories, mills and department stores, wages that usually drive hundreds of thousands to loveless marriages and careers of prostitution.”
In 1912, soon after the birth of his oldest daughter, Margaret, he wrote another article, “My Baby Girl,” which appeared in La Follette’s Weekly (and was reprinted in the April 2009 issue of The Progressive). In it he stated:
She shall see women go forward and cast ballots and speak and write and with passionate earnestness take part in political movements . . . .
. . . Woman, the common woman—the wife of the workingman—is the slave of a slave, cooking, sewing, washing, cleaning, nursing in sickness, and rendering a hundred personal services daily for a man who is himself not in power to dictate a constant job and living wage for himself.
The year 1912 was still a time when not only women but also most blacks were denied the vote; when most of the latter lived in segregated conditions; when unions were weak and workers had few protections; when Social Security and minimum wage laws did not yet exist; and when very few workers received pensions and child labor and unsafe working conditions were widespread.
In the 1908 presidential election Sandburg supported the Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs, and the two men later became good friends, with Sandburg also supporting him in his 1912 and 1920 presidential campaigns. The poet also worked as the private secretary of Emil Seidel Milwaukee’s socialist mayor from 1910 to 1912. Later in 1912 Sandburg applied for a job at La Follette’s Weekly, but nothing was available. Thus, Sandburg’s socialist and progressive thinking were quite compatible.
Sandburg eventually moved away from his earlier socialism and became a strong supporter of Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), Adlai Stevenson, and John Kennedy, but he did so in part because they advocated some of the positions of earlier socialists. About the 1960 Democratic platform, he once told a friend, “That’s a very good imitation of the national Socialist Party platform adopted in Chicago in 1908 when my future wife and I were in sparking attendance.”
Already in a 1919 letter to the French novelist Romain Rolland, despite reflecting some naiveté about the new Russian communist government, Sandburg reveals his growing pragmatism—he eventually declared that “the greatest bigots in the world are the Communists.” He wrote to Rolland: “You ask me to belong to something. You wish me to join a movement or party or church and subscribe to a creed and a program. It would be easy to do this. It is the line of least resistance. If I have a fixed, unchangeable creed then I am saved the trouble every day of forming a new creed dictated by the events of the day. If I have a program and a philosophy and a doctrine, crystallized in an organized movement, then the movement is supposed to do for me what I ought to do for myself.”
In this letter Sandburg also indicated that he supported politicians from various parties “and was free to vote any ticket or back any candidate.” Thereafter, although voting for his friend, the socialist Debs, in 1920, he never again officially joined a political party.
Although not agreeing with all Sandburg’s political positions, I admire his think-for-yourself approach combined with his progressive compassion for society’s poor and victims of discrimination—as a newspaper man in Chicago after World War I, he printed the platform of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in the 1960s Roy Wilkens, head of the NAACP, made him a lifetime member and declared him “a major prophet of Civil Rights.”
I also agree with Sandburg’s decision to back such Democratic candidates as FDR, Stevenson, and John Kennedy. My own progressivism leans toward the pragmatic; and like Jane Addams, I admire the approach of the Pragmatic philosopher William James. Voting for third-party candidates in presidential elections, even though they may be progressive, has always seemed a wasted vote to me. Thus, since first voting for John Kennedy in 1960, I have always voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, believing him to be the more progressive of the two major candidates.
My progressivism is based on certain values—in this regard I agree with President Obama’s words in his The Audacity of Hope (2006) that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.” (This essay is not the place to get sidetracked on how progressive the president’s actions have been.) Earlier we have seen what The Progressive magazine “champions” and that “its bedrock values are nonviolence and freedom of speech.” Although not disagreeing with any of the causes or values it advocates, my own approach and interpretation of terms like nonviolence may be different.
Many of my progressive values I have already spelled out in an essay on political wisdom, and so all that is necessary here is to sum them up and supplement them within the context of progressivism.
Political Wisdom and Self-discipline
In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington expressed the belief that it was “substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government” and hoped that future government actions “be stamped with wisdom and virtue.” Long before him Aristotle identified the goal of politics as furthering the common good and the means of achieving it reason and virtue. He thought that “the true student of politics . . . is thought to have studied virtue above all things.” Among the virtues he identifies or suggests are “moral virtues” such as courage, temperance, justice, self-discipline, humility, generosity, truthfulness, and humor. But to exercise them properly he thought the “intellectual virtue” of practical wisdom was necessary. “The work of man is achieved only in accordance with practical wisdom as well as with moral virtue; for virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.”
In accordance with such thinking, 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. Without such wisdom, we may just be well-meaning political fools.
Political wisdom also implies self-discipline. To achieve results over the long-term requires not just idealism and passion, but the discipline to maintain a steady course and use the right means.
Love, Compassion, and Empathy
I mentioned above that the LAP aims to “champion the causes that promote the betterment of society particularly the lives of the dispossessed and powerless.” We sometimes hear the term “bleeding-heart liberal.” And what most distinguishes the Left from the Right politically is the former’s advocacy of governmental powers to aid society’s poorer members.
The values that underlie such a leftist progressive approach are love, compassion, and empathy toward our fellow human beings. In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama wrote:
“A sense of empathy . . . is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes. . . . I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.”
From the previous three virtues, a strong desire for peace follows. Such nonviolent advocates as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. are admirable for their strenuous peace efforts. But one does not have to be an absolute pacifist to value nonviolence. Another wise and progressive leader was Nelson Mandela. But, though earlier advocating nonviolence, he came to accept that in the Black struggle to overcome apartheid in South Africa some violence might be necessary. While championing peace and nonviolence, progressives have often disagreed on if, where, and when a resort to violent means might be justified. What should unite progressives is a strong love of peace, a realization of all the evil consequences of violence, and a reluctance to use it, except perhaps as a last resort after all nonviolent means have failed.
Hope and Optimism
Wise progressives tend to be hopeful and optimistic. From the time of the American revolution, which occurred in an optimistic Age of Enlightenment that stressed a belief in progress, to the election of President Obama in 2008, Americans have been an optimistic people. In the 1930s, amidst the Great Depression, Sandburg’s long poem The People, Yes affirmed his hope and belief in the American people. Three decades later Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech rung out hopefully even amidst the racism of the time. And on election night in 2008, Barack Obama spoke of “the enduring power of our ideals—democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”
Such hope was characteristic not only of Sandburg, but also of the other wise and progressive people I have studied at length: Dorothy Day, economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher, and the two Russians, Chekhov and physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. But this hopefulness was not of a naive sort. Day spoke of exercising “the virtue of hope even when all seems hopeless,” and Sakharov wrote shortly before his death in 1989 that “if our view of the world can be called optimism, it is a tragic optimism.” Earlier, in 1975, he had written: It [the world] is a fantastic mix of tragedy, irreparable misfortune, apathy, prejudices, and ignorance, plus dynamism, selflessness, hope, and intelligence. The future may be even more tragic. Or it may be more worthy of human beings—better and more intelligent. Or, again, it may not be at all. It depends on all of us. . . . It depends on our wisdom, our freedom from illusion and prejudices, our readiness to work, to practice intelligent austerity, and on our kindness and breadth as human beings.”
Although Chekhov is sometimes depicted as a pessimist, he was not. He often pictured people’s dreary lives in the hope of improving them. As he said in 1902: when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, ‘Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!’”
Thus, today’s progressives, like Chekhov, should believe that people are capable of greater deeds and work for a better future. Commenting on his social and humanitarian activities, one scholar wrote of him that “his life was one continuous round of alleviating famine, fighting epidemics, building schools and public roads, endowing libraries, helping organize marine biology libraries, giving thousands of needy peasants free medical treatment, planting gardens, helping fledgling writers get published, raising funds for worthwhile causes, and hundreds of other pursuits designed to help his fellow man and improve the general quality of life around him.”
Realism and Idealism
If we progressives wish to deal with problems realistically and effectively, we must acknowledge the truth of their existence. Our idealism must be balanced with realism. In a 1932 essay, “Moralists and Politics,” the Protestant minister Reinhold Niebuhr faulted moralists who failed to see “the limits of morality in politics.” He went on to say that “there is no political realism in all this [unrealistic] moralism. It does not deal with the fact that human groups, classes, nations, and races are selfish, whatever may be the moral idealism of individual members within the groups.” He also called for a mixture of realism and idealism and warned that if it was “not achieved, sentimentalists and cynics will continue to guide our generation to disaster.”
Liberals and progressives are sometimes accused of “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.” But we progressives do not want to ignore the ugliness and evil that exist, and we do not want to be unrealistic in our politics. One of the great faults of many on the Right is their refusal to accept reality, for example, the existence of evolution and man-made global warming. Our approach should be more scientific and reason-based. As Al Gore wrote in his 2007 book The Assault on Reason, “Americans in both parties should insist on the reestablishment of respect for the rule of reason. The climate crisis, in particular, should cause us to reject and transcend ideologically based distortions of the best available scientific evidence.”
An excellent biography of Sakharov is entitled Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov. His idealistic advocacy of human rights and nuclear arms control was properly mixed with the respect for reason, reality, and the facts that his scientific training had imbued in him.
Humility, Tolerance, and Compromise
A realistic view of the world around us should be accompanied by humility. The wonders of the universe, of nature, even of our own bodies are so mind boggling that they should make us realize how much we do not know. Even in the realm of politics, including the economic and foreign affairs dimension of it, there is so much about which we are ignorant. And this goes not just for the less educated among us, but also for the best educated. As David Halberstam indicated in his The Best and the Brightest, those who foolishly got us mired down in Vietnam were considered among the “best and brightest” of their generation. More recently psychologist Robert Sternberg has indicated that “smart and well-educated people are particularly susceptible to four fallacies,” and they all involve a lack of humility. For example, “the omniscience fallacy, whereby they come to believe that they know all there is to know and therefore do not have to listen to the advice and counsel of others.”
Given our common ignorance, a proper humility should lead us to avoid dogmatism like a plague. Believing is not the same as knowing. Just because we are passionate about a belief or a cause does not mean we are right. We can readily spot dogmatism on the Right but sometimes fail to realize our own susceptibility to it.
Humility should lead us to tolerance and willingness to compromise. Recognizing that none of us has all the answers, we should be open-minded toward approaches that might differ from our own. Empathy also requires us to try, really try, to understand viewpoints that differ from ours. We can be true to our principles and values and yet be open to various means to achieve them. Or sometimes just part of them. In a democracy nobody gets all of what they want all of the time. To achieve political goals, to improve the common good, compromise and a pragmatic approach to problem-solving is often most efficacious.
Humor and Creativity
Reinhold Niebuhr linked humor with humility when he stated that “humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. . . . People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to ‘stand off’ from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions.” Although many of our presidents have not displayed much humility or humor, one who did was Abraham Lincoln. In The War Years, one of Sandburg’s volumes on him, he wrote “Lincoln was the first true humorist to occupy the White House. No other President of the United States had come to be identified, for good or bad, with a relish for the comic.”
In the political arena passions often run high, and humility and humor, accompanied with empathy for our fellow human beings (even when we think they are dead wrong), can be a great asset. So too can creativity, especially when problems seem to defy conventional solutions as in the Great Depression. To deal with it in the 1930s, FDR displayed great creativity in cobbling together the New Deal. As one of his most prominent biographers, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote: “Under the pressure of national crisis, FDR came into his own, combining eloquent idealism with astute realism. . . . He 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.” As progressives, we want not only to be open to new ideas but to be industrious in creating new solutions, especially ones that broaden political consensus.
Passion, Courage, Sticktoitiveness
The German sociologist Max Weber once wrote that “devotion to politics, if it is not to be frivolous intellectual play but rather genuinely human conduct, can be born and nourished from passion alone.” Progressives are often moved by a passionate concern for their ideals, and this passion helps to fuel their progressive actions. Courage and sticktoitiveness also are aids in helping progressives obtain their objectives. Individuals like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom demonstrated their progressivism for decades and had the courage to face some jail time for their beliefs, illustrate well the three values mentioned here.
In striving to further the common good, progressives should not ignore the spiritual and aesthetic side of human life. In England during the nineteenth century, the poet Matthew Arnold and others thought of culture as an alternative and corrective to the values and manners that the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire capitalism had introduced into English society. An important cultural value to them was beauty. Writer D. H. Lawrence in his essay “Nottingham and the Mining Country” stated: “Now though perhaps nobody knew it, it was ugliness which betrayed the spirit of man, in the nineteenth century. The great crime which the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed in the palmy Victorian days was the condemning of the workers to ugliness. . . . The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread.”
In the United States the 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.”
Already writing poetry during Muir’s lifetime, Sandburg thought that poetry was primarily about creating beauty—see here for more of his thoughts about beauty. A generation younger than Sandburg, helper-of -the-poor and pacifist Dorothy Day was also a great lover of beauty. Her biographer Jim Forest, who knew her well, wrote that “from childhood onward, Dorothy had a marked capacity for awe and a vulnerability to beauty”; that she had “a gift to see not only what is wrong in the world, but to see beauty and to discern signs of hope”; and that she saw it “in places where it was often overlooked.”
Progressivism in Action
Progressive values are important and necessary, but it takes action to realize them. At the top of the LAP Home Page nine categories, all with sub-categories, are listed: Civil Rights, Domestic Issues, Economy, Elections, Environment, Foreign Policy, Justice, Media, War. LAP authors write on one or more of these many topics, and many of us also demonstrate our progressivism through other means including other writings, jobs, organizations to which we belong, lecturing, and becoming involved in political campaigns and protests. Everyday decisions that we all make can also reflect our progressivism, ranging from the type of car we buy to the food we purchase and eat.As LAP demonstrates, progressivism is a big tent. All races, creeds, classes, sexual preferences are tolerated and welcomed. As are even differences among us progressives. But what unites us, as it did the early Progressives, is resistance to–in Muir’s memorable phrase–“trying to make everything dollarable.” Free-market capitalism is not a sufficient public philosophy. Higher values and a higher goal, seeking the common good, must take precedence and oversee our economic system. Governmental actions are important tools to achieve this good. Progress should be measured not so much by increases in GDP, but more by advances in wisdom, freedom, human rights, equality, compassion, tolerance, peace, beauty, and improvements in our environment. Our task as progressives is to help bring about such progress.
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