A new progressive movement is gaining strength inside the Democratic Party. This movement is the resistance to the fascistic government of Donald Trump, or, in short, the Trumpistas. The new progressive movement is the means by which we can restore the American democracy and the American dream.
There are two enormously promising recent developments behind the emergence of the new progressive movement.
First, inspired by the 2016 Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, thousands of his volunteers became permanent organizers for progressive ideas and candidates. Many now are in leadership positions inside the Democratic Party. New progressive organizations such as the Justice Democrats and Our Revolution were formed. Existing ones such as MoveOn and the Progressive Democrats of America gained increased support. There now are many different progressive organizations, some focused on national issues, others more on state and local issues. While there is no dominant organization, nor likely to be one, the combined force of all of these different groups promises to be enormous in the future.
Second, huge numbers of women and minority Democratic Party are candidates for public office at all levels of government. Some already have had success. A majority of women have been voting Democratic (a slight minority of whites but overwhelming majorities of minorities) but there were not large numbers of them running for public office until now. Their numbers are giving new definition to the term “progressive,” something it has lacked since the early years of the 20th Century.
The first progressive movement began in the first decade of the 20th Century as a revolt against the “Gilded Age” of extreme wealth and income inequality, massive consolidation of industries, corrupt political machines of both parties, and ineffectual government. In many ways it was similar to the present. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, embraced progressive ideas as a counter to the rapidly growing socialist movement he feared would result in a violent revolution.
Progressives differed from conservatives and socialists over the role of government. Conservatives favored "laissez faire" – hands off - when it came to government's role in the economy and as a regulator, as they still do. The Socialists, led by Eugene Debs, wanted to overthrow the capitalist system. Progressives did not wish to overthrow the capitalist system. They believed that government should play a major role in the economy and in the regulation of business to tame the destructive characteristics of capitalism. Roosevelt said progressivism could save capitalism from itself.
Progressives differed from libertarians in two major ways. Progressives believed in the social contract, that citizens in a democracy have responsibilities to one another and may have to give up some freedom to ensure that everyone has freedom. Libertarians deny the social contract. Libertarians believed in individual freedom and are deeply suspicious of, if not downright hostile, to government. Progressives believed that government could be a means to expand, rather than limit, individual freedom.
This was the essence of early progressivism. It was not an ideology. It was a philosophy of government and governance. It defined the duties of government and public officials, which were to serve the needs of the people, not the special interests. Government officials were expected to act honestly and intelligently. They followed Abraham Lincoln’s statement that the duty of government is to do for the people what they need to have done but what they cannot do for themselves.
Its big, optimistic, idea was in its name: progress. Things could be changed for the better. People could improve themselves. Life could be made better. The world could be made better. It was at the heart of the idea of the American dream. It was the counter to the pessimistic Social Darwinist theory of survival of the fittest that developed in the late 1800s.
The Social Darwinists believed that the world could not be improved, that many are not fit, or not able to improve themselves, and do not deserve help from others. That Social Darwinist concept also is behind the economic “trickle down” theory so popular with Republicans that as the rich get richer a little wealth trickles down to the lower classes. It has been well-proven that very little trickles down. In fact, over the past 40 years as the rich got richer, as the number of billionaires went from a couple of dozen to more than 500, almost everyone else got poorer.
It has been many years since progressives controlled the national government and the term has lost its meaning. Today, if you were to ask people in general what progressive means, a substantial number might answer “no idea,” or “liberal.” “Progressive” routinely has been used as a substitute for “liberal” since the 1970s when “liberal” became an epithet. With the growth of progressive candidates and progressive organizations, we now can see progressivism being redefined. As it turns out it is very much like early progressivism.
Our national government, and many state and local governments, are failing to do their duty to the people. There are solutions to our problems that progressives would implement if they gain the support of the people. There are common themes in this new progressive movement: universal health care; increased funding of public schools; reduced cost of college education; expanded affordable housing; criminal law and prison reform; racial justice; getting money out of politics; improved transportation and public transit; a much higher minimum wage; programs to fight climate change and economic inequality, including reversing portions of the Trump tax cut.
Opponents call the new progressive movement leftist, socialist, even communist, but it is none of them. We need to tell the people that the ideas and programs of progressives are as American as the proverbial apple pie. They aren’t new ideas. They are not radical. They are practical ideas and programs that would be of enormous benefit to the vast majority of the American people. Many different polls show that progressive ideas are supported by a majority of the people.
Most of the ideas and programs of the 21st Century progressive movement come from some of our greatest leaders in the past, from periods of our history when great progress was made for the American people.
In fact, virtually every federal government program supported by the vast majority of the American people was enacted during one of the three brief periods in the 20th Century when progressives controlled the national government. A list of such achievements follows this article and can be read below.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, after being out of office for four years, ran for President again. When the Republican Party bosses denied him the nomination, he helped to create the Progressive Party. He called the Progressive Party Platform the most important document since the Emancipation Proclamation 50 years earlier.
That platform proposed strict limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, a living wage, health, unemployment and old age insurance, and strict regulations on corporations.
In 1944, Theodore’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had guided the nation out of the Great Depression in the 1930s with his “New Deal,” proposed a Second Bill of Rights. He said the first Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, had proved unable to assure equality in the pursuit of happiness. He proposed an economic bill of rights that would guarantee:
- The right to a living wage;
- Freedom from unfair competition and monopolies;
- The right of farmers to receive a fair income;
- The right to housing;
- The right to medical care;
- The right to social security;
- The right to education.
Much of the Progressive Platform of 1912 and of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have yet to be realized. Many of their ideas were revived in 2016 by Bernie Sanders. Now, with progressive candidates inspired and supported by Bernie – according to some polls, the most popular politician in America – there is hope that many of these ideas finally will be realized.
Where these progressive candidates are is where the Democratic Party needs to be. The Democratic Party only will succeed if it has candidates who are tuned to the needs of the people. These progressive candidates are re-energizing the party, attracting huge numbers of volunteers, and sparking an enormous amount of voter registration, especially among young people.
With this energy the Democratic Party may regain control of Congress this year and the Presidency in 2020. Our future can be much brighter than current events portend. However, it is going to take a national concerted effort to support and finance progressive candidates and get out the vote for them. Voter registrations do not mean much if the voters do not vote.
If we give these emerging leaders of the Democratic Party strong support over the next few years, progressive Democrats will gain control of the national government as well as many state and local governments. If that happens, the obscenity we are living through now will be just a nightmare of our past.
As they have done previously when they had the support of the people, progressives once again will save the nation. We must make that happen. We owe that to our heritage, to our children and grandchildren, and to the world.
 For a contemporary view of early 20th Century Progressivism, see Hochstein, Irma. A Progressive Primer. Madison: Wisconsin Women's Progressive Association, 1922. “We must elect to represent us in the city councils and in the legislative bodies, men and women who understand the problems of government and who are honestly endeavoring to pass laws so that no injustice will be done to the people's interests.” p. 10. and “The progressive in politics is one who sees what the next steps are in bringing a better civilization, and who knows how to take those steps without being retarded.” p 62
Nearly of the major national government programs serving much of the population were enacted during three brief periods of American history when progressives controlled the Presidency and, much of the time, the Congress.
This is a list of accomplishments in the first progressive period, 1901-1917. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Republican, 1901-1909; William Howard Taft, Republican,1909-1913; Woodrow Wilson, Democrat: 1913-1921 (progressive period ends with U.S. entry into World War I in 1917)
Significant expansion of the role and powers of the President, the federal government and the civil service;
The commission system of local government;
Women gained the right to vote;
Direct election of U.S. Senators;
Public ownership and operation of urban transit systems;
Clayton Anti-Trust Act which provided the first legal rights to unions, forbidding the use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against them.
The first antitrust suit by the federal government;
The breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly;
The graduated income tax;
The inheritance tax;
Major reductions in tariffs;
Prohibitions against child labor and workplace exploitations;
Protections against contaminated food and medicines;
Hundreds of millions of acres of protected wilderness areas, waterways and national parks;
The Federal Reserve System.
Here is a list of the major accomplishments of the 2nd progressive period: 1933-1941 (ends with entry into World War II). President: Franklin Roosevelt (cousin of Theodore), Democrat, 1933-1945.
Great expansion of the role and powers of the Presidency and the federal government, particularly in the national economy;
Bank and Wall Street regulation, including the Glass-Steagall Act, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission;
Huge investments in infrastructure through the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps;
The Federal Housing Administration, providing financing for home purchases
The eight-hour workday and 40-hour work week;
The minimum wage;
The right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining;
Worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance.
Here is a list of many of the accomplishments of the 3rd progressive period: 1961-1969. Presidents John Kennedy, Democrat, 1961-1963; Lyndon Johnson, Democrat, 1963-1969
In 1965, greatest number of bills passed by Congress in one session in history
The Peace Corps;
The Childrens Health Insurance Program;
Income support for below-poverty level working people;
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting;
National Public Radio (NPR)
Public Broadcasting System (PBS)
Fair Housing and Public Accommodations laws providing freedom for anyone to buy a home anywhere, and to be served in any business establishment open to the public;
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also forbade job discrimination;
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting;
Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965 abolished the national-origin quotas in immigration law;
Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to oversee a variety of community-based antipoverty programs overall called the “War on Poverty,” which reduced the percentage of people living below the poverty line from 22.2 percent in 1963 to 12.6 percent in 1970. It is about 14.5 percent today.
Food Stamp Act of 1964;
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965;
Higher Education Act of 1965, which increased federal money given to universities, created scholarships and low-interest loans for students, and established a national Teacher Corps to provide teachers to poverty-stricken areas of the United States;
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden;
National Endowment for the Arts;
National Endowment for the Humanities;
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts;
The Department of Transportation;
The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964;
Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965;
The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 set standards through creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration;
The Child Safety Act of 1966;
The Flammable Fabrics Act of 1967;
Wholesome Meat Act of 1967;
The Truth-in-Lending Act of 1968 required lenders and credit providers to disclose the full cost of finance charges in both dollars and annual percentage rates, on installment loan and sales;
Water Quality Act of 1965;
Clean Air Act of 1963;
Wilderness Act of 1964;
Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966;
National Trails System Act of 1968;
Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968;
Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965;
Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965;
Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965;
National Historic Preservation Act of 1966;
Aircraft Noise Abatement Act of 1968;
National Environmental Policy Act of 1969;