Time For a New Progressive Era
Yesterday I spent a couple of hours working on a new blog post. But in reading it over, much it was just a rant. A rant against the wealthy…and their boy Mitt Romney. Admittedly, I’m very angry with the very wealthy in this country. Not because they are wealthy but because they’ve allowed their egos to supercede the needs and welfare of the nation.
This morning, though, I read something that caused me to think about a different post. Chrystia Freeland, in her article, discusses the influence of a highly prominent US economist, Henry George, whose name has been mostly lost to history.
During the Industrial Revolution, millions were thrown out of work and lost everything while a few make vast fortunes, not just in America but all over Europe as well. That vast income inequality sparked a variety of consequences: the Russian Revolution; the rise of unions, socialism, and communism; Karl Marx’s call to end private property (industry); riots in many cities.
Yet, no one wanted to turn back the clock to pre-industrial revolutionary days. So, society had to figure out ways to deal with the vast upheavals that the industrial revolution caused. In the US, George, and his younger political colleague Teddy Roosevelt, responded to the upheaval and economic inequity with new progressive ideas and programs to ameliorate the negative but natural effects of the Industrial Revolution. The Republican Party not only championed those ideas, they made progressivism a norm in political discourse and policies all the way through the 1940s.
George’s diagnosis was beguilingly simple — the fruits of innovation weren’t widely shared because they were going to the landlords. This was a very American indictment of industrial capitalism: at a time when Marx was responding to Europe’s version of progress and poverty with a wholesale denunciation of private property, George was an enthusiastic supporter of industry, free trade and a limited role for government. His culprits were the rentier rich, the landowners who profited hugely from industrialization and urbanization, but did not contribute to it.
George had such tremendous popular appeal because he addressed the obvious inequity of 19th century American capitalism without disavowing capitalism itself. George wasn’t trying to build a communist utopia. His campaign promise was to rescue America from the clutches of the robber barons and to return it to “the democracy of Thomas Jefferson.” That ideal — as much Tea Party as Occupy Wall Street — won support not only among working class voters and their leaders, like Samuel Gompers, but also resonated with many small businessmen. Robert Ingersoll, a Republican orator, attorney and intellectual, was a George supporter. He urged his fellow Republicans to back his man and thereby “show that their sympathies are not given to bankers, corporations and millionaires.”
The world is going through another upheaval, just as enormous in scope and change as the Industrial Revolution, caused by technological innovations and globalization. Those innovations and globalization are good things. They’ve made workers more productive and reduced hard labor. Globalization has brought many millions out of poverty worldwide. And in many ways, ushered in more democratic states.
America today urgently needs a 21st century Henry George — a thinker who embraces the wealth-creating power of capitalism, but squarely faces the inequity of its current manifestation. That kind of thinking is missing on the right, which is still relying on Reagan-era trickle-down economics and hopes complaints about income inequality can be silenced with accusations of class war. But the left isn’t doing much better either, preferring nostalgia for the high-wage, medium-skill manufacturing jobs of the post-war era and China-bashing to a serious and original effort to figure out how to make 21st century capitalism work for the middle class.
Globalization and the technology revolution aren’t going away — and thank goodness for that. Industrialization didn’t go away either. But between 1886, when George lost the mayoral race, and the presidency of FDR, American progressives invented, fought for and implemented a broad range of new social and political institutions to make capitalism serve the whole of society — ranging from trust-busting, to the income tax, to the welfare state.
We are living in an era of comparably tumultuous economic change. The great challenge of our time is to devise the new social and political institutions we need to make the new economy work for everyone. So far, that is a historic task neither party is taking on with enough energy, honesty or originality.
It’s becoming more and more clear that Republicans will not lead the way towards another progressive era that ameliorates the vast distortions and upheaval caused by this second industrial revolution. So, progressives must. But just tweaking around the edges and calling for more taxation of the wealthy won’t work. As Freeland writes, we need new social and political institutions. We need new ideas but ideas that don’t disavow capitalism or attempt to destroy it.
So, here’s the question: Where are those new ideas? And who is talking about them?