I think the greatest contribution that Glenn Beck has made to this country is helping a wide audience listen to historians who reveal what progressivism really is. What follows is a distillation of some of what I’ve learned from listening to these historians, and Thomas Sowell, and some knowledge I’ve gained from living among progressives for many years.
At some point years ago I remember hearing the term “progressive” in school. It was always kind of ill-defined, as if they were an interest group that wanted food safety, worker safety, a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, stuff like that. I equated it with “liberal”, and in fact I occasionally heard conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh equate the two, and maybe they had become equivalent by then. Then at some point I heard about the term “classical liberal”, and how this was different from the modern term. But equating “liberal” to “progressive” really does a disservice to informing the public, in my opinion, because it makes it sound like they’re both terms for “Democrat”, and that’s just one of our two parties, though I did hear a bit in school about progressive Republicans. It makes progressivism sound established and normal, just a part of American political life.
Let’s make a clear distinction about progressives (as opposed to the term “Democrat”). Progressives are elite statists. At times in history they have called themselves “liberals”, co-opting the classical term to make themselves look better. When the term “liberal” became a bad word, they adopted back their label of “progressive”. They believe that the state should coordinate the major activities in society, not the economy (the free interaction of individuals and corporations), nor a free body politic. They believe that the state should make every effort to change the behavior of its citizens to something they desire via. institutional change, either through government agencies or regulation of corporations. They believe in a national (and strive for an international) unity of purpose and action, and believe that they have the meritocratic and moral authority to bring this about “for the common good” with or without the consent of the people. In fact the phrase “a new world order” fits quite nicely with this view. They assume they have the moral authority to do this, because to them most people are stupid and they are “the wise ones”. They believe that “the right leaders” should be installed in office, preferably “philosopher kings”, so that they can make sweeping decisions for society and “set things right”, though what they really do is give preferential treatment to other elitists like themselves and their supporters. To varying degrees they see “the people” only as extensions of themselves, not as free-acting individuals who determine their own interests. If the people resist this notion they are met with contempt. In fact, if anything, they believe that the only reasonable policy is for the people, their supplicants, to serve their interests in exchange for government benefits, and the people should be thankful for it. The phrase “some people are more equal than others” comes to mind. They assume that what they desire is the only path to achieving the common good.
There are gradations of what I describe in the progressive movement. Not all progressives want the same things, but they all move in the direction of unrestrained government power. Sometimes they try to move things by inches, and other times they try to make big steps towards it, depending on what they can get away with.
Classical liberals believe in liberty and the rule of law; the ability of an individual to make their own choices, so long as those choices do not directly and unjustly harm another person’s body, property, reputation (though there are exceptions), or natural or civil rights. They believe that people have the right of association and can organize whatever political activities they deem fit. They understand that sometimes society will make mistakes, but they also understand that it must be allowed to make mistakes, with some restraints, or else we’re not really a free people. Without the ability to make mistakes, we cannot learn, and we cannot create a better society. Preventing mistakes altogether just makes society brittle.
I’ve been reading “Radical Son”, by David Horowitz, where he documents the fact that his own parents and grandparents were communists. He was as well until he “woke up”. He said they called themselves progressives. They joined the Democratic Party hiding their true agenda. At that time, if they were revealed for who they really were, they would’ve been kicked out of the party, and may have been investigated by the U.S. government.
Today progressives ARE (for the most part) the Democratic Party. This sort of takeover of the Democratic Party has happened a few other times in the 20th century. The first was during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1921. The second was during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt from 1933-1945 (officially he was elected to four terms in office, though in effect he only served three, because he died shortly after winning the 1944 election).
To be fair, the progressives have had success in the Republican Party as well. The first progressive Republican to win office was Theodore Roosevelt. He was the first progressive to be elected president, serving from 1901-1909. Then there was William Taft from 1909-1913. Then there was Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933. I only include the last two because they were self-described progressives, though I think the progressive movement wouldn’t agree that they were with them, particularly Herbert Hoover whose memory is scorned by them today. Taft is forgotten.
I think it’s arguable that presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and his son George W. Bush had progressive tendencies, both in how they conducted themselves in office, and in their philosophy of government. Progressives would bristle at the suggestion that any of these presidents was one of them, because while they all used government power aggressively for advancing domestic and foreign policy, as progressives would, they also attacked some sacred cows of the progressives. It’s arguable that Sen. John McCain has been part of this same mold, and was rejected by the progressive movement for the same reason.
Putting it all together, the first progressive era was from 1901-1945, though there was a “donut hole” in it where classical liberalism was allowed to hold sway from 1921-1929–the “roaring 20’s”. In all it lasted 36 years. And now it starts anew with President Obama, but for how long?
Beck has had historians on talking about how the progressive movement has always been separate from either party, and that for most of its history at its core it has been Marxist in its leanings. Progressives have just used the parties as vehicles for implementing their agendas. To make an analogy, they’re like the Tea Party movement in that sense–leaning a certain way, but separate from any party, though the progressives are not as overt about this separation. My interpretation of their history is that they’re fascists (and I don’t mean this in the pejorative, I mean it literally), though you’d have to listen to Jonah Goldberg to understand that this doesn’t mean that they believe in “ethnic cleansing”, and the other evils of Nazi Germany. As Goldberg has explained, “That was Germany.” Though they used to act racist towards certain ethnicities in the days when eugenics was seen as a legitimate scientific theory of “genetic purity”, they wouldn’t be caught dead doing that now. However there is still a Malthusian strain in progressivism that has been there almost from the beginning, a belief that “the stupid people” should be “liquidated”, or their population should be reduced by forced sterilization. It’s also obvious that even today they find sexism somewhat acceptable.
Fascism in America has historically had a different look and feel. Progressives see some value in private enterprise (or perhaps a more appropriate term is “usefulness”), just so long as the private economy is kept relatively small and powerless. So I don’t see them advocating that we drift into communism, though they’ve certainly been sympathetic to the communist cause historically. Goldberg has said that in reality there’s very little difference between fascism and communism. They’re like Coke and Pepsi, he says.
They’ve tended to not reveal what they are actually thinking, planning, and doing out in the open, though they have been showing their “true face” more lately. Since Obama got elected they’ve been feeling a bit more comfortable about expressing their true selves. They’ve known in the past that to reveal themselves, what they’re really thinking and what they really want, would alarm too many people. Instead they’ve put forward policy and program proposals that sound innocuous, caring, what “good people do”, “standing up for the poor and the working man against the ravages of capitalism”. These are their “steps along the way”, not their end goal.
The main thing to keep in mind is that progressives dislike or even hate the unpredictability, the chaos of a free society. They want strong leaders to control and suppress other powerful people who are not in their camp, and “show society the way”. Make no mistake about it. They want to direct, not merely “reform”.
Something that rarely gets talked about, but which I think needs to be highlighted, is that through their friends in the media and the education establishment they have successfully made a very strong impression on Americans that their spectrum of ideas are the only acceptable ones, and anything else is “crazy”, “extremist”, “stupid”, or “racist”. They’re very effective in using language and emotional signaling to indicate to otherwise ignorant people that one proposal is acceptable and others are not. What I’ve found is that they don’t care about accuracy. They will take a turn of phrase or an event, adapt it to their ideological outlook, and state that as fact.
Any suggestion that the Constitution is a charter of negative rights for government is met with scorn and derision by them. Of course this is what they’d think. They don’t really believe in the Constitution as it was written. To them it’s old and passe, not to mention that it doesn’t fit their goals, though you won’t hear them say that publicly. They’ll say instead that what they support is constitutional because of the Constitution’s preamble where it says that the government should “promote the general welfare”, and the “General Welfare” clause. This is not one of the enumerated powers, by the way. There was debate about this phrase among the framers of the Constitution. Some of that debate agreed with what progressives now promote, but the interpretation of the phrase “the general welfare” that won out at the time it was ratified was that all the states (not just some that might be preferred) were to benefit from what the federal government was allowed to do according to its enumerated powers, the focus of which was creating an environment of tranquility, justice according to the law, and a common defense. That interpretation held until 1937, when the Supreme Court decided felt compelled to change it, during the FDR Administration because of President FDR’s threat to pack the court. We have been living with the legacy of that event ever since. With this single autocratic act we have gotten Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and the most recently passed health care bill, and all of the debt and obligations these programs have, and will, generate.
Progressives are willing to publicly respect the Constitution some, particularly when it’s to their advantage. In general they believe in unrestrained government power when and where their desires dictate.
On June 7 I happened to be watching C-SPAN and I got the opportunity to see a gathering of progressives at an event sponsored by Campaign for America’s Future (there are three other parts to this conference that C-SPAN recorded here, here, and here). I saw it with new eyes. Instead of seeing it as a gathering of populist liberals who wanted “power to the people”, I saw it as a group of people who hated liberty. I could feel in some of the people who got up to speak a seething rage underneath the surface, a singularity of purpose so strong that they considered nothing else, not even the Constitution. I listened carefully to what they said, and what came through to me were five things:
- Morality above all: The government has been allowing powerful people in the private economy to “rape” (my word) this country and its people, and the government should put a stop to it. There was no discussion of the structure of law and government institutions, how they created this problem and if there were any ideas for correcting them, and how to enhance the good aspects of human nature. The theme that got pounded through again and again is “make people do the right thing”. You could practically hear them say “force them to do the right thing,” and “Whatever is morally right to do, just make it happen,” but they were careful with their words. It was interesting listening to some of the points they made. For example they saw it as a mistake that they only focused on getting “the right people in power”. Well of course. Those who have the unconstrained vision are naive enough to believe that this is all you have to do. They neglected the fact that the Founders set up a system where we can replace those in power. Van Jones spoke a couple days later at the event saying, “We need to change the people [out in society] from the bottom up, and inside out as well.” Well haven’t they been doing that through our culture, our schools? Apparently they haven’t done a good enough job… Glenn Beck recently suggested that this statement by Jones means their “people on the ground” will probably become violent. Sounds plausible. What other choice do they have? They’ve made their agenda pretty obvious by now, and the majority of us don’t like it.
- Capitalism sucks: Without exception they saw capitalism and capitalists as evil. I swear, what they said on this was practically indistinguishable from Marxist ideologues I used to hear years ago. The only difference was they were open to talking to corporate partners who are willing to help them implement their plans. The old Marxists were purists and wouldn’t dare go near corporations for help.
- Childishness: This came out in two ways. The first was that they saw themselves as the intercessors between the people who are the “victims” and the powerful who are “oppressing” them. Their sole focus was on “the powerful”, “making them do the right thing”–like making mommy and daddy treat you right if you were children. The second was I saw very few people there who I would say acted like mature adults. They seemed like they were in their twenties at the oldest, in terms of emotional and mental maturity. I’ve seen this in my neck of the woods as well. I live in a progressive town. There are some progressives who are mature, but I also meet quite a few of them who seem like Peter Pan–they never want to grow up. It’s impossible to discuss issues with them intelligently, because they just don’t want to do it. They can think morally with their “bleeding heart” and that’s about it. They’re incapable of seeing the wider implications of what they’re advocating. I mean, really, you can almost hear them sing, “When you wish upon a star…”, though it usually comes out as John Lennon’s “Imagine”. This inability to deal with real issues on the effects of policy has the potential to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of gradual societal destruction, which is then seen as requiring more and more draconian measures to prevent a collapse. It reminded me of a couple things: the book, “The Death of the Grown-up”, by Diana West, and Tammy Bruce‘s description of her former colleagues on the Left as a group of psychologically broken, troubled souls with power, in her book, “The Death of Right and Wrong”. She said recently, “These people don’t belong in public office. They belong in a psychiatrist’s office!” She spoke from experience, and was not exaggerating. West’s book talks more broadly about a growing immaturity in our culture, not just that of the far Left.
- “Show the people the way”: This was one of the most striking things to me. There was absolutely no recognition of the light of inspiration in people, that people could realize and exercise their own power and create a stable, healthy life for themselves. No, somebody powerful has to do that for you, and it’s the fault of the powerful if you are in poverty. Somebody has to take your hand like a child and show you, “Step 1, do A. Step 2, do B. Step 3, do C, etc. If you do these things you are guaranteed to live a financially stable life where all of your needs will be met.” There was a time in our national life when people could go through a step-by-step process, get a job, stay at one company for 30+ years and then retire. That was a unique time in history when economic conditions in the world allowed this to happen in the U.S. The economic situation of the U.S. relative to the world has changed since then. These changes have meant that it’s no longer realistic to expect to have economic security at one company for your career. In general, life doesn’t work that way. If you look at the economic history of the U.S. you’ll find that this phenomenon of “one job for your career” was an anomaly, not the norm. Probably the only place where this happens now is in government bureaucracy, which is the reason the public employee unions feel so threatened by the budget cuts that their local public officials are having to make in response to their fiscal situation.
- “Obama is not doing enough”: This blew me away. They said the $787 billion “stimulus” bill that was passed in 2009 WAS NOT LARGE ENOUGH!!! It was another one of those moments where I thought to myself, “Oh. My. God. They really are this crazy.” They said that they wanted the public option for health care, but (I’m paraphrasing), “Our society is not conditioned…ahem…ready for that yet.”
The federal government had to borrow most of the “stimulus” that was approved. Progressives act like the rich have an infinitely large supply of money, and that if we tax them heavily the government will be able to mostly fund what they want to do. Ross Perot said years ago that you could confiscate ALL of the wealth of the top 1%, and that alone would only run the government for 3 months. That’s it. Should I assume that the progressives are dumb enough to believe that money grows on trees for the federal government, and that if it just “spends more of it” it will have no negative effects on the economy? Wishing does not make things true. It doesn’t matter if you close your eyes tight, squint your nose and wish real hard. If we are to assume that they don’t believe money grows on trees, then we have to conclude that what they are really saying is they want the federal debt to get bigger, because that will make the economy recover faster. What’s scary is there are people who believe this will really work. You don’t solve a problem by taking what caused it and doing more of it! An 8-year-old knows that. (But progressives say our recession was caused by Wall Street stealing our money–capitalism. Oh, okay. In their fantasy world I see…).
It’s not that what progressives say they want is not desirable. Of course it is. We want our economy to recover. We want people lifted out of poverty. We want people to live stable, financially secure lives. Who doesn’t want that? But we are not going to accomplish these goals with gargantuan spending packages that force the government to borrow trillions of dollars, and heavy, ever changing regulation that stifles ingenuity and entrepreneurism. All we have to do is look at history and (this is the key) LEARN FROM IT! Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR’s Treasury Secretary and architect of the New Deal, said of his own policies in 1939 (source: The Foundry):
We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. … I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. … We have never made good on our promises. I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. … And an enormous debt to boot!
But to progressives history is just a narrative that’s malleable. They find a way to ignore and interpret information so that it fits their ideology. They don’t learn. Their loss, but it doesn’t have to be ours. Another good source for historical information on this period is “The Forgotten Man”, by Amity Shlaes.
Why oh why do we have to repeat history? I think the truth is the progressives are in denial (but perhaps this goes without saying with ideologues), and the history we have been taught in school is full of half-truths.
Speakers kept saying at the June 7 event, “We don’t have a choice.” Sure we do. They said this because they recognize that a majority of people in this country now think that their children will be less well off than they are, and “we don’t have a choice” but to have the government prevent that bleak future from happening. The political right sees the same thing, and sees the looming federal debt that the Obama Administration is creating as the next generation’s death knell. Personally I agree with the conservatives on this point.
The tone of the progressives at their event indicates to me that they feel desperate, but they don’t want to face the truth, because they don’t know what else to do. They’re one-trick ponies, ideologues. Wishful thinking is not a viable governing philosophy. Their policies are not going to work given the fiscal, economic, and demographic situation that exists. The question is are they desperate enough to do something rash, make a “hail mary” pass, and get violent, because they see no other way? I think it’s possible. These people are committed. There is no doubting that, and some of them have a lot of money and power on their side. These are not just idle individuals spouting off without the means to exercise political power in government and out in society.
The following two videos are from the May 3rd episode of Glenn Beck.
I think Beck made a good point last week saying that a natural response in our society, if and when such violence occurs, is for the government to crack down on it with more restrictive policies–creating more of a police state. He said that would be a mistake, because that’s what the progressives want. They want a more aggressive state, because then if they can “get their hand on the tiller” at some later date, it will make it all the easier for them to do what they really want. Republicans should take heed of this.