AT LEAST 25 Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency. With so many candidates, there seems to be a growing wedge in the party over the term “progressive.”
In a “60 Minutes” interview, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her party needed to come back towards the center, whereas many of the newer members are moving too far left. Pelosi claimed the socialist wing of the party is small, but the interviewer countered that the progressive wing is actually getting larger.
Pelosi’s response was that she is a progressive.
As the party of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, being a Progressive is a badge of honor for Democrats, and if some is good, more must be better. But when we understand the original movement, it becomes clear that the term progressive is often misunderstood and misused.
In America’s first century, life could be hard on the poor, and it was not considered the government’s job to take care of them. Government was much too busy in the Gilded Age passing tariffs and fighting about who started the Civil War.
The initial real push for change did not come from the progressives, but actually from the populists . This radical fringe movement was the first to suggest that government should actually help those in need and introduced many of the reforms that progressives would later claim, such as the income tax, direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, and prohibition.
What hurt the populists were some of their more radical ideas, such as a government takeover of railroads and adding silver to the gold standard to increase the money supply. Ultimately, the populists were too radical for the American public; however, they set the stage for things to come.
It was the progressives who, after the initial shock, asked for many of the same reforms, but did so in a much more conservative, orderly, and controlled fashion. They allowed Americans to ease into the drastic changes, while not going as far as government takeovers.
Today the historical faces of the progressive moment are Republicans Teddy Roosevelt and William H. Taft, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. progressivism did not follow party lines, but actually brought them closer together.
The progressive presidents became famous for “trust busting.” Wilson’s approach was to break up monopolies in order to restore competition , while TR wanted to expand the regulatory power of the federal government to control, rather than destroy business.
None of the progressives wanted to end capitalism . All three men ran in the 1912 election (TR for the Bull Moose Party) and all three opposed the Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, and his platform.
Some historians, most notably Joan Hoff Wilson, believe Republican Herbert Hoover—who worked for Wilson during the Great War and inspired his beliefs in cooperation in the economy and volunteerism between labor and business—was a fourth progressive president.
But Hoover differed from fellow 1920s Republican presidents who believed “less government in business and more business in government.” Hoover, like his fellow progressives, did not want business in government, but also did not want government completely controlling business.
If Hoover was a progressive, as Wilson suggests, that means that FDR was not. Hoover had serious reservations about the New Deal, first because it did not actually fix the Depression and second, he did not believe mixing capitalism with some of FDR’s more socialist ideas worked.
Handouts, or what Hoover called “the dole,” hurt the traditional freedoms and independence of Americans. Lastly, he feared the individual was becoming a pawn of the state and the government was becoming too powerful.
Based on this example, it is Pelosi’s moderate wing of the Democratic Party that seems more in line with the progressives. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wing fits more into the populist ideology or even more like Deb’s Socialists.
For historians who disagree with Dr. Wilson and who see FDR as a true progressive, once again the Ocasio-Cortez wing does not match up with FDR’s progressivism. The most interesting is that the loudest most critical voices of the New Deal did not come from the right, but actually from further left. In FDR, America had a president who did more for welfare than any president ever had, but there were complaints that he should do more.
The two loudest voices were Louisiana Governor-turned-Senator Huey Long and Catholic priest-turned-radio star Father Coughlin. Long wanted a tax code that destroyed the concentration of wealth by capping income. Father Coughlin wanted a complete overhaul of our monetary system, including adding silver , and nationalizing the railroads.
Both seemed more influenced by the Populists, even to the point of free silver, than by the progressives. Both men also believed, way more than FDR did, that the answer to all ills was more government control. So Pelosi’s call to return to the center is more in line with historical progressivism than Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist’s wing . If anything, the far left in today’s Democratic Party is more in line with the populists.
The problem is we have changed meanings of words; we call Donald Trump a populist when he has nothing in common with them, and Ocasio-Cortez a progressive even though she does not have ties to the historic progressive movement.
But Pelosi understands that words matter: labeling yourself a progressive is beneficial, (anyone who opposes you becomes a non-progressive), but calling yourself a socialist will hurt your electability.
James Finck is an associate professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and chairman of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.