Progressivism is a “cancer” in America: so says Glenn Beck, and so agrees Rep. Paul Ryan, a Radical Right Republican from Wisconsin. Ryan says his goal is to “indict the entire vision of Progressivism” which he says is “a complete affront of the whole idea of this country.”
He says he wants to “flush out progressives” and that he knows about them because he grew up in Janesville, WI, “just 35 miles from Madison,” as if Progressivism is, and has been, some secret cult hiding in Madison that he’s now revealing to us and from which he must save us. He’s on this (ahem) courageous mission “so people can actually see what this ideology means” and “how it attacks the American idea.” Just how un-American is it? Ryan tells us that “this stuff came from the German intellectuals to Madison” and that the “Austrians” were its “founders.”
In a speech he gave in January 2010, Ryan said:
….there was the Wisconsin Deal. In my home state, the University of Wisconsin was an early hotbed of Progressivism, whose goal was to reorder society along lines other than those of the Constitution.
Let us now count the ways in which Ryan is wrong.
Let’s go first for the dumbest thing he tried to say. Germans! Austrians! Oh my! Progressivism (we’re supposed to think) must be linked to that most famous of Austrians who was the most famous of German leaders — Adolph Hitler!
Really, if you’re going to try to frame an issue in such a way as to evoke a reflexive response — in this case, linking Progressivism to the nearly universal revulsion for Hitler — you have to be less transparent. Subtlety in framing is especially important when you try to pair two entirely unrelated things, like Progressivism and Nazism. The only people who would not giggle at this bit of silliness are those who either desperately want to believe there is such a connection (and so delude themselves) or who are stone-cold ignorant. (Stone-cold ignorant is something with which Ryan is intimately familiar.)
By the way, not only were the Germans not the originators of Progressivism, they were rather late to the party. As the Wisconsin Historical Society notes on its web site:
Germans and organized labor, who had not supported the Progressive movement in its early years, became important later as the composition of the movement changed.
Second, it was called the Wisconsin Idea, not the Wisconsin Deal. Cripes! Ya’d think ya’d know that growing up and “raising your family” in in da nort’ here, eh. C’mere once. Let me explain.
And what was that Wisconisn Idea? According to the University of Wisconsin’s web site:
First attributed to UW President Charles Van Hise in 1904, the Wisconsin Idea is the principle that education should influence and improve people’s lives beyond the university classroom.
The notion that the intellectuals at state universities should do something to bring concrete benefits to people living outside of academia is bad in Ryan’s view? That’s un-American? This is an “affront to the whole idea of the country”?
(A)s early as the 1880s, the university began summer Farmers’ Institutes to introduce state farmers to new techniques and technology. These classes, along with research breakthroughs such as Stephen Babcock’s butterfat milk test, helped a poor, struggling state move beyond its single-grain farming and establish itself as a national leader in dairy and other agricultural industries. During the latter part of the 19th century, the university began similar programs for teachers and engineers, all with the goal of leveraging university knowledge to improve the quality of life in Wisconsin.
This “Wisconsin Idea” actually predates political Progressivism by many years.
As early as the 1870s, UW president John Bascom taught his students — La Follette and Van Hise among them — that they had a moral duty to share their expertise broadly.
Were either John Bascom or Charles Van Hise “Germans” or “Austrians” who brought their horrifingly un-American ideas to Wisconsin? Bascom was born in New York, was educated in Massachusetts and died in Massachusetts. Van Hise was born in Wisconsin, was educated in Wisconsin and died in Wisconsin (his mentor, by the way, was Roland Irving, who was born in New York, was educated in New York and died in Wisconsin).
Third, to assert that progressivism was created “to reorder society along lines other than those of the Constitution” is what, back in the day, we called a bald-faced lie.
The progressive movement originated in the late nineties as a protest against railroad and machine dominance of Republican politics. In 1900, just 30 years ago, Robert M. La Follette lead it to its first victory…. La Follette characterized progressivism as a war against monopoly.
Catch that? Progressivism was created by Republicans as a reaction to the corruption of other Republicans.
The Republicans were the party of Lincoln and the Union Army, and in the decades following the Civil War, they held a virtual monopoly on state government by organizing and satisfying the needs of Civil War veterans. Until the 1890s, a few party leaders tightly controlled Wisconsin’s legislative agenda. At the same time, the rise of big business after 1870 had concentrated economic power in the hands of a few privileged individuals. These two groups, party leaders and business leaders, often overlapped, personally and pragmatically, as the interests and actions of government and business converged.
Progressive Republicans, in contrast, believed that the business of government was to serve the people. They sought to restrict the power of corporations when it interfered with the needs of individual citizens. The progressive movement appealed to citizens who wanted honest government and moderate economic reforms that would expand democracy and improve public morality.
Progressivism applied the Wisconsin Idea — that smart people should share the fruits of their studies and intelligence with the rest of us — to governance and sought the advice of academics on the problems of the day.
The Wisconsin Idea, as it came to be called, was that efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests, and that the involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government.
One of the leading proponents was John Commons (born in Ohio, educated in Maryland and died in Florida — so, also neither a German nor an Austrian):
Commons … believed in a theory of gradualness and democratic competition in the labor movement rather than class conflict and revolution. He refused to accept the easy generalizations of the Marxists….
La Follette, according to the Historical Society:
….developed the techniques and ideas that made him a nationwide symbol of Progressive reform and made the state an emblem of progressive experimentation. The Wisconsin Idea, as it came to be called, was that efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests, and that the involvement of specialists in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government.
According to the US National Park Service’s web site, the people of the progressive movement (that predated its political expression):
…were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace. Progressives lived mainly in the cities, were college educated, and believed that government could be a tool for change.
…They concentrated on exposing the evils of corporate greed, combating fear of immigrants, and urging Americans to think hard about what democracy meant. Other local leaders encouraged Americans to register to vote, fight political corruption, and let the voting public decide how issues should best be addressed (the initiative, the referendum, and the recall).
A group of reporters, later called Muckrakers, fueled the movement by revealing the dangerous conditions that threatened the nation at the time.
Lincoln Steffens unmasked the corrupt alliance between big business and municipal government; Ida Tarbell published a devastating factual expose of the Standard Oil Company; Muckrakers roasted the beef trust, the “money trust,” the railroad barons, and corrupt fortunes; Thomas Lawson, a speculator, laid bare the practices of his accomplices in “Frenzied Finance”; David G. Phillips wrote The Treason of the Senate—senators represented companies not people.
The most effective fire of the muckrakers was directed at social evils such as prostitution, slums, industrial accidents, subjugation of American blacks, and abuses of child labor.
In summary, the progressives came together politically to fight monopolies, the political corruption of big business special interests and the ability of big business to crush the common folk, as well as to promote honesty, public morality, education, democracy, and the use of smart, educated people to address the nation’s problems. And this is what the Radical Right is against?
Wisconsin’s 1911 Legislature produced the biggest yield of progressive reforms, creating, among other things, the nation’s first effective workers’ compensation program to protect people injured on the job, laws to regulate factory safety and limits on child labor. They fought to give women the vote, to create “mothers pensions” and, eventually, led the fight to create Social Security.
And this is what Radical Right is against?
Progressives were anything but the anti-Constitution radicals Ryan claims, drawing their first and main support from the middle class, including business people, clergy, doctors, teachers, lawyers, President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft (both Republicans). Other notable progressives included steel magnate Andre Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, William James, Walter Lippman, John Mott, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Upton Sinclair.
These are the people Ryan must “flush out”? These are the people who embraced and promoted a “vision” that is “an affront to the whole idea of this country”? These are the people who germinated the “cancer” from which Ryan must save us?
Let’s consider Taft: the only person to ever be both president of the United States and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court; US secretary of war; acting secretary of state; governor-general of the Philippines; the youngest-ever solicitor general of the United States; governor of Cuba; one of the supervisors of the construction of the Panama Canal; judge on the 6th district US Court of Appeals; judge on the Ohio Supreme Court; Chancellor Kent professor of law and legal history at Yale Law School; president of the American Bar Association; author of a series of books on American legal philosophy; chair of the National War Labor Board; founder of the League to Enforce Peace; an explorer of Alaska; and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale.
Let’s consider someone outside of politics. Williams James: was a giant in psychology and philosophy (is often referred to as the father of American psychology); was fluent in three languages; earned an MD from Harvard; taught anatomy, physiology, psychology and philosophy at Harvard; and was a scientific explorer of the Amazon River. Although he gained his widest respect for his 1,200-page Principles of Psychology, a non-exhaustive bibliography of his writings consumes 47 pages. All this he did despite the lifelong obstacles of poor health and depression.
And Paul Ryan? He has a bachelor’s degree from Miami of Ohio (which he paid for with Social Security benefits — ironic). He worked as a “marketing consultant” at his great grand daddy’s construction firm, briefly tried to run his own consulting firm, and as an aide and speech writer to four politicians, two forgettable, two embarrassing. Oh, and he’s the congressman from a sparsely populated and unremarkable district in a small Midwestern state. He’s in his seventh term in Congress and has introduced just two bills that have passed. In other words, he’s done next to nothing. (Someone less charitable might point out that Ryan has been living on someone else’s dime for most of his life: the tax payers [Social Security], family money, and the tax payers again [Congressional salary]).
Paul Ryan is to the few progressive leaders listed above what bumper stickers are to philosophy. Comparing Ryan’s intellect, ability, accomplishments, sacrifices, and contributions to the nation to the intellect, ability, accomplishments, sacrifices, and contributions of these progressive leaders is akin to comparing a speck of sand to the Sahara Desert. Ryan hasn’t yet earned the right to pull the weeds on their graves, much less to speak so contemptuously of them and their vision.
Come to think of it, a lot of what the progressivism was created to combat is sounds really familiar.
Big biz walking all over us? Check.
Dishonesty in government? Check.
Growing poverty? Check.
Corruption in voting?Check.
So, yes, Mr. Ryan, please do “flush out” progressives and reveal what it is they were all about, because we could sure as hell use a whole bunch more of them right about now.