Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rise and Fall(?) of America’s Progressive State

Warner Bros. is in early negotiations to pick up the rights to Wilson, the just-released biography of the 28th president by A. Scott Berg. Leonardo DiCaprio, who is attached to star as Wilson, will also produce”

 --Hollywood Reporter

Voltaire said, “uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one." He said this in advance of the French Revolution. Didn’t Voltaire mean, “Certainty is an absurd position, uncertainty is merely an uncomfortable one, so bring on the uncertainty of change!"?

I would suggest so. Anyway, the present doesn’t work. We need that part of the elite believing most strongly in change to draw themselves up and support a petit bourgeoise-proletarian revolution that reduces elite status and cuts into elite income, but is actually aimed at ousting progressives from power. We should be hurrying out the door the era of empires, kingdoms, dictators, and rule by “the best and brightest”.

What follows could be beneficial but messy, decentralized, more like the “creative destruction” needed to fire up the economy; good if it boosts employment and prosperity, welcomes immigrants, generates elementary and secondary education choices, delivers workable health care, and encourages two-parent, more stable families.

Here’s a related important thought from Emily Esfahani Smith, writing in the Atlantic:
the great philosophical debate [that] has shaped Western civilization for over 2,000 years [is] about the nature of the good life. Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think? From the evidence of [a] study [by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina and Steve Cole at UCLA], it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”
First, instinctively, we should take care of ourselves; it’s what we must do. The next step toward adding “meaning” to our own wretched life is to form and raise a family. Do that job, and your life becomes meaningful. We are given life; our charge is to pass it on. Do people focused on “feeling good” make good parents? Not likely. So see how important religion is? It helps us with our primary job--raising a family; leading a meaningful life.

For most of existence for most people, there has been little time for meaningful work beyond raising a family. A meaningful life could simply be family + religion. In America’s first century through the Civil War, for those seeking meaning beyond family and working to support it, abolishing slavery emerged as the dominant cause.

The Civil War changed America dramatically, enlarging government’s reach and creating an industrial powerhouse based in the East and Midwest. The Eastern-based academies of learning broke away from their religion-based origins and embraced science that supported industry while undermining religion. Harvard and other universities gave birth to and nurtured the new, post-slavery path to a meaningful life: progressivism.

Every elected Republican president from Grant to McKinley, 1869-1901, served in Civil War blue, and all supported industry. (Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat who disrupted the flow of Civil War veteran-presidents, bought his way out of the Civil War draft.) Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive Republican post-Civil War colonel, did usher in a new “trust busting” era in 1901, but progressivism truly arrived 12 years later with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency that began exactly 100 years ago.

Wilson’s election turned both houses of Congress Democratic. And Wilson was, of course, a former president of Princeton, a product of the very academia that incubated progressivism. Wilson brought meaning to the lives of progressives, who as the century rolled on, increasingly included not only academics but youth, those from disrupted families, or those without children. People searching for meaning in life beyond family and for that spot religion once filled.

How important was Wilson to America’s progressive tradition? Very, according to Wilson biographer, the progressive A. Scott Berg.   In a Princeton Alumni Weekly interview, Berg said,
Domestically, all our progressive presidents, from FDR to Obama, have followed the trail Wilson blazed. [And] our foreign policy, to this day, springs from Wilson’s speech to Congress on April 2, 1917, when he called for a declaration of war and said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He implanted that moral imperative into American foreign policy, and many of his successors have sought to implement it.
Asked by his interviewer, “Why is Wilson so hated by many modern conservatives?”, Berg responded:
Wilson entered the White House with an ambitious Progressive agenda and advanced legislation in ways no president ever had. His proactivity shocked Congress and the nation, because many considered him little more than a college professor — all brains and no brawn. They did not understand how strong a politician he was.  Many right-wing critics further object to his imposing the federal government into our lives. Wilson thought there were basic inequities in this country, primarily economic, that needed to be addressed. During his first few years in office, he muscled everything from the Federal Reserve Act to the Clayton Antitrust Act and the Adamson Act with its eight-hour workday through the Congress.
The federal government expanded into areas of the economy in which it had not intruded before, a presence Wilson thought the country needed in order to prosper. With so much wealth in the hands of so few that the average American did not have a fair chance to compete, he wanted to level the playing field.
Wilson to Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy-Johnson to Carter to Clinton to Obama, 100 years of progressivism and going.

Going, gone. Bigness is unruly. We have moved from massive coal-steel-auto conglomerates to a service economy where each worker counts. We have moved from big government, big industry, big unions, big media to hand-held computers, anywhere texting, twitter, YouTube, individual power, and to seeing bureaucracy as in the way. Yes the old Democratic coalition of special interests still holds together, but any performance-based elite knows it must either deliver results or give way to something else.

We used to say of Maoist China, “We know it’s doomed, we just don’t know when.” Same with the U.S.S.R. Same with American progressivism.

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