Updated: Jan 21
The Progressive Movement of 100 years ago has a lot to teach the Progressive Movement of today. As a student of history and a Nebraskan, I label myself a Progressive and proudly point to the fact that the spark and much of the early leadership of the original Progressive Movement began right here in Nebraska. It was a bipartisan movement, founded on integrity and fairness, and was focused first and foremost on ending corruption in the American political establishment. It was good and true, and championed the interests of the little guy – a very Nebraska notion.
Jane Addams, the famed founder of Hull House and conscience of the Progressive Movement, believed that the divisions between classes should not be a barrier to interaction or an excuse for class warfare. She believed the American dream was for everyone and saw no reason to punish those who had created one for themselves. She believed that “association” between classes opened the door to understanding, fairness and appreciation, and that this cooperation was an imperative to reform.
The original Progressive Movement was wonderfully successful. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, Woodrow Wilson and Al Smith of New York led the effort in the Democratic Party. But it didn’t end there. Teddy Roosevelt, Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes followed through for the Republican Party. It wasn’t a partisan thing to be a Progressive. All you needed was a commitment to honesty and fairness – something in which the overwhelming majority of Americans believe.
To be fair, there was an open-minded discussion about socialism and communism in the early movement. Those ideas were relatively new back then, and the Soviet experiment was just beginning. There were many Progressives who were open to the possibility of creating a new and better system from which to govern. But it did not take long for communism to sharply turn away from Progressive idealism and replaced it with wholesale dishonesty, destruction of people and property on a monumental scale, and the total annihilation of freedom and individual rights. The socialist state is supreme in all things, and that is anything but Progressive.
It's obvious to anyone paying attention today that the stage is set for a New Progressive Movement built on the principles of the original. Very few disagree with the premise that the rich and powerful have created a ruling oligarchy of corruption. They have destroyed the fairness of the electoral process. They have subjugated Congress for their own selfish interests. And, they have used it all to enrich themselves beyond the pale of human sensibility. They are routinely destroying competition and fairness. The middle-class is shrinking into oblivion before our eyes, and democracy and freedom are disappearing from our political discourse. Selfishness and terrorism are tearing our nation apart, and We the People are losing everything that is important to our way of life. It is destroying our heart.
So, how do we find again the freedom and promise of this nation’s mission statement? Not by dishonesty or deception. Not by laying blame or accentuating division. Not by once again ramping up failed socialism. Not by believing the ends justify the means and absolutely not by ignoring history. What we need to do is learn from the Progressives who went before us and rekindle a movement that is as good or better than the last.
Here are some ideals on which to base our start.
1. We must renew standards of ethics and morality to inspire us to something better. Let them call us foolish or naive. We need to start telling the whole truth to one another again, even when it is not in our interest to do so. Stand on the shoulders of Sophocles and commit, “I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.”
2. We must restore virtue to our democracy. We need to open our minds to finding common ground and cooperation. We need to learn to concede points again and find solutions to problems with compromise. Only then can we find solutions to our most serious problems – health care, immigration, climate change…
3. We must hold the Press of the United States, by law and by public pressure, to the highest standards of ethical and moral conduct in maintaining their duty to the nation. They must maintain strict and obvious division between reporting of the news and editorial comment, and news sources must be grounded in verifiable truth. No outside influence, save the power of the people, has more direct impact on the integrity of our government, and the Press must be held accountable on a level commensurate with that sacred duty.
4. We must create and enforce laws to fight political corruption. Both on the Statutory and Constitutional level, we must have laws that level the playing field for the individual American and hold the corrupt accountable. Political spending must be transparent, strictly limited in amount and by geography.
5. We must create and enforce laws to prohibit those serving in elected, appointed or military positions from profiting from those positions while they are in government service and after they leave.
6. We must understand that capitalism is the engine of everyone’s prosperity, and to run smoothly it must be carefully balanced with social responsibility – always recalibrating to maintain fairness and opportunity for the little guy.
7. We must support and defend the middle class as the mainstay of our republic. The middle class sets our moral and ethical limits. It is the foundation of our workforce and the conscience of our desires. Only through the leadership of the middle class can we maintain the virtues that created this great nation.
8. We must support unions as a practical balance to the power and greed of ownership, and a primary force in maintaining the middle class.
9. We must embrace human diversity, fight injustice and end discrimination and hatred against all people, but that does not mean we are not obligated, acting as a good friend, to deliver harsh truth when our friends have gone too far.
10. We must support reform that dramatically simplifies the U.S. Tax Code. A high marginal tax rate for the wealthy means nothing if it is not supported by a Code that is fair, reasonable and transparent for all people. Corruption hides in complexity.
11. We must maintain a military that is second to none and open our vision to the threats of the future. Only by maintaining a strong military posture can we be assured we will never have to use it. However, entering into military conflict that has the potential of destabilizing or deposing a governing regime or region must be implemented only with the most grave consideration and only through bipartisan Congressional consultation.
12. We must hold that the rule of law is fundamental to the preservation of democracy, and that only through the fair and equal application of that law can we survive as a nation.
Contrary to popular belief today, most Democrats and most Republicans agree with these Progressive tenets. They are American ideals as much as they are Progressive ideals, and the political party who seizes on them purely and makes them the guiding force of their strategic effort stands to reap a political whirlwind not seen in American politics since the first Progressive Movement. The stage could not be more perfectly set.
Unfortunately, the so called “Progressives” of today have jettisoned the honesty, idealism and fairness that was at the core of the original Progressive Movement and replaced it with pie-in-the-sky, neo-Marxism that has the potential of destroying us all. They scream about the problems, with which almost everyone agrees, but apply solutions with which almost no one agrees. Hatred and dishonesty, destruction and class warfare are not just strategic choices doomed to failure, they are political miscalculations that have the potential of destroying everything.
Today, the rich and powerful, connected to both political parties, have corrupted our government to their own purposes, exactly as they did over a hundred years ago. If we embrace the same kind of honest and reasonable solutions as the original Progressive movement and stand together as Americans, we could re-energize this nation as never before. We could find a solution for health care, immigration, climate change and more. Just think, we could create the next great Golden Age of history.