Where have the Republican progressives gone? And why has `liberal' become a dirty word in America?
ONCE in a wild eager agitated time in the opening decade of the new century, when popular protest swelled against government being managed in the interests of the privileged class, the progressives emerged as a movement. ``Progressive'' had much the same meaning as ``liberal.'' But they were not a fringe group but important, determined men at the heart of the party, with ``Fighting Bob'' La Follette, governor of and later senator from Wisconsin, at their head. He was joined by Sen. Hiram Johnson of California, Senators Borah of Idaho, Norris of Nebraska, Beveridge of Indiana. They were followed by teachers, city councilors, legislators, writers, and most articulate of all, by the journalist William Allen White of Kansas - editor of the Emporia Gazette, which he had made famous by his 1896 editorial ``What's the Matter with Kansas?''
``A yearning for justice was moving in the hearts of the American people of that decade,'' White wrote. ``We were conscious of the vast injustice that had come with the settlement of the continent ... we all made that part of our creed as representatives of the progressive movement in that glamorous vigorous decade when America turned the corner from conservatism and had come to a sense that [its] civilization needed recasting ... and that a new relationship should be established between the haves and the have-nots to release the burden of injustice on our own conscience.''
The progressive idea was born out of a recognized need for the legislative restraint on unbridled plunder by the plutocrats. Essentially the new idea was a call for a redirection of the Hamiltonian belief in a strong central government from its original service in the interests of privilege and property to a reversal in the interests of the underprivileged and working people who are weak in influence and needing protection.
As Republican national committeeman for Kansas, White drafted the Republican Party platform in the off-year congressional elections of 1910. His platform anticipated the New Deal by 20 years.
Enthusiastic electioneering in the spring primaries of 1910 by White and his associates brought in a band of progressive nominees for congressional and gubernatorial office and as delegates to the convention of 1910. In that year the Progressive Party was organized.
IT was they, the liberals of that day, who gave the country in Theodore Roosevelt the foremost Republican president since Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Roosevelt does not necessarily qualify as a great man. He was a practical politician who sometimes adjusted principles to his personal ambitions. He was nevertheless a statesman true to the progressive thrust. He voiced the demand for reform of the spoils system of the big corporations and the price fixing by the railroad magnates and the trusts.
Lodged in Rockefeller's Standard Oil and Morgan's combine, US Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation, these were the new rulers of America. These ``robber barons'' were the predators of the age, with the same fierce assertion of their right to domineer as the barons of the 14th century. They had no concept of an ordered state; they wanted only to be let alone to make a great deal of money. They had no interest in politics except insofar as they could corrupt Congress to leave them in freedom to pursue power and riches.
But this was not what the Jeffersonian ideal of America had envisaged, nor were the pioneer immigrants who had left poverty and oppression to seek a better life in the great fresh land of freedom prepared to live under old oppressions they knew too well.
The impoverishment of farmers gouged by the railroads, of miners squeezed by company stores, of urban workers crowded into city slums and sweatshops was not silent. In the last decade of the old century, it grew loud and importunate in demands for tariff reform, for civil service reform, for direct election of senators, for a federal income tax, for workmen's compensation and a federal child labor law.
From the discontents underlying these demands of the working and middle class emerged the progressive movement in the Midwest and far West. Its voice originally was Republican, as were its leaders.
The turning of the century was a time of tremendous change in the nation. Economic adversity and labor troubles of the 1880s and '90s had brought recognition that to keep the country prosperous, society must be organized for collective action in the public interest, not left to the savage laissez faire of private greed.
In an August 1910 speech at Osawatomie, Kan., Roosevelt made a forthright statement of the fundamental issue. He declared, ``We are face to face with new conceptions of the relations of property to human welfare,'' and he announced boldly ``that property is subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require.'' That was a direct challenge to rule by the plutocrats.
A single speech does not make a summer. Roosevelt's challenge altered no attitudes. Yet protest was growing louder, and in the congressional elections of 1910 produced a landslide for the Democrats, who were already seeking the same reform measures as the progressives.
It was becoming unmistakable that President Taft, who had been Roosevelt's friend and chosen successor, was deserting his sponsor's program and moving back to his natural comrades in the conservative camp. He even expressed support of the Aldrich Tariff, a last indignity that tore apart the Republican Party and brought a battle for control between the Taft forces and an outraged body of progressives calling themselves the insurgents.
The battle was fought out over the renomination of William Taft for president against that of Roosevelt or possibly Mr. La Follette at the convention in 1912. Control of the party was at stake. The convention was not an artificial affair of balloons and paid demonstrators and speeches smoothly read off the TelePrompTer.
On the Coliseum floor in Chicago in 1912, the split was made visible and dramatic when the Taft forces' chief, former Secretary of State Elihu Root, in his gray striped trousers and morning coat, took the chair. Erudite and polished, he represented ``the impeccable respectability of invested capital.... He was from every angle the perfect symbol of a propertied class struggling for its privileges which it honestly deems to be its rights.''
The Taft forces controlled the delegates. Mr. Root exercised unchallenged authority [I am quoting White again]: ``When he clicked the gavel on the marble-topped speakers' table, order ensued almost hypnotically.''
He was not unaware that the rostrum was surrounded with barbed wire and that as commander of the police he could have checked a riot by raising his hand. Root seemed like a diabolical sphinx as he pushed the program of the convention through steadily and as swiftly as possible ... motion by motion, phase by phase, the steamroller crushed its way toward nomination of Taft.
In the end, Roosevelt, embittered by his rejection, gathered the insurgents into the Bull Moose Party, thus dividing the Republican vote and throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson - who was as deeply committed to social and political reform as the Republicans.
White's romantic notion of the progressive idea having its source in ``the natural aspiration for justice in the human heart'' will cause cynics to smile, but it contains a certain truth, for we know that mankind from time to time does feel the urge for justice and that it sometimes prevails. In other less worthy times another aspiration - greed - for money or power prevails over it.
I think today in the late 20th century we are caught in the cycle of greed which breeds folly seen in a government that spends billions on space flight when people on earth have no homes and more billions vanish in wasteful procurement at the Pentagon while the education of Americans is left to lag behind other nations, leaving too many lives spent in apathy and ignorance. No amount of tanks and SDI can provide a strong national defense when minds are mediocre and will is feeble.
Roosevelt's statement that ``property is subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare requires it'' was a simple statement of the obvious and a radical assertion of government's role which those in power can only ignore at their cost.
What is the use, for example, of the Environmental Protection Agency, which protects only the freedom of the industrialist to do whatever he wants while lakes and forests, the supposed object of its protection, die, and the air fills with chemical fumes?
Now, 80 years after Theodore Roosevelt saw the inevitability of controls, government intervention remains a Republican anathema. The simple Malthusian fact of overpopulation producing too much sewage and garbage and around us too many lives lived in poverty and squalor should suggest that Republican devotion to free enterprise cannot stand pat.
HOWEVER reluctant one may be, as I am, to permit the further penetration of government into our lives we, of whatever party, must realize that we cannot stand pat unless prepared for the tide of garbage to creep over our doorsills and to spend all our future summers in heat waves of 90 degrees while our rampant technology is left unchecked to dissipate the ozone layer.
Overpopulation is now the darkest cloud on the horizon today; yet the only contribution of the present administration to this problem is to withdraw financial support for birth-control programs in Asia, in a policy that seems to me just plain dumb.
The GOP still shies away from federal intervention as a horse might shy from a wild turkey crossing its path. To the businessman and capitalist it means interference with free enterprise, which was the reason for the virulent hatred of FDR and the New Deal. By setting wages and prices and hours of labor it told the businessman how to manage his business, the unforgivable intrusion. The recent plant-closing bill created the same wrath for the same reason.
Whenever a movement arises for legislative or judicial action to improve the lot of the working class, it means to the propertied class that what is given to the poor is something to be taken from the rich. In short it implies a redistribution of wealth. Liberals are seen as the advocates of this process, which I suppose is one reason why ``liberals'' are abhorred.
We must go back, I think, to Theodore Roosevelt's realistic acknowledgment that changing conditions require changed attitudes. If Republicans are to take over for another four years and manage safely through a time of expected stress, they must come out of their petrified forest of negatives and find a path beyond their fear of reform and a desperate affection for home as they once knew it; and offer a more convincing concern for the public welfare in terms of people as distinct from larger matters such as national defense or the balance of trade.