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?''Skip to next paragraph
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``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.