Opinion

Election tally: Glenn Beck won. Progressivism lost.

Glenn Beck and the Republican Party scored big in the midterm elections by attacking progressive values – even, it seems, the very concept of the federal government. Now Americans may find out just how many features of 'big government' they actually value.

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Score one for Glenn Beck.

Not just for Mr. Beck’s Republican Party, which captured the House and nearly the Senate in yesterday’s midterm elections. The verdict represents a victory for Beck’s political philosophy, a brand of conservatism that sees progressive values as the No. 1 threat to America. One day, historians might look back on 2010 as the year that Americans sounded the death knell for progressivism itself.

A government solution for every problem

The term dates to the early 20th century, when social reformers triggered an unprecedented explosion of government activity. To these self-described “Progressives,” America’s filthy cities, factories, farms, and schools cried out for improvement and regulation. They crafted new laws to bring this undirected chaos under intelligent control.

A DIFFERENT VIEW: You want a more 'progressive' America? Careful what you wish for.

And so the modern state was born. For every social problem, the Progressives devised a government solution. Lethal over-the-counter medication? The Pure Food and Drug Act will regulate it. Unsanitary butchers? Meet the Meat Inspection Act.

No new law would enforce itself, of course. So the Progressives also built vast government agencies to accompany each new reform. From the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Bank to the Food and Drug Administration, a maze of bureaucracies transformed Washington, and the nation.

And that’s precisely what Beck despises about the Progressives. From his daily “lectures” at his television blackboard to the “courses” he offers at Beck “University,” he has mounted a steady campaign to discredit them.

It’s easy to mock the distortions and bizarre conspiracy theories in Beck’s tirades against progressivism, which he has even suggested results in Communism or Nazism. [Editor's note: The original version of this article mischaracterized Beck's critiques of progressivism.]

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Enemy No. 1: Woodrow Wilson

But on one basic claim, Beck is spot-on correct: the Progressives gave birth to modern government. He reserves his greatest invective for President Woodrow Wilson, an Ivy-educated intellectual (sound familiar?) who brought us, among other things, the graduated federal income tax. But his screeds against the Progressives would apply equally well to Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who both did their share of federal state-building along the banks of the Potomac.

Since the 1960s, to be sure, Republicans have won office by demonizing federal programs and especially federal spending. And we heard plenty of that in this election, with the GOP’s constant barrage against “Obamacare,” the bank bailout, and the stimulus.

But something else was at work, too. To Beck and his minions, the real problem isn’t simply a bloated federal bureaucracy or runaway deficits. It’s government, plain and simple, which has run roughshod over the individual rights and freedoms that our founding fathers held dear.

Hence Beck’s constant paeans to the American Revolution (tea party, anyone?) and his equally routine attacks on the Progressives, who supposedly sold our birthright of liberty for a pottage of government regulation and control.

Attacks on government itself

It’s hard to know how many voters in yesterday’s elections actually believe that, or how big a role Beck has played in changing their minds. But we’ve never had an election where “government” was such a bete noire. Give Beck and the GOP their due: This fall, more than any time since the Progressive Era itself, they succeeded in discrediting the very concept of the federal government.

Meanwhile, the Democrats failed to defend it. Running away from health-care reform and everything else President Obama has accomplished, their campaign consisted mostly of taking potshots at the other team. They never mounted a fresh case for why we actually need “big government,” now more than ever.

And that’s the case they’ll need to make, if they want to win back Congress – or win another term for Obama. Like the Progressives, who never met a statistic they didn’t like, the Democrats will have to cite facts and figures to show voters that federal agencies and regulations actually benefit them.

How many highways were improved this year? Thank the Department of Transportation. How many Americans got flu shots? The Department of Health and Human Services had something to do with that. Is the air in your community getting better? The Environmental Protection Agency is working for you.

But there’s more. The Democrats also need to revive the philosophy of progressivism, which placed the common good over our individual wants and desires. If we tend only to our personal interests, the Progressives argued, we impoverish our shared lives.

Listen to the Congregational minister and Progressive reformer Washington Gladden: “I do not believe that political society or industrial society or any other society will endure on a purely individualistic basis.” To another Congregationalist reformer, Lyman Abbott, “individualism is the characteristic of simple barbarism, not of republican civilization.” Unchecked individualism would unleash a war of all against all, the Progressives taught, and in the end all of us would lose.

Making the case for 'big government'

So if the Democrats want to win, they’ll also need to rejuvenate the idea of a shared national community. We Americans are more than just the sum total of our personal impulses and wishes. We are a community, and we need to take care of each other.

And we can’t do that without a strong federal state. If you think otherwise, take a look at America before the Progressive Era: massive blight, poverty, and inequality. Or look around you, right now, at our frayed social safety net and our beleaguered national government. We have big government, to be sure, but its reputation has never been smaller.

Progressivism is dead, for the time being. Now we'll see what America is like without it – and if anyone can bring it back to life.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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