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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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.
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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.”