Hillary Clinton:Ever BIGGER GOVERNMENT, as Neo-Progressive presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposes, can't be the answer America needs!“I am a Progressive who gets things done.”Bernie Sanders:“I do not know any Progressives who collect $15 million for their SuperPacs from big corporate donors. That is not a Progressive thing to do.”From a historical perspective, Bernie and Hillary are both progressives. Yet the ideological divide between them, and the constituencies they represent, could not be more profound. It would be easy to misconstrue the back and forth between them over the definition of “progressive” as nothing more than campaign banter — the level of debate is certainly prosaic enough. But the political battle now underway in the Democratic Party has roots much deeper than most people realize, revealing a rift in the Progressive Movement that dates to its birth in the early 1900s.
The debate then was over “bigness” — specifically the emergence of industrial giants known as “trusts” — and it was fresher and hence even more politically potent than today. As business historian Thomas McCraw put it, the big corporations that rose up out of the Industrial Revolution “seemed to be mutations, the consequence of some sinister tampering with the natural order of things … powerful new political forces which must be opposed in the name of American democracy.”
For more than 50 years — from before the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 until the culmination of the New Deal in the late 1930s — this debate occupied politicians at all levels and from both parties, and played a defining role in presidential politics. Who can forget the political cartoon depicting Teddy Roosevelt wielding his “big stick,” not at foreign adversaries but at American corporations — the oil and railroad trusts? The quest to reign in big business was the motivating principle and central purpose of the Progressive Movement.
The early Progressives were united in their concern about big business, but the agreement ended there. The movement was deeply split between two wings: the radicals, who (echoing Jefferson a century earlier) thought bigness was an evil to be fought on principle, and a more pragmatic wing (more in the mold of Hamilton) who saw the rise of big corporations as inevitable and even positive — a phenomenon not so much to be resisted as to be accommodated and even promoted.
The principal combatants in this political and intellectual battle were no slouches. The radicals were led by Louis Brandeis, plaintiff’s lawyer, muckraker, and ultimately Supreme Court Justice. Brandeis famously bemoaned “the curse of bigness,” and opined that “If the Lord had intended things to be big, he would have made man bigger — in brains and character.” Brandeis inspired William Jennings Bryan (who favored a Federal law capping the size of corporations) and served as chief economic adviser to Woodrow Wilson (who nationalized big chunks of the economy during World War I) until Wilson put him on the high court in 1916.
Opposing Brandeis for the accommodationists or pragmatists was Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and author of “The Promise of American Life” (1909). Arguing that “the huge corporations have contributed to American economic efficiency,” Croly promoted a reform agenda that included legalizing and empowering labor unions and strengthening the regulatory state — that is, rationalizing the emergence of Big Business by promoting the rise of Big Labor and creating Big Government. Croly’s views initially were embraced by the (Teddy) Roosevelt wing of the Republican Party, and, 30 years later, by Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin, who mostly resisted calls to break up big companies or nationalize significant chunks of the economy and instead promoted the growth of government while trying (without success) to grow the industrial economy.
The New Deal thus constituted what seemed until lately to be the permanent triumph of the accommodationist wing of the Progressive Movement. With the arguable exception of George McGovern in 1968 (arguable because McGovern was first and foremost an anti-war candidate and only secondarily a radical progressive), the radicals have never come close to controlling the Democratic Party, let alone the White House.
What about Barack Obama? He certainly campaigned as a radical, and as President he has often talked like one — but his policies are mainly accommodationist. Indeed, his two biggest domestic accomplishments — Dodd-Frank and ObamaCare — promote and favor big banks, big insurers and big pharma rather than, as radicals preferred, breaking them up or nationalizing them.
Now comes Bernie Sanders, democratic Socialist and radical progressive, pitted against the ultimate accommodationist, Hillary, the “Progressive who gets things done,” for whom accepting $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for a few speeches seems perfectly natural. A radical candidate couldn’t have hoped for a better foil, but the energy behind the Sanders campaign flows from deeper wells than simple revulsion of the Clintons. It is grounded in legitimate dissatisfaction with the economy, driven by a sincere belief in the radical progressive agenda, and fueled by resentment of Obama’s perceived betrayal.
Given the depth of the divisions, it’s hard to see either candidate re-uniting the two wings of the Progressive Movement. Inspired by Obama’s rhetoric, the radicals are now irrevocably committed to the transformation he heralded but did not deliver: socializing health care and higher education; breaking up the banks; punishing big business for sins real and imagined; taxing — really taxing — the top one percent. Harkening back to Brandeis and Bryant, the Sanders agenda represents the path not chosen by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, and by virtually every Democrat leader since.
Perhaps FDR will rise from the grave and patch things up. Short of that, it looks like the Progressive Movement is headed for a crack up.
Bernie Sanders sold his soul to big Labour and big Government.