Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review: 'The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be' by Michael Lux

Review by Susan Gardner
The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be 
By Michael Lux 
$25.95, 256 pages 
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: New York, January 2009


From the earliest days of the republic, an ongoing debate has raged between democrats and aristocrats, populists and the wealthy, debtors and the bankers, the working class and big business, the advocates of a "free" money supply and those of a "tight" money supply, the "levelers" versus the elitists, and people who wanted government to invest in and be a guarantor of equal opportunity for all and those who worshipped the free market above all else. Whatever the era, whatever form the battle took, and whatever the specific rhetoric or issues, this divide has been intrinsic to American history.
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That ongoing argument, between the forces of progressive thought and those of conservative thought, is what inspired this book. In the introduction, I lay out my basic theory about how the debate between progressives and conservatives has been a permanent conflict throughout our country's history. Furthermore, when progressives have been on the winning side of that debate politically, the country has made dramatic progress, whereas when conservatives have won the day, the country has suffered as a result.
A long look backward to our roots, a quick look forward to our future, Mike Lux's exquisitely timed The Progressive Revolution is a full-blown, heady prescription for getting liberals all fired up and ready to go as Democrats once again control the presidency and Congress. His wide-angle view of the two forces that have raged across the battlefield of American ideology for two centuries serves as an invaluable reminder of what has been at stake in the past and what forces we have overcome.
For those of us teetering in the wake of President Obama's election on the verge of cynicism and hope, this is the right book at the right time. As daunting as undoing the damage of the Bush administration appears to be, as long a time in the wilderness it feels that liberals have spent, Lux's review of progressive history shows us that there have been times at least as dark and as hopeless that the country has emerged from -- indeed, it was born in a dark and fearful time, with a successful outcome more unlikely than what we inheritors of Jefferson face today.
You see, the progressive story does all begin with Jefferson and with the Declaration of Independence, Lux argues, and a few other key documents along the way.
There were three transformative intellectual moments in the history of the United States and in the history of progressive thought in this country. The first was Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. The last was Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. In between the two, at perhaps the most critical moment in our nation's history, with the country on the verge of breaking apart, came the Gettysburg Address. The sweeping power of its central ideas re-created and renewed Jefferson's and Paine's original idea of America and made it even stronger and more progressive.
Those three touchstones have marked great leaps forward after periods when the country has been stalled in a conservative, status quo simmer, and Lux looks at the specific agendas that emerged after these great dam-breaking moments of focused and purposeful framing rhetoric. From the Declaration, of course, the country itself emerged, and the author looks at how conservatives today downplay the declaration as much as possible in order to highlight the much less progressive original Constitution (sans the Bill of Rights). What conservatives today lay claim to is Jefferson's distrust of government, while conveniently ignoring his much more ubiquitous egalitarian framework and language. Lux also looks at the fate of Thomas Paine, scorned (and at one point even banned) by keepers of the conservative flame for his fiery rhetoric that fanned the flames of revolution.
Over the years, conservatives have used three basic strategies for dealing with Paine, Jefferson, and their powerful philosophies of equality and of democratic and economic empowerment for the "common man": direct attack, ignoring or discounting their role in the nation's founding, and co-opting their legacy by trying to claim it was a conservative one.
These ebbs and flows of conservatism and progressivism over the centuries since America's birth are charted closely by the author, and it becomes clear that by far the majority of the hallmarks of democracy that we pride ourselves on today are not the result of the "traditionalists," but rather the work of the "radical" progressives, who were much maligned at the time of their struggles, but have entered the pantheon of the hallowed for modern-day conservatives. Universal suffrage, the end to slavery, the abolition of child labor, quality public education ... all these and far, far more were the result of battles fought against the forces of the status quo.
Lux points out that one of the most breath-taking periods of overlooked progressivism was ushered in by Abraham Lincoln, who pushed through sweeping policies that are often forgotten because they aren't related to the Civil War:  introduction of the first progressive income tax; the Pacific Railroad Act, which was the first massive federal infrastructure project; the land-grant university system, which made college more affordable than ever before; and the Homestead Act, which put land-ownership within reach of any American willing to move and work the land.
Think about the achievement of passing all of this remarkable legislation--probably America's most progressive and ambitious package of domestic legislation outside of the New Deal--in the middle of the most destructive war and the biggest crisis in U.S. history. Lincoln was the most amazing political leader this country has ever seen, and he stood clearly in the great progressive tradition of this nation.
"The great progressive tradition of this nation" is the theme throughout this fine book, and it's clear that the author, who's had hands-on experience trying to translate progressive ideology into specific progressive policy in the Clinton White House, has managed to keep alive his love of American history while still keeping a trained eye on the sausage-making aspect of politics. This is no mean feat.
The Progressive Revolution is a stirring reminder of, as the subtitle says, how the best in America came to be--and it is not, as conservatives would like to have you think now that we have a President Obama and a Democratic majority in the Congress, through a spirit of kumbaya and bipartisanship. Lux points out what should be obvious--that the difficult battles to make government more accessible and our rights more secure has more often than not been bloody, hard and brutally partisan:
There have been only two times in American history where progressive change has happened in any kind of bipartisan way: in the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, when a strong-willed Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, made an alliance with populists and progressives in the Democratic Party to push through a series of progressive reforms over the opposition of most of his party; and in the 1960s, when a few liberal Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, helped Northern Democrats overcome opposition from Southern Democratic conservatives and most of the Republican Party to win civil rights and environmental reforms.
In other words, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln and FDR all had to push through their reforms with no help from the opposition, and with many a cry that the sky was falling and that the end of the republic was at hand. This is absolutely vital to keep in mind as we move ahead. In the words of the author, "It is important to understand the echoes of all those past battles to engage effectively in the debates of our times." The Progressive Revolution is the perfect vehicle for understanding those echoes during the first Obama administration.


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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