Sunday, November 10, 2019

Book Review: 'Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea' by Bradley C. S. Watson

Progressive is a political label bandied about easily, often and inaccurately. Even among progressives, the definition is fluid, and there are increments and flavors to it. Bradley Watson’s Progressivism is an attempt to collect all the statements and opinions in one place, and therefore, perhaps, come to some conclusion.

It is a microscopic examination of what political luminaries of the day, from the mid 1800s to today, had to say about their and everyone else’s thoughts on the matter. As we get closer to the present the voices become those of analysts – historians, lawyers and political scientists like Watson. Because there are no (American) progressive politicians to weigh in on the issues. Phrases and individual words are criticized, twisted and replaced to fill out articles and books in numerous disciplines. Proper labels are affixed to various politicians, philosophers, economists and writers. And they are all assembled in this book in an attempt to give clarity.

Progressivism suffers from having no manifesto or founding deity, like a Karl Marx for Communism or a James Madison for the US Bill of Rights. Progressivism doesn’t fill stadiums or even luncheon speeches. It is mentioned in passing while discussing other things. As Charles Kesler (who also wrote the introduction to this book) said: “Liberalism is the first political movement to seek endless reform rather than something in particular.” And liberalism is simply the current state of progressivism in the USA.

But it does have an interesting history.

Watson devotes a chapter to its religious connections. Christianity saw in progressivism a natural extension of its own philosophy – charity, doing unto others, tithing – all foundation stones of Christianity. Priests and preachers spoke openly about it, because it fit so well. It was not so much political as moral. One religious authority in the late 1800s came right out and claimed Jesus was a socialist. Walter Rauschenbush was also religious advisor to Theodore Roosevelt. By the time of the Wilson administration, progressivism was a “social gospel movement.” Today, Christianity has abandoned all for one and one for all in favor of democracy means the right to be left alone.

The main attempt to damn progressivism is that it is counter constitutional. It says that people need additional protections because everything changes. The founding documents say human nature never changes and what they wrote in the 1780s is all you ever need to know in a constitution. So there is a ton of commentary in the book on that aspect of progressivism. Watson says: “Very different from mere populism, progressivism as future oriented rather than nostalgic, scientific rather than ad hoc, and deeply concerned with the purported inadequacies of the constitution itself.”

One major annoyance to me is that, as usual, Henry George gets shunted aside with a couple of quick lines. Henry George all but invented progressivism when he determined how to tax real estate such that it did not promote inequality. He wrote a book about it, Progress and Poverty, and had to self-publish it, a death sentence in the mid 1800s. To everyone’s shock and awe, it became a bestseller – around the world. It influenced a number of politicians, notably Theodore Roosevelt, who is widely acclaimed as the political instigator of progressivism. But he was not. He squeaked by Henry George in the election for mayor of New York, and Henry George’s work clearly influenced him and changed him. George was more responsible for the rise progressivism than everyone else in this book. He deserves more than two lines.

For all its potential, Progressivism is a book that is unfortunately flat. It is not a book about how progressivism has or has not worked. It is almost a meta study of what everyone in the social sciences thinks about its definition (which is indeterminate). The most often cited is Richard Hofstadter, and once you’ve read a few dozen of the quotes, you really don’t need a hundred more to confirm it. For historians, there is wealth of names dropped and nits picked that will warm the academic heart. For the average reader, it will be a hard slog.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviewsLike 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.