The Real Progressive Speaks!
(preface to a reply to commenters)
posted at 3:09 pm on March 13, 2010 by CK MacLeod
Our opponents like to call themselves “progressive,” and they have in mind a tradition of political activism that goes back more than a century.
That tradition includes some things that have become accepted, largely uncontroversial features of American politics and culture – such as voting rights for women, the direct popular election of senators, and popular primary voting for party nominees. The tradition includes other things that most progressives would rather we all forget was their work – national income taxes, say, or prohibition of alcohol sale and consumption. And the tradition also includes immense political and economic commitments – like Medicare, Social Security, and the vast regulatory bodies of the state – that are a constant source of dispute and disagreement even among those who support their aims unreservedly.
But it’s not just or even mainly such measures – measure after measure after measure, good, bad, and indifferent, the vast majority expanding government at the expense of private initiative and investment – that progressives want to recall. They also want to associate themselves, ahead of anyone else, with the good old very popular, very American idea of progress.
They want us to believe that they stand for progress, because they know that their fellow Americans believe in progress. The know that America is the true home of progress, and America has welcomed and has given birth to more social, technological, economic, and political progress than any other country.
That, I believe, is what the great progressive Ronald Wilson Reagan had in mind whenever he spoke with his inimitable optimism about the American future. It’s what made him able, in his last major political address, to respond to the Democrats’ empty calls for “change” by declaring to his fellow Republicans, “We are the change!“
I heard a gasp or two when I described the Gipper as a great progressive. I’m not referring to President Reagan’s early years as a Democrat and a union leader, or to his admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for whose importance most progressives wouldn’t consider a new face on Mount Rushmore grand enough – if they could, they’d carve up his own mountain for him.
Nor am I referring to President Reagan’s occasional dalliances with impure conservatism.
I’m referring to what Ronald Reagan recognized long before most people of his day, and what he meant when he told the nation 30 years ago, upon being inaugurated for his first term, “Government is the problem.”
Actually what he said was this, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Ronald Reagan didn’t pretend that there was no crisis in his day, or that he didn’t see any evidence of crisis, or that government is never the solution to problems. His words rely on the opposite assumption, though we can leave it to scholars and historians to explain which crises Reagan believed government could solve.
Reagan also didn’t pretend that his political opponents lacked good intentions, that they didn’t want to solve the crisis. What he realized, and in fact had long understood, and what he explained to the nation upon assuming the presidency, was that to progress – to venture unshackled into the future by “the problem,” which was actually a great complex of problems – we needed more than anything else for government to get out of the way.
Today, one decade into the 21st Century, more than 100 years since politicians in both parties and new parties first started marching under the banner of Progress, we have every right, we need perhaps even more than Reagan did, to ask this question: Where and what is the real source of progress? Who, today, deserves to be considered “progressive”? Who really is ready, who really has the courage, imagination, and foresight, to embrace the future? Who are the real progressives?
NEXT: On the Constitutionalist Response
cross-posted from Zombie Contentions
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