Paul Ryan's Real Progressivism

Many people believe Democracy obsolete.
They are wrong.
Obsolete is the one thing
Democracy can never be.

R. Buckminster Fuller – “No More Secondhand God”

In responding to Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech to the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs on March 31, even some of the constitutional conservatives on the HotAir headline thread and then again around the Quote of the Day gave both speech and speaker rave reviews. The general reaction to Ryan verges on “presidential boomlet,” and, really, why couldn’t this man be president, and as soon as we need him to be? He’s as qualified as… Woodrow Wilson was. He’s certainly as qualified as… Abraham Lincoln was. More qualified in many ways than various presidents any of us could bring up…

When people ask, as they often have over recent months, what I mean when I refer to “progressive conservatism,” I have often pointed to Paul Ryan. He’s not the only exemplar I could name, but he’s one of the best. Consider the entirety of his approach – and also consider passages in his speech like this one:

The Democratic leaders of Congress and in the White House hold a view they call “Progressivism.” Progressivism began in Wisconsin, where I come from. It came into our schools from European universities under the spell of intellectuals such as Hegel and Weber, and the German leader Bismarck. The best known Wisconsin Progressive was actually a Republican, Robert LaFollette.

Progressivism was a powerful strain in both political parties for many years. Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, both brought the Progressive movement to Washington.

Early Progressives wanted to empower and engage the people. They fought for populist reforms like initiative and referendum, recalls, judicial elections, the breakup of monopoly corporations, and the elimination of vote buying and urban patronage. But Progressivism turned away from popular control toward central government planning. It lost most Americans and consumed itself in paternalism, arrogance, and snobbish condescension. “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson would have scorned the self-proclaimed “Progressives” of our day for handing out bailout checks to giant corporations, corrupting the Congress to purchase votes for government controlled health care, and funneling billions in Jobs Stimulus money to local politicians to pay for make-work patronage. That’s not “Progressivism,” that’s what real Progressives fought against!

(Emphasis added.)

For all I know, Ryan’s been talking this way for years, and I’ll assume barring hard evidence to the contrary that he picked up on this theme on his own, not from posts at the HotAir Greenroom and Zombie Contentions. He probably just sees the same thing that, say, Newt Gingrich saw when he started speaking about “real progress and real change” sometime during the last decade. It’s a completely natural and congenial way, in my view one of the better ways, to approach our political moment both theoretically and practically – even if it seems to conflict with the tactic of all-out, all-conflating assault on and total condemnation of progressivism, an alternative but equally natural, if arguably less promising, response to our fundamental political disagreement with today’s nominal progressives.

The sections in Ryan’s speech that deal directly with “real progressives” vs “regressive” progressives represent only a small part of his manifesto, but the critique is interwoven throughout, and implicitly invoked whenever Ryan refers to “Progressivists” rather than to “progressives,” emphasizing the distinction between those who merely exploit a tradition or belief system, and those who represent its authentic spirit.

In short, Ryan wants to deny anyone the sole possession of this political turf. A proud Wisconsinite, he is understandably reluctant to reject his state’s political tradition – a brand of progressivism known as “the Wisconsin Idea.” And why shouldn’t Ryan be proud? As he points out, and as I have found myself repeatedly having to point out, many elements of progressivism are so deeply embedded in our political life, not just in progressive states but nationwide, that hardly anyone questions them at all. Instead, conservatives all across America have been and are making good use of them – including the primary campaign, the citizen initiative, the insistence on transparency and on the rights of an informed citizenry. Rather than asserting a fundamental contradiction between his “real” progressivism and constitutionalism, Ryan asserts and demonstrates their dynamic interdependence. And why shouldn’t Paul Ryan of WI seek to hold this ground, not just for his own sake, but for our sake in the effort to build a winning and, eventually, a governing coalition?

As for Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and their followers, they may not deserve association with the most evil tyrants in world history, but they really do have something in common with the worst traitors to real progressivism.  They have reversed the original progressive demand for citizen empowerment. In so doing they have, arguably, embraced what makes “liberal fascism” fascistic (and illiberal).  They have crossed – are crossing – the line between authentic political progress, real progressivism, and its opposite.

The spirit of the Progressive Era was much broader than the ideas and policies of any particular leader or intellectual, but the examples of TR and Wilson, whom Ryan describes as having “brought the Progressive movement to Washington,” remain instructive. Running for president on the Bull Moose/Progressive Party platform in 1912, Roosevelt and his allies called for national referenda and measures enabling the popular recall of federal officials. One of Wilson’s central criticisms of congress in the work that made his name was aimed at the customary secret deliberations of all-powerful committees.  First as governor of New Jersey and then as president, Wilson liked to call for “pitiless publicity” as the best means of exposing and ending corruption and misgovernment. In the battle to gain approval of the League of Nations, before being permanently sidelined by an incapacitating stroke, Wilson at one point proposed a national referendum on the issue, and had prepared to make the elections of 1920 into one. Earlier, the progressive opponents of Wilson – who included the Wisconsinite whom Ryan mentions, Robert LaFollette – had called for a national referendum on entering World War I. (They probably would have lost.)

Can anyone imagine Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, for all of their bluster about being on the side of the people, putting Obamacare to a popular vote?  Which side in the current fight is trying to make the 2010 elections into a referendum on a Obamaism?

Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to ask for the people’s direct OK on Obamacare. Maybe we should have been asked directly about TARP, about the bailouts, about raising the debt ceiling, about the Stimulus or Son of Stimulus. Maybe we should be consulted directly when the debt commission issues its recommendations. No value added taxation without referendum! I’d have a good feeling about a popular vote on some version of Ryan’s Road Map versus the Obama-Pelosi-Reid-style budget gimmickry.

I even find myself attracted sometimes to the ultra-progressive ideas of Buckminster Fuller, who, in his wonderfully excessive prose-poetic essay “No More Secondhand God,” written at the outset of World War II, proposed a system of direct mass democracy via a kind of proto-internet (“electrified democracy”), which he conceived of as the total repudiation and rejection of the barbarism then engulfing the world. He answered fears of “mob rule” with an idealistic faith in an educated citizenry, and with an engineer’s trust in the political design he drafted.

We don’t have to go that far, or even as far as TR wanted to go. This year’s mid-terms, which Ryan views as the last stop before the end of American exceptionalism and constitutional government, may be referendum enough if they put a congressional bloc in place sufficient to impair Obamacare’s implementation.

Still, I’d be happy to see the national question framed as follows, winner take all: Who are the real progressives in 2010, the real supporters of progress, the real spokespersons for a better future – the proponents or the opponents of Obamacare?

I know Paul Ryan’s answer. He makes it very clear. I agree with him, and I think that the American people, overall, agree with us.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions