by Alton C. Thompson
If any one book can be said to offer a manifesto of Progressive beliefs, it was Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life. Croly (1869-1930), a political theorist and journalist who founded The New Republic, was Progressivism’s preeminent philosopher. Published in 1909, his book argued that Americans had to overcome their Jeffersonian heritage, with its emphasis on minimal government, decentralized authority, and the sanctity of individual freedom, in order to deal with the unprecedented problems of an urban and industrial age. Industrialism, he believed, had reduced most workers to a kind of “wage slavery,” and only a strong central government could preserve democracy and promote social progress.
Croly was bothered by the inequality that existed in the early part of the last century, and became convinced that this inequality had arisen because of the lack of any institutions capable of countering it. That conclusion led him to the further conclusion that the national government must be strengthened, “as a bulwark against what he regarded as overbearing self-interest, greed, corruption, and unchecked power” that existed in the private sector.
The origins of federal growth [claims this source] are in the Constitutional Convention. But the modern period of growth began with the Progressive Era before World War I. Contrary to popular belief, that growth continued through the 1920s. The percentage by which the federal government grew was greater during Herbert Hoover’s four years as president than during the first seven years of the New Deal. [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt merely continued a long-standing trend.
Regardless of the matter of when our national government became “big,” the fact of the matter is that it is now. More importantly, however, the hope that “only a strong central government could preserve democracy and promote social progress” has been shattered. Not only has our national government not been a “bulwark” against growing inequality; it has become a mere tool of the rich—this best illustrated, perhaps, by the Koch brothers (Charles and David). For example, “In 2008, the three main Koch family foundations contributed to 34 political and policy organizations, three of which they founded, and several of which they direct.”
From the vantage point of today, Croly’s recommendation of an enlarged role for the national government appears naïve. After all, our society has long contained feudal elements. As Karen Orren notes in her Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States (1991, pp. 2 – 3):
At the time the United States entered upon full-scale industrialization after the Civil War, its politics contained, at the core, a belated feudalism, a remnant of the medieval hierarchy of person relations, a particularized network of law and morality—a system of governance—that the word “feudalism” conveys. It had been dislodged neither by the American Revolution nor by the advent of the U.S. Constitution, but remained embedded within American government—a state within a state—dividing public power, limiting the reach of legislation, setting the bounds of collective action, well into the current century.
With the rise of capitalism (stimulated by Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations), and western expansion, the rigidity of feudalism began to disintegrate; but what remained was still a social class system, fueled by a value system that emphasized individualism, competition, materialism, and selfishness. Given that situation, why would one expect that enlarging the national government would—or even could—serve the common good? To a degree it has, of course, but our society is becoming increasingly inegalitarian, and the rich are using their money to control our politics—i.e., we are now a plutocracy!
If the “leaders” of our country—political and corporate—were able to adopt a societal, and even international, perspective (which seems to have been Croly’s hope), they would make decisions on the basis of the “general welfare” while simultaneously giving special attention to “disadvantaged” groups. However, the value system that guides their decision-making is parochial in the extreme—one oriented to the short run, and to businesses and to profit-making. As a consequence, it would be foolish to expect them to make such decisions.
An extremely important implication of that fact is that our “leaders” show no awareness whatsoever of the fact that we humans are a part of a vast Ecosystem comprised of numerous smaller ecosystems. In not being so aware, they easily make decisions that impact local ecosystems and Earth Ecosystem—doing so unaware of the fact that in so doing they bring about changes in ecosystems that have implications for their own lives. And, for those of us—which is most of us!—who are not in leadership positions!
For those of us in this latter category who are aware of our (as humans) deleterious impact on ecosystems—and ourselves, eventually—it is easy to become both frustrated and depressed. We may be able to conceive “promise” in American life, but are unable to entertain the belief that that promise can be realized. Thus, it is by no means surprising that Michael Ruppert committed suicide last year (on April 13, 2014).
Hopefully, those of us who are aware of our negative impact, as humans, on ecosystems will follow the lead of Guy McPherson rather than Michael Ruppert, each charting his or her own course through life (in the process discovering, if not “following, one’s bliss”).