Opinion: Obama, Roosevelt, and the Power of Progressivism

Wednesday, December 07, 2011 - 01:15 PM

Studio 360 Episode 1118, War Lovers, Streb, Knuffle Bunny Theodore Roosevelt (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“Many people will hear the word Progressivism and immediately think of liberals or Democrats—but they’re not synonymous.” - Glenn Beck

I’ve always thought of President Obama as more of a Progressive than a Liberal.  I know, I know.  Labels again.  But sometimes they are helpful. On Tuesday, with his speech in Kansas, harking back 100 years to Theodore Roosevelt, Obama confirmed my suspicions.

How so?  Well consider the definition of Progressivism:

Progressivism | n. | a political and social term for ideologies and movements advocating changes or reform, usually in an egalitarian direction for economic policies and a liberal direction for social policies. (Webster’s Collegiate, 2011)

The term “progressivism” emerged in the late 19th century, into the 20th century, in reference to a more general response to the wide-ranging changes brought by industrialization, as an alternative to both the traditional conservative response to social and economic issues and to the more radical streams of anarchism and socialism which were real movements in opposition to them.

The Progressive Movement started in earnest in urban centers, with settlement workers and reformers who were endeavoring to help those facing harsh conditions at home and on the job. Reformers spoke out about the need for laws regulating tenement housing and child labor. They also called for better working conditions for women.

The Progressive Party sprang up at the start of the 20th century, and progressivism made great strides under Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Lyndon Johnson.  But especially Teddy Roosevelt.  Despite being associated with left-wing politics, in recent years, the term "progressive" has occasionally been used by groups not particularly left wing.

Which gets me to libertarian pundit, media mogul and prolific author Glenn Beck, who I quoted at the top of this post.  With that introductory line to a chapter he calls “The Cancer of Progressivism, in his best-selling book Common Sense (2010), Beck leads us to believe that he and his Tea Party followers actually understand these distinctions.  But, in very short order, it becomes apparent that he does not.  Instead, Beck dangerously and incorrectly conflates “progressivism” with “liberalism.”

Let’s dissect. 

Does Progressive = Liberal? While Beck is not alone in this mistake (the term "progressive" is today often mistakenly used in place of “liberal"), these are very separate and distinct political ideologies.

Progressives have an orientation towards politics.  But it is not a long-standing ideology like liberalism. It is a historically grounded concept that accepts the world as dynamic. Progressives see progressivism as an attitude towards the world of politics that is broader than conservatism versus liberalism.  It is, specifically, an attempt to break free from what they consider to be a false and divisive dichotomy.  So, to conflate the two, is precisely wrong.

Liberals believe in natural rights and civil liberties; they believe that the major purpose of the government is to protect those rights. Liberals are often called “Left Wing” (versus “Right Wing.”) This is, I am quite sure, what Glenn Beck loathes.

President Obama’s speech was, in my view, designed to align his administration with the Progressives.  It was meant to echo the historic address given by Teddy Roosevelt in the same Kansas town more than 100 years ago.  President Obama railed against "gaping" economic inequality and pressed the case for policies he insisted would help ordinary Americans get through hard times.  He portrayed himself as a champion of the middle class.  He laid out, in stark terms, the populist themes of his re-election bid.  It seems clear that Obama quite deliberately sought to align himself with the poster boy of American Progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt. 

And why not?  When Teddy Roosevelt became president, the U.S. was at the dawn of the Progressive Era. Capitalism had grown out of control throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and reform was necessary. Workers were treated badly, slums in cities were horrific, and politics were rife with corruption. Roosevelt stepped in and helped to clean up the mess that had been created during the Gilded Age.

As a Progressive, one of Roosevelt’s major areas of interest was conservation, and he did a tremendous amount to further the cause of protecting America’s natural resources. Roosevelt’s major contribution to American history was arguably his vigorous performance as a Progressive leader.  

The Progressive Movement was born of a populist desire to take government to task for corruption and greed.  The Progressives came of age at the turn of the last century, in response to political powers unwilling or unable to address the rapid economic and social changes brought about by the industrial revolution in America; the movement grew outside government and eventually forced government to take a stand and deal with the growing problems.

Progressives today want the same things: Good government at all levels. Progressives want aggressive, proactive government that foresees problems and acts to prevent calamities before they occur.

Progressives have traditionally demanded safety legislation, closer regulation of public health issues and better management of public utilities. They also seek to make government more efficient, so that taxpayers get what they are paying for. If Americans do not have good government, say Progressives, then they have only themselves to blame. Among their more notable achievements were the direct election of Senators and women's suffrage.

Today few Americans would claim that this country provides a level playing field for all citizens and workers, or that our political system is free from corruption. And so, the progressive beat goes on.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.


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Comments [5]

"We should not be so quick to accept the latest dumb narrative from our current President trying to distract from his appalling economic record."

What's so appalling?
-Provided gov't backing to preserve GM and Chrysler
-Implemented stimulus that stopped the 800K/mo job slide that Bush started
-Started mortgage program to begin to recover housing
-Started the Consumer Protection Agency to halt credit card abuses.

What Obama did NOT do
-Take over medical care
-Bring employment back to long-term levels

The deficit would be under $300B if the GOP were willing to get on board and act to improve jobs! Cynically, the bread that their electability is buttered on precludes them acting for country before party. As appalling as the President's record may be to you, unless you are willing to give half the blame to the Congress in which the GOP controls the House and obstructionist GOP senators filibuster any thing that might actually help the job situation, your opinion is based on IOH - irrational Obama hatred - and should be ignored.

Oct. 23 2012 09:35 AM
BBRider from Brooklyn

It's rich listening to Alan "Just Folks" Simpson. I believe I've heard this "skin in the game" BS from the mouths of the Wall Street thieves and their
(s)elected minions for weeks now.

You can't get him off the phone with Brian quick enough for me.

What a load of crap.

Dec. 21 2011 11:34 AM
Nick from The Badlands NJ

If Obama wants to be a Progressive, he better start acting like one. His policies so far have been anything but progressive. Just the same old song and dance, but with more ruthelessness and chilling efficiency. Obama has graduated the "stick" to a "drone" using it as his main diplomacy tool. He has done little to change what GWB started in some cases, is being more rutheless and less observant of the constitution. He has done little to break up the power of several very large corporations that do irreversible damage to this country (Monsanto, Lockheed, Walmart to name three of many). But what bothers me the most is that he doesn't seem to care at all. It doesn't seem to pain him. It seems like this was his plan the whole time. I voted for someone that would ramp down the Wars of Terror. I voted for someone that would stand up to Big Oil, Big Agro, and the military industrial complex. I voted for someone that I thought was progressive!!!

Remember all of those far right wingers pissing and moaning about how he was going to redistribute the wealth (would have been nice) like VI Lenin reborn? Doesn't look like that happened, huh? He is gonna change all the gun laws too! Nope, didn't happen. He is gonna be too soft on foreign policy! Nope, he kills people, often and without the approval of anyone else. I don't think Obama was trying to channel the Teddy Roosevelt of Trust-Busting-Conservation Town...I think he is after Big Stick Diplomacy Ville, at least that is what his policies so far are saying.

Dec. 07 2011 09:13 PM

What we call progressivism today, Teddy Roosevelt would have called Bolshevism and TR himself would be called a neo-con today by those that seek to co-opt his image.
We should not be so quick to accept the latest dumb narrative from our current President trying to distract from his appalling economic record.

Dec. 07 2011 06:52 PM

Thanks for the article.

Beck is by his own statements in no sense a Libertarian, who view themselves as voluntarist centrist Liberals and most of whom as culturally voluntarist progressives. He has expressed sympathy for some Libertarian approaches. Roosevelt's progressivism along with that of the era would be treated as extreme national-racism, anti-Hispanic or worse in many respects today, and has been critiqued by many self-identified progrtessive scholars.

For more on what people are doing in advancing voluntary alternatives, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization.

For more on what people are doing in advancing voluntary alternatives, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization.

Dec. 07 2011 02:10 PM

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