Who is a “progressive” these days? Over the last decade, the term “progressive” has come into vogue, superseding the traditional nomenclature of political identity like “liberal” and “moderate.” And progressive is used to carefully differentiate old-school liberals from the more radical “socialist” and “democratic socialist” let alone “anarchist” or “communist.”
The dance over political identity is playing out in the New York City mayoral election in which three candidates were identified as progressives — Dianne Morales, Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley; Wiley received the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-identified Democratic Socialists of America (SPA) member.
Over the last century, the U.S. has witnessed three critical periods of “progressive” insurgency that set in motion fundamental changes that helped transform the nation. The first period was known as the Progressive era and occurred during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The second period was Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression. And the third grew out of the post-WW-II recovery and culminated in the social upheaval of the 1960s-‘70s. In the midst of the current political turmoil, is a new progressive insurgency taking shape in the U.S.?
Looking back to the U.S. during the fin de siècle era of 1870s through about 1920, the country seems both a far different yet all-too-familiar country. It was an era of post-Civil War recovery, of a re-united nation through a continental telegraphy system and railroad, of the reconfiguration of the nation’s character through mass immigration and popular migration throughout the continent – and ever-intensifying inequality. This was the period of the Gilded Age Robber Barons who not only controlled transport, business and finance, but politics and cultural life as well.
The first transcontinental telegraph and railroad were the “new” technologies of distribution that anchored the post-Civil War economy. By the 1890s, AT&T and the railway systems were the largest businesses in the country. And W. H. Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad was the biggest player, a conglomerate fashioned through aggressive acquisitions and mergers. However, in the late-19th century, mergers and consolidations occurred throughout all industries. They fostered both horizontal integration (i.e., control over a market’s prices and output) and vertical integration (i.e., production maximization by reducing costs).
Gilded Age corporate consolidation transformed the U.S. economy and the most spectacular consolidation involved the oil industry. John D. Rockefeller merged about 100 independent oil refineries into the Standard Oil Company thus, by 1890, controlling about 90 percent of the U.S. oil business. J. P. Morgan was the premier banker facilitating the railroad consolidations, including control over Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad; he also controlled a number of life insurance companies and bailed out the federal government debt that ended the Panic of 1893. Often overlooked, it was an era marked by the introduction new technologies like the internal combustion engine, the assembly line, the airplane, the rotary-dial phone and much more.
According to one source, between 1897 and 1904 over 4,000 companies were consolidated down into 257 corporate firms; for example, U.S. Steel was formed by the merger of nine of the largest steel companies. By 1904, some 318 companies controlled nearly 40 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output. One estimate claims that a single firm produced over half the output in 78 industries. These corporations became known as “trusts” – and they ruled with a vengeance.
Many late-19th-century Americans saw the proverbial handwriting-on-wall and sought to check — if not break-up — the growing power of the “trusts,” the monopolies. The development of the trust-dominated economy fueled the rise of the Progressive movement and what Teddy Roosevelt dubbed “muck-rakers,” journalist who investigated and publicized social and economic injustices. They included Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida B. Wells and Ida Tarbell.
Tarbell wrote a series of articles for McClure’s magazine and her 1904 classic tale of greed and corruption, The History of the Standard Oil Company, is still considered a masterwork. The company was a trust that controlled the oil industry as well as ancillary industries like railroads and banking. Robert La Follette, Wisconsin governor (1901–06) and U.S. senator (1906–25), known as “Fighting Bob,” founded The Progressive magazine (originally La Follette’s Weekly) in 1909.
Progressives sought to eliminate government corruption, supported women’s suffrage, championed social welfare, promoted prison reform, sought to extend civil liberties and supported prohibition. Some supported civil rights, even backing the formation of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP). Many Progressives feared that concentrated, uncontrolled, corporate power threatened democratic government. They argued that large corporations could impose monopolistic prices to cheat consumers and squash small independent companies. And these trusts could exercise control both federal and state governments.
Popular outrage against corporate monopolies led to the adoption of the Sherman Act of 1890. It outlawed “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restraint of trade.” The Act also made it a crime “to combine or conspire . . . to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states.” While of limited effect, it did establish the federal government’s ability to control corporate consolidation and power. However, it was not until 1895 that the Supreme Court ruled the Sherman Act could regulate interstate sales and transportation. That same year, the Court found that the Act could bar union strikes that interfered with interstate commerce, thus becoming a major weapon against organized labor.
During Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-1909) the Supreme Court took a more critical, radical interpretation of the Act. In 1904, Justice John Marshall Harlan declared that “every combination” that eliminates interstate competition was illegal, including manufacturing companies and railroads. Going further, the Court found that all monopolies tended to restrain trade and “to deprive the public of the advantages that flow from free competition”; it ordered the breakup of the Northern Securities Company into independent competitive railroads.
In 1914, Congress passed two additional antitrust laws to added teeth to the Sherman Act. One was the Federal Trade Commission Act that created the FTC; the second was and the Clayton Act that bars one company from acquiring another when “the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.”
Nevertheless, capitalism went wild during the Progressive Era, its excessive exuberance – greed — culminated in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression and then WW-II. This decade-and-half of crisis fostered what some recall as the second wave of progressive reform, that of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
As governor of New York, FDR established himself as a progressive governor. As one observer noted, he did this “by increasing enhancing the power of state agencies, increasing regulatory supervision of business, providing by tax relief to farmers, advocating cheap electric power, and establishing relief programs for people out of work following the 1929 stock market crash, including the New York State Unemployment Relief Act and the creation of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA).”
However, as the Great Depression deepened and FDR assumed the presidency, he resisted efforts by progressive senators to nationalize the failed banks. He insisted, “I’ve just had every assurance of cooperation from the bankers.” To contain the run on the banks, he backed legislation that permitted the Federal Reserve and the Reconstruction Finance Corp to bail them out. As Bill Scher noted, “Roosevelt envisioned a grand partnership between business and government to end the Great Depression, and he was willing to compromise to forge it.”
FDR promoted the National Industrial Recovery Act that enabled federal government and business representatives to determine wages, prices and workplace standards. However, progressives like LaFollette and Sen. Huey Long (D-LA) voted against it and the Supreme Court ultimately found it unconstitutional. Nevertheless, during his second term, he secured adoption of progressive legislation that established the minimum wage, maximum hours and the end of most child labor.
The post-WW-II recovery fostered a unique historical moment one marked by the U.S.’s domination of the world economically and militarily. The great postwar consumer revolution – the “American Dream” — promoted an insistent culture of “entitlement” that challenged many traditional values. This thriving domestic economy and global hegemony fostered a new, accompanying personality type. It emphasized a belief in “self” over “other,” the personal acquisition equaled accomplishment and of the marketplace of inequality as the great social equalizer. It was an ideology and practice that was increasingly articulated – sometimes to exaggeration — in all aspects of personal life.
The post-WW-II recovery fostered the second “progressive” era that was the 1960s – although few then or now referred to that period as “progressive.” The word was no longer is vogue. Rather, words like “activists,” “radical,” “liberation” bespoke the tenor of truly progressive politics of those turbulent years. The ‘60s was marked by the civil-rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, the counterculture of sex, drugs & rock-and-roll, second-wave feminism, out homosexuals and consumer activists led by Ralph Nader. It fostered Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s “great society” programs The social dislocation of the 1960s fueled a bitter reaction to conservative and corporate forces, and the U.S. economic growth began to stall.
American capitalism has come full cycle from the legendary battles waged by Teddy Roosevelt and other Progressives a century ago. Then, they battled the shameless practices of industrial trusts like Standard Oil. Today, Rockefeller’s corporate descendants continue to dominate the American economy and the trust model is reemerging – for example, the old Ma Bell morphed into the Telecom Trust. This time, unfortunately, Pres. Joe Biden is no “TR” to do battle for the public good.
Not unlike the “hot war” days of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the terrain of political struggle very much remains the same. It involves civil rights issues (e.g., voting, racist policies), foreign policy (i.e., war and other interventions), climate change (i.e., weather, earthquakes), sexual politics (e.g., abortion, gay rights, sex work) and bread-and-butter concerns (e.g., income, health care).
Equally critical, not unlike the insurgency of the original Progressive era, today’s insurgent movement — often dubbed “progressive” — is contesting aspects of capitalism, of monopolistic control. During the ‘60s, conglomerate control was not a primary issue. Today, it’s become one.
In October 2018, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced legislation to break up the nation’s biggest banks – e.g., JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — in order to safeguard the economy and prevent another costly taxpayer bailout like that followed the 2007-09 fiscal crisis.
Sanders’ critique of the big banks applies with equal accuracy other sectors of the U.S. economy, whether rural big agri-businesses or urban high-tech. In early June 2021, Congressional Republicans and Democrats introduced a series of six bills that could significantly limit “big tech” companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft from using their control over multiple business lines to favor their own products or to suppress rivals.
So, we come back to the first question: Who is a “progressive” these days? Names, words or identifiers take on the meaning bestowed by the conditions of a unique historical moment. However, conventional distinctions can easily disappear.
In the wake of WW-I and the Russian Revolution, “communist” became the Devil’s new name. The nation and the market faced apparent threats and right-wing corporatist and government interests moved to contain free-speech and maintain corporatist democracy. They arrestedEugene Debs, one of the many people imprisoned under the Sedition Act for an anti-war speech; the Senate investigated Senator Follette for 14 months for a speech he gave on the Senate floor, “Free Speech in Wartime”; and anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, along with hundreds of others, were arrested, tried and deported for violation of the WW-I Espionage and Sedition acts.
The great fear of communism became a national religious ethos, the “red scare,” during the decades following WW-II. It began with the notorious practices of HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) in the late-1930s and culminating with Sen. Joe McCarthy, especially the Army-McCarthy Trials (1954), and the trial of the Hollywood Ten (1947).
The great fear returned in the 1960s with significant repression against those who challenged established authority, whether by individuals or the state. This repressions included arrests of demonstrators and politically-motivated assassinations (e.g., Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton).
So, who is a “progressive” these days? The answer is simple: a progressive is anyone who truly represents a serious – and mass, popular — challenge to established power whether corporate interests or state authority.