Creating a New Progressive Era

How can poverty and grave economic inequality be significantly reduced in the United States? Under what conditions might it be possible to bring about a period of significant progressive reform that would address our country’s major social problems?

As the income and living standards of the poor, the working class and a significant sector of the middle class in America have declined, a quite small portion of the population known as the upper class has become wealthier and more powerful than ever. One would have to revisit the Gilded Age of the late 1800s or the Roaring Twenties just before the 1929 Great Depression to locate comparable contradictions between the rich and the rest of the American people.

There are many distressing statistics that demonstrate the extent of economic inequality in the United States. The following is a telling illustration:

The top 20% of wealthy families in the U.S. now possess 84.7% of all assets and wealth. The top 5% alone control 58.9%, and the richest 1% command 34.3%. The “bottom” 80% possess of 15.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 40% within this total have accumulated 0.2%. That’s two-tenths of one percent owned by 120 million Americans, while 34.3% is possessed by 3 million.

According to progressive economist William K. Tabb, writing in Monthly Review (July-August 2006), the Bush Administration’s economic policies “carry echoes which have been heard down through our nation’s history and have taken on resonance analogous to the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, other periods when conservative ideology and politics held sway and rapid increases in inequalities were produced by deregulation and variants of laissez faire policy and Social Darwinist thinking. But in all periods, we have had a government of the rich that has acted in the interests of the rich.”

Columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman, writing in the N.Y. Times on April 27, 2007, argued that “Income inequality… is now fully back to Gilded Age levels… Last year… a hedge fund manager took home $1.7 billion, more than 38,000 times the average income. Two other hedge fund managers also made more than $1 billion, and the top 25 combined made $14 billion… The hedge fund billionaires are simply extreme examples of a much bigger phenomenon: every available measure of income concentration shows that we’ve gone back to levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s.”

There is a clear cause and effect when the “upper” classes get richer and the “lower” classes get poorer. It often derives from the ability of those with power and wealth to manipulate government policy regarding taxes, regulations, and programs to further benefit themselves at the expense of those lacking power and wealth.

This is hardly unique in American history, but more prevalent at certain periods, such as the present moment when economic inequality and poverty are at high levels. We will focus upon three comparable periods in the past that generated a progressive response ultimately resulting in major social and economic reforms.

The United States advertises itself as the world’s outstanding example of democracy. But how can a democracy function properly and fully in conditions of gross economic disequilibrium, especially when class inequality is compounded by racial and gender inequities as well?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized this contradiction when he declared in 1944 that “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

Economist Lester Thurow, in his 1999 book about the income gap titled Shifting Fortunes asked: “How does one put together a democracy based on the concept of equality while running an economy with ever greater degrees of economic inequality.”

American progressives of an earlier era understood this as well. Historian Richard C. Wade, writing about the reform struggle of the early 1900s, noted: “Progressives agreed that the central question of their times was how to control the power of concentrated wealth in a democracy.”

No wonder increasing comparisons are made between America in the early 2000s and the Gilded Age — a period of enormous wealth and opulence for the few and exploitation and oppression for the many.

An important difference between this earlier period and now is that in the late 1800s/early 1900s, there was a substantial fight back against the machinations of wealth and power, while in comparison today’s response has largely been confined to the wringing of hands.

Progressive movements arose in opposition in several past situations of extreme inequality and flaunted wealth. There were people’s organizations out in the streets; unions were marching; there were sizable left groups organizing and leading struggles. At times, popular pressure obliged the ruling parties to put some restraints on the corporations, investors, financiers, and their hangers-on, and even to pass legislation favorable to working people.

But now, after a quarter-century of stagnating wages, with a recession looming over the country as prices are rising and incomes are falling, as workers are losing their jobs and homes, Washington is spending trillions on aggressive wars and a relative pittance on new programs to help the masses of people.

There’s a class war going on, initiated and led by wealth and power. Various administrations in Washington in recent decades offer a perfect example of our government’s penchant for coddling the rich and ignoring the needs of working families. But aside from small left organizations and reform groups, some unions and a few politicians, what forces in our society are truly fighting for the poor, the working class and lower middle class majority of the American people? It is certainly not the two ruling parties.

There’s an election going and neither Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican John McCain has put forward a worthwhile immediate program to counter high prices for food and fuel, increasing unemployment, and depressed incomes. Neither offers a strategic program to greatly reduce poverty and inequality in America, to create good new jobs and affordable housing. Neither will contemplate big cuts in the military budget nor sharply increasing taxes for the rich to pay for these programs.

For over 200 years in America, virtually every decisively important government program or law that benefited the masses of people was the product of persistent, hard-fought struggle led by progressive and left social or political or labor movements, or all in combination. This was true at various points in history in the attainment of an eight-hour day, vacations, and a minimum wage; the right of women to vote and to work in jobs previously held by men only; the granting of Social Security pensions, Medicare and Medicaid; the end to lynch laws, the poll tax and formal racial segregation — and just about every other advance that has taken place in our society.

None of it was a gift. All of it was a struggle. And it’s the only way poverty and inequality — and all comparable abuses — can be reduced significantly.

The last period of relatively progressive governance in America lasted a few years and ended four decades ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson left office. LBJ is accurately remembered as the president who led the U.S. into the quagmire of the imperialist Vietnam War. But his extensive and fruitful “Great Society” domestic program was the final attempt to continue New Deal-type reforms initiated by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression when masses of people were demanding relief and reform.

The great obstacle to progressive social change in America today is that we have been living in conservative political times for decades. The nation is just emerging from eight years of George W. Bush’s hard core ribald neoconservatism and preemptive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; preceded by eight years of Bill Clinton’s centrist compromise with the rightists, killer sanctions against Iraq and the unjust war in Yugoslavia; four years of George H. W. Bush’s conservatism and the first war against Iraq; and eight years of Ronald Reagan’s reactionary Cold War policies, subversion throughout Central America, and right wing economic programs.

The 2008 election offers the U.S. people a choice between centrism and neoconservatism — all in the name of an ambiguous mantra of undefined “change.” This means that the right and center — the political tendencies least willing and able to end gross economic inequality and banish poverty in the U.S. — will dictate national policy through the next four years as they have in the past.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There were periods in American history when conservative times did transform into progressive times. When this happened it was almost invariably a consequence of popular mass struggle for affirmative political reform.

Today, the U.S. left — from left-liberalism and progressivism to social democracy, socialism and communism — is weak and without meaningful influence. And our critically important union movement is weak as well, with a leadership that remains wedded to the “lesser evil” centrism of the Democratic Party in return for token political compensation.

When the American left revives, as it certainly will, and popular mass struggle resumes, the conditions will exist to bring about a new period of substantive social, economic, and political reform.

Lately there have been some reports of an incipient progressive upsurge within the Democratic Party that might seriously address matters of poverty and economic inequality, among others.

Undoubtedly there are many left-liberal and progressive Democrats who are justly disappointed by the cautious performance of their party’s majority in Congress and by the refusal of the leadership to venture even a trifle to the left of center. Groups such as and, among others, are cited as evidence of a progressive resurgence and even a possible harbinger of an effort to seize party leadership “from the bottom up.”

Our country would benefit if the center/center-right Democratic Party moved to the center-left in the next few years on the basis of agitation within its ranks. But it is far-fetched to think it will do so after the party leadership’s diligent and successful efforts over the decades to bury liberalism and completely reject the hint of social democracy implicit in the first few years of FDR’s New Deal.

At some point there will be another period of progressive advance, such as several earlier times in America’s history. When that happens it probably will be generated from outside the Democratic Party and consist of mass movements with progressive and left leadership around such key issues as economic reform, peace, inequality, poverty, jobs, housing, militarism, imperialism, union rights, and so on.

Such circumstances might influence the Democrats to take some action. Or it could lead to another Progressive Party, as it has done thrice before on the national level (1912, 1924, and 1948) and four times on the state level, not to mention many other left third parties.

Let’s briefly look back to some earlier periods of progressive reform in our history. While there were active reform movements in the years before the Civil War (abolition and women’s rights), a broad major reform struggle began in the 1870s and lasted with varying levels of intensity about 40 years. It took place during two historic periods: the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

The name Gilded Age was taken from a 1873 book of that title penned by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Their use of “gilded” derived from Shakespeare’s King John: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily… is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

The Gilded Age officially began with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. It was weakened by the decimating depression of 1893-97 and declined at century’s end, though many of its conditions continued into the Progressive Era, which lasted between 1900 and World War I.

During the later 1800s America changed from a rural agrarian society into a mixture with urban industrial development that greatly accelerated the Industrial Revolution and created fabulous fortunes for the wealthy, and extreme exploitation for working class men, women and children. Long hours, low pay, and miserable living conditions painfully afflicted multimillions of American workers as unrestrained capitalism ran amuck.

Simultaneously, as the U.S. was adjusting to a post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction period of booms and busts (there were three depressions in the Gilded Age), the great majority of former slaves were forced into a new type of oppression under Jim Crow segregation laws (the model for pre-liberation South Africa’s apartheid system.) It took 90 years, the civil rights movement, and the 1960s reform period to end formal racial segregation, though racist inequality still exists in America.

The Gilded Age, according to author Steve Fraser in an article for April 28, was characterized by “crony capitalism, inequality, extravagance, Social Darwinian self-justification, blame-the-victim callousness, [and] free-market hypocrisy.”

In response, he wrote, “Irate farmers mobilized in cooperative alliances and in the Populist Party. Farmer-labor parties in states and cities from coast to coast challenged the dominion of the two-party system. Rolling waves of strikes, captained by warriors from the Knights of Labor, enveloped whole communities as new allegiances extended across previously unbridgeable barriers of craft, ethnicity, even race and gender.”

The strikes were militant and massive, and included the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; the 1886 railroad strike; the 1892 Homestead Strike; the Great Uprising of 1886 composed of nationwide strikes and demonstrations for an eight-hour work day, which led to the legal lynching of four anarchists on trumped up changes after the Haymarket Riots; and the 1894 Pullman Strike conducted by the American Railroad Union and led by socialist Eugene Debs.

The new labor movements were the only protection most American workers had against unbridled capitalist greed. The Knights of Labor, one of America’s first great unions, was formed in 1869 and played an important role in the working class fight back during the Gilded Age. It faded in the late 1880s. The more restrained American Federation of Labor was formed in 1889. The militant Western Federation of Miners was organized in 1893, and the revolutionary International Workers of the World, the Wobblies, came about in 1905.

The Populist (Peoples) Party was founded in 1890 to put forward demands ignored by the two ruling parties. It received over a million votes in the 1892 presidential elections on a platform calling for direct election of U.S. Senators, a secret ballot, referendums, recall of elected officials, direct primary balloting and opposition to the gold standard. A number of its candidates became governors and members of Congress.

By the next presidential election in 1896, the Democratic Party had adopted a number of the populist demands which it had earlier opposed. The Populist Party then supported Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who lost to Republican William McKinley. That was the beginning of the end for the populists. Their party quickly declined and dissolved in 1908.

The excesses of capitalism were mainly addressed by reforms during the Progressive Era, but some took place in the 1890s, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), which outlawed business monopolies; The Interstate Commerce Act (1887), which protected small shippers against powerful railroads; and the Civil Service Act (1883), aimed at ending corruption, which substituted the merit system for the spoils system in filling government jobs.

The Progressive Era was a period of great reform in response to the extreme exploitation of working families that accompanied swift industrialization and the growth of cities at a time when millions of poor immigrants were pouring into our country. The working people benefited from these reforms, but so did capitalism, of course, the regulation of which was essential to rationalize and strengthen the system, not replace it.

According to a superb college textbook on American history, Who Built America? (vol. 2): “Scholars [of the Progressive Era] have been unable to agree on exactly what Progressivism was. In fact, Progressivism encompassed many distinct, overlapping and sometimes contradictory movements: it was working people battling for better pay and control over their working lives; it was women campaigning for more equality and the right to vote at the same time as African Americans were being disfranchised in the South. It was corporations and their allies pushing to make city governments more businesslike; it was middle class reformers closing saloons and prohibiting the sale of alcohol; it was politicians and presidents extending the power of government to ‘bust trusts’ and regulate corporate activity.

“Sometimes these various reform forces worked together, sometimes they fought each other. Each responded in some way to the profound economic and social changes of the Gilded Age, but they differed in their interpretation of problems and solutions. As coalitions shifted, these diverse campaigns laid the foundation for modern American politics.”

The progressive movement had a number of concerns: the terrible conditions of working class life, from child labor to poor housing and ill health; the abuses of robber barons and business owners; the lack of government regulation of the marketplace; women’s suffrage; prohibition; race oppression; direct elections (to the Senate); electoral reform; and anti-monopoly reform.

There was another concern as well, according to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers: “Fear of the expansion of socialism and Marxism provoked many in the upper class to support more moderate reform efforts as a means to ease the growing tensions between rich and poor and head off more extreme threats to their privileged role in society.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, who as vice president entered the White House in 1901 after President McKinley was assassinated, was the foremost reform politician during the Progressive Era. Although a man of wealth, an open imperialist, and staunch advocate of capitalism, he opposed the excesses of the Gilded Age as counter-productive to the interests of the United States and to his own vision of America as a burgeoning world power. TR, as he was known, believed that “the man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government.”

Republican Roosevelt left office in 1908 after presiding over the passage of a number of reforms demanded by the progressive movement and the expansion of federal authority. He was succeeded by his own vice president, William H. Taft. Out of office but still riding the progressive wave in 1910, TR outraged his own class be declaring: “I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and… a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes.”

Convinced that Taft and the Republican Party had turned against progressivism, Roosevelt unsuccessfully sought to obtain the party’s nomination in the 1912 presidential election. He then bolted the Republican Party and, with support from the progressive movement, formed the Progressive Party (known also as the Bull Moose Party) with an extensive reform agenda, the purpose being “to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” With the GOP split, the Democratic Party’s Woodrow Wilson won the election. Roosevelt was second and Taft last. Union leader Debs, running at the candidate of the Socialist Party, came in fourth with 6% of the vote. The Progressive Party collapsed in 1916.

Among the federal reforms of the Progressive Era were the following:

The Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) a conservationist measure; the Elkins Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906 and 1911), making sure that companies label ingredients; the Meat Inspection Act (thanks to writer Upton Sinclair’s exposé in his novel The Jungle); the Federal Reserve Act; the Clayton Antitrust Act, opposing monopolies and ruling that labor unions did not fall under antitrust laws; and the Federal Trade Act that established the Federal Trade Commission that is supposed to investigate “unfair business practices.”

In addition, laws were passed regulating the drug industry, establishing federal controls over the banking industry, and improving working conditions. Further, two progressive constitutional amendments — the power to tax income and the direct election of Senators were approved in 1913. Another progressive cause, women’s suffrage, was passed in 1919.

The Roaring Twenties were hardly progressive. It was a period of extreme Republican laissez faire economics, until the stock market crashed in 1929, plunging America and the world into the Great Depression.

There were radical moments in the 1920s, however, including the resurrection of the Progressive Party, which fielded Wisconsin progressive Republican Sen. Robert M. LaFollette Sr. as its 1924 presidential nominee against conservative candidates from both the Democratic and Republican Parties. LaFollette, whose program included nationalization of large industries including railroads, higher taxes for the rich and lower taxes for working people, and collective bargaining for workers, was supported by labor, socialists and liberals. With nearly five million votes — 16.6% — La Follette came in third. The Progressive Party dissolved in 1946, long after it ceased activity on the national level. During these years in its Wisconsin stronghold the party elected a governor and six members of the House of Representatives.

By the second half of the conservative 1920s the rich-poor gap was reaching Gilded Age proportions. Herbert Hoover, who defeated liberal Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 election, was the third Republican elected to the presidency during the decade. In accepting nomination, Hoover declared: “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. We shall soon… be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.”

Hoover assumed office in March 1929. The Great Depression began seven months later, catapulting most of the working class and middle class into exceptionally hard times. Consistent with his conservative ideology of waiting for the “market” to cure itself, Hoover did practically nothing as the economy crumbled in the three years until the 1932 election, which gave rise to the greatest period of progressive reform in U.S. history.

The Democrats nominated New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fifth cousin to Theodore Roosevelt. He declared in his acceptance speech, “I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people,” and his program became known as the New Deal. FDR, as he was universally known, captured 57.4% of the vote against 39.7 for Hoover, and remained in office to four terms. He delivered the famous line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” in his first inaugural address in 1933.

Roosevelt was under extreme pressure when he entered the White House. Unemployment reached its peak that year — 25.2% — meaning one in four workers was jobless and many others were working for reduced pay and waiting for their jobs to disappear. Millions of families were suffering great distress and relief from Washington barely existed.

From the day he entered the White House, Roosevelt understood that his principal task was to preserve capitalism in America at a time when private enterprise systems around the world were experiencing economic disasters. There were two threats. One was that the downward economic spiral in the U.S. might lead to a total collapse. The other was the fear that the working class might seek to replace capitalism with socialist or revolutionary communist alternatives. At the time, these were quite rational speculations.

The political left had been organizing since the day the stock market crashed. For instance, according to Who Built America?, just weeks after the market crash “the Communist Party organized the first of what was soon a nationwide network of ‘Unemployed Councils.’ These Communist-led neighborhood groups worked to aid the unemployed with immediate problems of rent and food, to apply pressure for improved relief programs, and finally to recruit new members to join the party. On March 6, 1930, the communists held a series of rallies on what it dubbed International Unemployment Day,’ demanding government action. In city after city, the turnout far exceeded expectations.”

The Communist Party was active throughout the 1930s, in all the major cities, in the unions, in the South among poor black sharecroppers, in Harlem stopping evictions and fighting for unemployed workers. Near the end of the 1930s CP membership rose to its highest number ever, 100,000. Many other progressive and left groups, including populist farmers, were organizing as well, but the communists were the most energetic.

Unions were active but did not come into their own until late 1935 with the formation of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). In little more than a year union membership in the U.S. rose from four million to seven million. Confrontations between labor and management sharply increased as companies resisted collective bargaining, often engaging in redbaiting in the process. Many in the wealthy class and their minions in corporate management viewed unionization as a red plot.

Company brutality, exercised through local police and private security thugs, increased as labor became stronger. Police shot and killed 10 striking workers outside a Chicago steel factory in May 1937. In the same month, a Ford company guard viciously beat leaders of the CIO’s United Automobile Workers union.

The less activist American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded 46 years earlier as a craft union, organizing each craft — such as plumbers, sheet metal workers or carpenters — into separate unions. The CIO organized workers around entire industries — auto, steel, coal, and so on, conveying to each member a sense of mass and solidarity.

The CIO was known for its militancy and spectacular sit-down strikes. Many leftists including communists were CIO organizers and union militants at the time — often the most dedicated and hardest fighters for the union — even as a number of union leaders expressed anticommunist views in response to criticism from the owners. (The CIO purged most of its left militants in the late 1940s when it took a right turn in response to the Washington’s anticommunist campaign accompanying the start of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It subsequently merged with the AFL and has generally supported some of the worst aspects of U.S. foreign policy ever since.)

The new president understood that the desperation afflicting American workers and their families, combined with the determination of the political, social, and union organizations demanding that Washington alleviate their plight, obligated him to proceed swiftly, decisively, and in tune with the progressive assumptions of the day.

Roosevelt was not a leftist by any means, but his program of relief and reform was vast, with social democratic implications never before introduced in America. “The test of our progress,” he once said, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife, was to his political left, and she encouraged him with words and observations from her many fact-finding trips throughout the country to follow a progressive line. It didn’t always work, but she never relented.

The right wing and many capitalist ideologues hated Roosevelt for his “socialist” programs. The left was generally supportive but critical when he fell short. The masses appreciated his helping hand. In the end his actions contributed to the preservation of capitalism but it took beginning of World War II to fully end the Great Depression in the United States.

FDR proceeded in two stages, known as the First and Second New Deal, mainly in the six years between 1933-38. The initial New Deal took place in the first two years of Roosevelt’s Administration. Hundreds of programs, some quite innovative and most of them welcomed by a grateful nation, took place during the first hundred days. Many of these programs were of an emergency nature to keep the system and its people afloat. The second New Deal, from 1935-38, tended to be more to the left and supportive of workers and their unions.

The Roosevelt Administration’s list of programs and legislation implemented during this period was extraordinary, even though some were phased out over the years. Following is a short list of some of the Roosevelt team’s key accomplishments, compiled from Wikipedia:

• United States bank holiday, 1933: closed all banks until they became certified by federal reviewers.

• Abandonment of gold standard, 1933: gold reserves no longer backed currency; still exists.

• Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), 1933: employed young men to perform unskilled work in rural areas; under United States Army supervision; separate program for Native Americans.

• Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), 1933: effort to modernize very poor region (most of Tennessee), centered on dams that generated electricity on the Tennessee River; still exists.

• Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), 1933: raised farm prices by cutting total farm output of major crops and livestock.

• National Recovery Act (NRA), 1933: industries set up codes to reduce unfair competition, raise wages and prices.

• Public Works Administration (PWA), 1933: built large public works projects; used private contractors (did not directly hire unemployed).

• Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) / Glass-Steagall Act: insures deposits in banks in order to restore public confidence in banks; still exists.

• Securities Act of 1933, created the SEC, 1933: codified standards for sale and purchase of stock, required risk of investments to be accurately disclosed; still exists.

• Civil Works Administration (CWA), 1933-34: provided temporary jobs to millions of unemployed.

• Indian Reorganization Act, 1934: moved away from assimilation.

• Social Security Act (SSA), 1935: provided financial assistance to: elderly, handicapped, paid for by employee and employer payroll contributions; required years of contributions, so first payouts were in 1942; still exists.

• Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1935: a national labor program for more than 2 million unemployed; created useful construction work for unskilled men; also sewing projects for women and arts projects for unemployed artists, musicians and writers.

• National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) / Wagner Act, 1935: set up National Labor Relations Board to supervise labor-management relations; In the 1930s, it strongly favored labor unions. Modified by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947); still exists.

• Judicial Reorganization Bill, 1937: gave the President power to appoint a new Supreme Court judge for every judge 70 years or older; failed to pass Congress.

• Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S. Code Chapter 8), 1938: established a maximum normal work week of 40 hours and a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour and outlawed most forms of child labor; still exists

From 1941 through 1945 the Roosevelt Administration was totally absorbed with winning the war in Europe and Asia, and many new progressive domestic programs were backlogged until peace returned.

Vice President Harry S. Truman, a former Senator from Missouri, became president when Roosevelt died in April 1945, three weeks before Germany surrendered. Japan surrendered four months later, days after Truman ordered the destruction of two Japanese cities with nuclear bombs. (It subsequently was determined that Japan would have given up relatively quickly without the annihilation of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Six months after Roosevelt’s death, Truman loyally put forward FDR’s progressive peacetime program — a 21-point legislative proposal calling for an Economic Bill of Rights. The program advocated universal healthcare, full “living-wage” employment, adequate unemployment benefits, affordable housing, public works funding for the construction of airports and highways, an increase in the minimum wage, and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee on a permanent basis — all “regardless of station, race, or creed.”

By now, however, the political tide was rapidly turning and progressives soon became isolated. Conservatism was making a big comeback in Washington. The government was launching a Cold War against its former Soviet ally that went on to preoccupy the United States for 45 years. The right wing, supported by big business, most liberals, and the leaders of the AFL and CIO, began a noisy, bullying red-hunting crusade against “domestic communism” that lasted deep into the 1950s, continued at a lower level throughout the Cold War, and in certain ways still goes on today. One of the many casualties of this turn to the right was Roosevelt’s economic program. Some its progressive provisions, including universal healthcare, remain unfulfilled 60 years later.

Given the growth of postwar conservatism, the Progressive Party idea was revived again in time for the 1948 elections. Its candidate was Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president since 1941-44, but was not renominated at the 1944 Democratic convention. Anticipating that FDR might not live throughout his fourth term, four key urban Democratic party leaders, backed by the party’s Southern racist politicians, conspired to dump Wallace because they considered him too progressive, friendly to the Soviet Union, and an avowed opponent of racial segregation.

The four leaders decided on Truman after their first two choices declined. They then convinced Roosevelt, who personally selected Wallace in the 1940 election, to remain neutral and allow the convention to select the next nominee for vice president. The plan almost backfired when Wallace received great support from the delegates after his 1944 convention speech. The party leaders managed to delay the voting to the next day. Throughout the night they set about informing the delegations that Roosevelt was neutral and that leftist Wallace as president would be a disaster for the party.

Truman was elected. Roosevelt named Wallace Secretary of Commerce as compensation. Truman fired him in 1946. Wallace then decided to run as the Progressive Party nominee. It is interesting to contemplate how history may have changed had Wallace, not Truman, succeeded FDR in the spring of 1945.

Most of the left backed Wallace, largely to halt the developing Cold War and to continue the progressive aspects of the New Deal. The Communist Party also supported Wallace’s candidacy. The CP did not control either Wallace or the Progressive Party, though it had some influence within the organization. But most Democrats, Northern liberals and Southern segregationists alike, relentlessly redbaited the third-party campaign, charging it was a communist front. Wallace was neither a socialist nor communist, though accused of being both.

Wallace’s program was quite progressive. He campaigned strenuously for an end to Jim Crow segregation and for full equality for African Americans at a time when open racism permeated America. He also called for a continuation of the wartime alliance between the U.S. and USSR, which made him a “subversive” by the standards of 1948, in addition to being a “race mixer.”

On Election Day, Truman defeated Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey with almost 50% of the vote. Wallace received 1,157,057 votes, 2.38%. He broke with the Progressive Party two years later when the party leadership did not join him in condemning North Korea for the Korean War. The party dissolved in 1955, and Wallace died 10 years later.

The conservative 1950s gave way to the “Sixties,” a decade in which a substantial and diverse sector of Americans rose up against racism, war, stultifying conformity and outdated conventions, taking to the streets and demanding change — not today’s quaint “change you can believe in” but a concrete reordering of society.

The Civil Rights movement, with Martin Luther King at the forefront, led the struggle against racism starting in the mid-1950s, then exploding in the early 1960s into dramatic sit-ins, mass marches and demonstrations to end segregation NOW! The movement was also influenced by the important political example of Malcolm X, and by such organizational exponents of black power as the Black Panther Party.

As this historic uprising was unfolding, a huge peace movement developed in opposition to Washington’s unjust war against Vietnam. At the same time the left and various communist groups revived and expanded, a radical student movement quickly spread throughout the country, the women’s movement erupted in protest, and the gay rights movement was launched.

Today, when the media look back to the 1960s it’s often with an emphasis upon the hippies, the music of the time, pot-smoking, long hair, unusual modes of dress, and “dropping out,” as though all this was the principal aspect of the decade. Actually, the counter-cultural movement was a relevant expression of dissent against bourgeois conventions, but it was the historic, progressive protest movements and their intense political struggles for change that continued into the 1970s that characterized the era known as the Sixties.

This political uprising created the progressive context for another round of reforms, which brings us to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. His administration was the last in which the Democratic Party really embraced liberalism and thought of itself as an extension of the New Deal.

Johnson was a New Dealer as a young Texas politician in the 1930s/40s and one of the most effective majority leaders in Senate history when he became John F. Kennedy’s vice president in the 1960 election. He assumed the presidency when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and won reelection on his own in 1964. Mass opposition to his escalation of the unjust and brutal war against Vietnam deflected him from seeking reelection in 1968.

LBJ’s social reforms were part of his “Great Society” program. His most important achievement was in civil rights, the legislative reflection of the movement’s sharp struggle against racial segregation. With his way paved by this mass nonviolent rebellion, Johnson used his formidable political skills to bring into law the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, ’65, and ’68 that in total ended job discrimination and segregation in public accommodations; that safeguarded minority voting against unfair qualification tests; that ended poll taxes; appointed government voting examiners; banned housing discrimination; halted national quotas in immigration; and provided legal protection for Native Americans living on reservations.

Johnson also waged a War on Poverty to end hunger and deprivation. Progress was made, though in the end the “war” was lost. Its main element was embodied in the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), creating the Office of Economic Opportunity. The OEO coordinated a network of local antipoverty programs. The campaign also brought about Food Stamps, Head Start, VISTA, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Job Corps, and Model Cities program.

Healthcare was helped immeasurably by the administration’s championing of Medicare (1965) and Medicaid (1966).

In terms of education, the Johnson Administration was responsible for the Higher Education Act and the Secondary Education Act, both in 1965, and the Bilingual Education Act in ’68.

In consumer protection, Johnson brought to fruition the Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965, the Child Safety Act and Vehicle Safety Act, both of 1966, the Flammable Fabrics Act and Wholesome Meat Act, both 1967.

The environment was a big winner as well: The Clean air, Water Quality and Clear Water Restoration Acts, Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Preservation Act, National Trails System Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Land and Water conservation Act, Solid Waste disposal Act, Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act., National Historic Preservation Act, Aircraft Noise Abatement Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

Johnson left office in January 1969. Since that time nearly 40 years ago very little else of a progressive nature has taken place in American national politics. It’s been a long essentially conservative era to this day.

(As an editor of the leftist Guardian newsweekly during the 1960s, this writer — along with much of the left — was so preoccupied with opposing Johnson’s imperialist war that his domestic accomplishments were virtually drowned out amid the shouts of “LBJ, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?” In compiling the facts for this article, after almost four politically dreary decades of the Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush administrations, it was impossible not to be quite impressed by Johnson’s progressive legislative achievements.)

Some Democrats point to certain initiatives emanating from the eight years Bill Clinton occupied the White House (1993-2001) to suggest he was a liberal, but the record shows an administration that was virtually indifferent to strengthening or generating social service programs for the people. Clinton’s few accomplishments over two terms do not amount to much more than the Family Medical Leave Act (1993), providing unpaid leave to take care of a newborn infant or sick family member; the AmeriCorps public service program (1993); an increase in the minimum wage in 1996; and his support for the Republican welfare “reform” legislation in 1996, which ended the federal welfare system that was put in place when the Democratic Party was liberal. The party has now moved so deeply into the center it considers “ending welfare as we know it” to be a major accomplishment of the Clinton presidency.

After this excursion into America’s progressive past, we repeat the question at the beginning of this article: “How can poverty and grave economic inequality be reduced significantly in the United States? Under what conditions might it be possible to bring about a period of significant progressive reform that would address our country’s major social problems?”

There are short term and long term responses to this question. We will deal only with the short term foreseeable future and leave matters of social revolution and the complete restructuring of society for another forum.

It seems to us, from the past history of social reform in American, that it’s going to take a lot more to greatly reduce poverty and inequality than crossing one’s fingers and voting for a centrist politician to lead the country, backed by a largely centrist and rightist Congress. The U.S. has experienced alternating centrist and rightist governments for decades, and they have been the cause of increasing poverty and the widening rich-poor gap,.

We have talked to a number of progressives who are investing hopes for a better America in their ability to work internally to transform the Democratic Party into a replica of its liberal periods of 40 and 70 years ago.

We have mentioned to them that to accomplish this would require the near takeover of a party that is now held in the iron grip of a centrist leadership. This leadership is supported by a solid majority of its elected politicians, the Democratic Leadership Council, the Blue Dogs, the party apparatus, the fundraisers, and the big donors. Then there’s the powerful beneficiaries of great corporate, financial and inherited riches — the 5% who control 58.9% of the nation’s wealth and assets — who have a huge stake in keeping the two-party system in what their self-interest dictates is the correct political alignment. And they are surely content with today’s center-right political parameters. To put it mildly, they have considerable influence.

We respect the left Democrats who are trying to transform the Party from within, but do not think they will succeed.

In our opinion, to provide a serious antidote to the plague of poverty and inequality — among other grave shortcomings in our society — requires a resurgence of both the political left in America and the emergence of progressive mass movements of people demanding real social change.

Can such a combination of circumstances move the Democrats sufficiently to the left to achieve the objective of implementing high quality social programs? Maybe. It did in the 1930s and ’60s. But today’s Democratic Party seems quite comfortable occupying the political center, functioning as a barrier to the left in national politics, and prospering as the only “lesser evil” in town, effortlessly capturing millions of progressive votes from people who feel they have no other choice.

A resurgent left could offer other choices, not only in the social movements for change but party politics as well.

Suppose there was to be a revival of the Progressive Party idea — not as a quickly organized national alternative that makes a small dent and fades away. Many advanced capitalist societies have a few mass political parties (not just two) and several smaller but viable parties as well, and at least one of the big parties to one degree or another seeks to represent the interests of the working people. This is why such countries, all within the capitalist orbit, have done a better job than ours in serving their people — from longer vacations to lower infant mortality, from universal healthcare to adequate welfare programs. And in many ways they are more democratic, too, and far less warlike and hegemonic.

Building such a new mass party would take a long time, but if the progressive sector of the labor movement got behind the idea it wouldn’t take as long, especially if it was joined by movements for peace and justice, for racial, gender and economic equality, for environmental survival, for cutting the war budget and eliminating nuclear weapons, for immigrant and gay rights, and for ending militarism and imperialism.

There are already a number of small left third parties, some of which might benefit by association with an up and coming, all-embracing Progressive Party (of whatever name) that was seeking to become a viable mainstream party.

Given the awesome complexity of attempting to convince the fractious U.S. left to get behind a major progressive third party will make the expression about “the devil in the details” sound like the understatement of the century.

But the existence of a viable left third party, coupled with progressive social movements in motion, would create a national political environment conducive to the growth of all sectors of the left and their respective parties, clearing the way for further progress.

Liberal economist Paul Krugman, whom we quoted earlier, also speculated in the same article that “it’s much too soon to declare the march toward a New Gilded Age over,” meaning things will get worse before they get better, but he concluded: “If history is any guide, one of these days we’ll see the emergence of a New Progressive Era, maybe even a new New Deal. But it may be a long wait.”

Or maybe not so long, depending mainly on the future status of America’s left and progressive forces, the revival of mass activist movements, and objective economic and social conditions within the U.S., plus on the final disposition of the Democratic Party and on what the progressives within that party will do when they cannot move it toward a new progressive era.

Jack A. Smith is the editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Jack.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Timber said on July 3rd, 2008 at 9:53am #

    To me, the biggest difference between those earlier struggles and the struggle we face today, and a huge obstacle facing anyone with hopes for real reform, is that the three groups involved in those struggles have now for the most part been co-opted and have become part of the establishment we hope to reform.

    Half of all women are married to conservatives and right-wingers, and many of them are actively engaged in movements like the pro-life movement that are openly antagonistic to their own gender. Most of these, as well as many “liberals” are so vested in the materialism of the status quo that they have no interest in seeing it changed. Case in point: Hillary Clinton as a hero of alleged liberal and progressive women.

    Many blacks (and other minorities) have been co-opted by the easy access to affordable status symbols like SUVs and Bluetooths, and identify with the ruling class (and dream of being part of it themselves). The proof is in the prevalence of these symbols even in working class neighborhoods like mine. If you’d like to argue that poor people in this country would rather be more free or work less than drive an Escalade, I don’t think you spend much time around poor people. Likewise, popular black “religious leaders” like Kreflo Dollar and T.D. Jakes focus on obedience to authority and “prosperity” messages in their evangelism.

    Workers are now invested in the system through the stock market, and benefit from the exploitation of other workers by saving at WalMart or wearing clothing and shoes produced by companies like Nike under slave-labor conditions as status symbols, so they have no sense of solidarity with other workers, here or in other countries. Many of them now work benefit directly or indirectly from the military-industrial complex either by working for military contractors or being dependent on income from a family member serving the establishment in the military.

    These three groups organized in the past largely to advance their own self-interest, and they represented enough of a threat to the system to demand change. What large group will step forward in this country now to demand justice for the victims of U.S. imperialism, or to indict corporate capitalism? Until it becomes a matter of self-interest, the way that it took $4.00 a gallon gas to reduce the number of trendy gas-guzzlers on the road when environmental and humanitarian concerns were completely ignored, I think it’s magical thinking to imagine a mass mobilization like those responsible for the successful social movements of the past.

  2. bozhidar balkas said on July 3rd, 2008 at 12:17pm #

    come get ur jesus cry out mad priests.
    so, poor people ge their jesus; rich ones get their jesus+power/money

  3. Diane said on July 3rd, 2008 at 4:11pm #

    Well said Timber. As an Australian I may have a slightly different perspective. Here our political traditions have had a bedrock of industrial socialism, our LaborParty was until recent times a coalition of working class trade unionists and left leaning social democrats, now though it has been absorbed into the modernist liberal democrat tradition with a strong adherence to a diluted of form neoliberalism.
    I was active in the trade union movement from the 1960’s to the 1990’s and we managed to better or at least maintain conditions. It has personally distressed me to see these conditions almost completely eroded by 11 years of neoconservative rule.
    Yet it still has to be asked why did this happen?
    My very own minorityview is that the working class in western first world countries, were bought off, by thirty pieces of silver and a few trinkets, encouraged to ignore the conditions of exploited countries, so as to enjoy the droppings off the tables of the rich. As John Lennon so eloquently said, “Your still fucking peasants as far as I can see”.
    To me, the singular most important factor was the facilitation of cheap credit. In Australia in 1960’s the working class were encouraged to buy homes,and public housing stock was sold off, public housing was demonised and its residents condemned. By the 1990’s increasing housing prices had made many ordinary people affluent, and their children assisted by low interest rates moved in and gentrified the old working class suburbs. It also had the effect of stymying the trade unions ability to maintain long struggles as pay packets were seriously mortgaged to the finance industry, only the old industry unions with well maintained strike funds, were able to undertake long strike action.
    To me this process has been facilitated by the left’s acceptance of scientism, the idea of progress and a self satisfied smugness with its own sense of cleverness, ie housing prices are increasing as part of an evolutionary process not a global housing bubble.
    I as strongly influenced by American progressive writersin my youth, people like Upton Sinclair, Theodore Drieser, Sinclair Lewis,Steinbeck,writers who got to the heart of the matter,ratherthan being deceived by external political actions.This I believe is what the progressive movement needs to do a little more of.

    Ah generation of betrayal,
    of surrogate, indecent men,
    generation of leftovers, we’ll be swept away-
    never mind the slow pace of history-
    by children bearing rocks.

    –Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), “Children Bearing Rocks

  4. Miek said on July 4th, 2008 at 1:16am #

    Not bad – except that there is not, nor ever has been, any union by the name of the International Workers of the World. The Wobblies were convicted and incarcerated, framed and defamed, reported and deported murdered and shot for all manner of things from criminal syndicalism, to forgery, to exercising their right to free speech to murder. Never did anyone make it stick that they were guilty or are guilty of murdering the English language by using a redundancy like “International” Workers of the World. INDUSTRIAL Workers of the World is the correct Monika

  5. siamdave said on July 4th, 2008 at 10:50pm #

    Must summer read – the story of Green Island , where they deposed the bankers and instituted a true modern democracy – and then had to fight back the attempted regime change. And then something like ‘god’ gets involved and all humanity is on trial for barbarism. It is a vision of a modern democracy that shows the way out of the dystopia that the capitalists have created, and explains what it is about capitalism that requires its excision from our society, like any virulent cancer ….

  6. Jay said on July 6th, 2008 at 9:46am #

    Timber’s comment falls into the unfortunate category of fatalism, i.e., we’ll simply have to wait around until self-interest takes hold of the working class before mass mobilization will develop. Well, unless I’m mistaken, it’s always been the job of radicals and revolutionaries to point out the contradictions that allow people to understand and act upon their situation.

    Regarding Jack A. Smith’s article, it’s good, though it does make me miss James Weinstein. Like with the INDUSTRIAL Workers of the World, there’s only the barest mention in passing of the Socialist Party. Not only did the Populists elect public officials in the Progressive era, the Socialists did likewise. Even later, the Socialist Party under Norman Thomas has been credited for the program that FDR largely stole for the New Deal. One minor point, when arguing that the war in Yugoslavia was unjust, greater clarification is needed so that, for example, one doesn’t come across as a pro-Albanian apologist.

  7. hp said on July 6th, 2008 at 3:01pm #

    What war in Yugoslavia?
    You must mean the NATO aggression against the people of Serbia and Kosovo.
    The war crimes of bombing civilian infrastructure and civilians.
    I mean, c’mon now, we’re not ten years old. NATO flew more than 20,000 sorties and destroyed less than 20 tanks. Just what is it they WERE bombing in that “war?”
    The so-called ethnic cleansing didn’t commence until NATO unleashed its reign of air terror, its 42 day bombing spree upon a nation where military targets were few and far between.
    NATO, which had not fired one single solitary bullet for fifty years now turns into some monstrous machine loosed on Serbia to justify its newly unjustifiable existence. (no soviet union)

  8. Jack A. Smith said on July 7th, 2008 at 8:10pm #

    HP misunderstood the reference to Yugoslavia, which obviously was an imperial adventure. It was mentioned in reference to Clinton as an example of his shortcoming, not his strength.

  9. Carl Davidson said on July 8th, 2008 at 2:22pm #

    Jack Smith raises some important questions here; and to his credit, he gets the political landscape right, with the two major parties occupying the center, center right and the right. That’s better than many on the left, who simply treat them as one reactionary mass.

    I’d go a little further, and add some detail, such as seeing Obama as a ‘high road’ industrial policy capitalist and multipolar globalist–just read his Cooper Union speech a while back. Clinton is a garden-variety corporate liberal capitalist, which got her on the board of Walmart for years. And McCain is a US hegemonist and an unreconstructed neoliberal capitalist–‘state all evil, market all good’–that kind that says ‘We’re in business to make money, not steel, so we’ll gut these plants and speculate in oil futures, and the workers and towns be damned.’ In other words, the ones who ‘cut taxes’ by putting everything on the China Visa card and got us into this mess. Then add in the Lou Dobbs/Pat Buchanan right wing nationalist-populists, and you have a fairly complete picture of the US political class today, at least at the top.

    No matter. This changes over time. But Smith’s piece has the virtue of being a concrete analysis, rather than just repeating formulas.

    I’ve done an examination of leftists and progressives in our history, starting with my experience in the New Party in the mid-1990s (where we first interviewed a young kid from Project Vote named Obama, when he was seeking the Illinois statehouse) and it’s use, and fight for, the ‘fusion’ tactic, which we took to the Supreme Court, and lost, at least in that round. The remnant of that effort is the Working Families Party in New York, one of the few states allowing fusion tickets, whereby, for instance, one could vote for Obama for president on the WFP line, and that vote would go to his total, but you could vote for WFP candidates running against Democrats in local races, and perhaps defeat them.

    This tactic allows fledgling third parties to gain strength. Fusion voting used to be common in the U.S. The populist parties also the West grew through its use, as did the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs in its early days, with Debs himself once running as a Democrat. But that’s also why a reactionary wave of ‘election law reform’ took it away from us by the 1920s.

    One very interesting tactic to get around this was developed by radical farmers in several states, the Non-Partisan Leagues. They would develop a platform and then proceed to recruit a ticket of all candidates they found somewhat trustworthy regardless of what other party they might be members of, if they were with any at all, so long as they pledged to the NPL program planks and ticket. In many areas, the endorsement of the NPL was what counted among most voters, and other affiliations were secondary. They were rather successful, taking over several states for a time.

    I’ve been arguing that we might want to draw a lesson here as a starting point, rather than simply starting with a call for a new mass party. The reason? Getting new parties to have a shot requires a change in the election laws in almost every state. Our current law is the most reactionary in the modern world, but it’s not chiseled in stone. Instant runoff, preferential balloting, proportional representation, open primaries and a few other changes all serve as a prolegomena to any decent multi-party system, and a more representative and participatory democracy.

    But to get these changes, you need a ‘democracy movement’ to get them WITH, and one willing to fight the battle between elections, not just in the period before an election is coming up.

    That’s where a modern-day non-partisan grassroots progressive alliance might be the best next step forward. What’s to stop, say, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Labor Party activists (where it’s still alive), the ‘Tom Hayden Democrats’ (Obama’s term) in the PDA, the more pragmatic Greens, the DSA, CC-DS, CPUSA, even PSL, not to mention non-affiliated leftists and progressives–all from forming a common platform of deep structural reforms needed in given cities and states, getting local political candidates, leaders and elected officials to sign on to it, and then building the organizations of the alliance in the context of both electoral struggle and mass action? When you organized your precinct and registered voters, the Alliance would keep the lists and resources, rather than turning them over to the local Dems.

    This way you’re actually constructing the building blocks of a mass progressive party starting where you are, then networking those efforts with similar efforts across the country. And you gain some experience about what works and what doesn’t in the process.

    My guess is that the radical mass parties from our history probably went through something similar, and didn’t just erupt on the scene, full blown, because someone put out a call for it.

    In any case, that’s something that some of us in ‘Progressives for Obama’ are thinking about, but you don’t have to be behind that particular candidate to see a common cause and common effort here.