Time for a Historical Reckoning: Progressive and Liberal, not Conservative Policies Built America
I grew up on a 160-acre farm in northeast Kansas. Far from being remote, I lived a mere 25 minutes south of Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas and now approximately 95,000 people. My Dad is a fourth generation Kansas farmer; his great, great-grandfather and grandmother emigrated from Germany in 1846, settling first in Missouri. Within a few decades, my father’s paternal lineage had moved to the farming community in which I grew up, settled and never left. That is until I came along.
Like most farm kids, I had to do chores that usually involved animal feces, weed pulling, and tractor driving. In the summers, my sister and I were expected to help our Dad and grandfather with a variety of farm work, all of which required sunscreen and sweat. But maybe unlike most farm kids, I had the annoying habit of being inquisitive. And I liked history. So, while Dad and I walked the bean and milo fields chopping down cane, or driving Grandpa from field to field, I learned the history of the very farms on which we worked. We talked about what it was like to farm in the 1920s and 30s, and how technology and industrial innovations revolutionized farmers’ productivity. My Dad described the local county, state, and federal resources available to farmers to help increase productivity but also absorb and protect from some of the shocks of the marketplace.
By the time I left for college, I had a decent understanding of agribusiness. I could not (and did not want to) run a farm, but I at least had a rudimentary understanding of my Dad’s occupation. And party politics or political ideology never entered the conversation. Until now.
Kansas has always been a Republican state. In fact, Republican and Kansas history are so intrinsically tied together that you cannot discuss one without understanding the other. Without Bleeding Kansas, we do not have Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, and without the Republican Party, which developed in opposition to slavery, we do not have Kansas. But Kansas was not always conservative, in fact, the state would not be what it is today had it not been for progressive and liberal policies (or what we have come to define as liberal in the United States). And perhaps more importantly to me and my family, the farm – the one that has been part of our history for well over 100 years – may very well not exist were it not for progressivism.
Lest readers fear that I am about to dive into a rant about the President and the current state of the Republican Party you can rest easy. That is not my intent. Rather, I have decided to spend time this year talking about progressivism – the only real alternative to the conservative ideology presented by the Republican Party. First, we need to ground ourselves in some definitions, which I will do in my next post. Too many terms are used in ways that are often incorrect or placed in errant contexts. And yes it is true: I am quite snobby when it comes to context.
Every single American has been positively shaped and affected by progressivism but in the last 40 years, we have either forgotten or led to believe otherwise. Today’s political debates focus on words like “entitlements” and “welfare” because those terms conjure up images that stir emotions on both sides of the political spectrum. But these programs should not be classified as “government spending” rather progressive policies that resulted from ongoing social reform movements. These are not mere semantic changes; they are material modifications to how we view community, society, and our responsibility toward one another as Americans.
After definition, I want to discuss America’s history of progressive politics. Bear in mind that as I have admitted, I am much better versed in the history of conservatism so I reserve the right to correct myself. Additionally, I encourage any reader to correct my reading of the facts or interpretation of a historical event.
We must prepare for what comes after the Trump Administration. Certainly, there will be damage to repair. But Trump encapsulates at least a 40-year conservative consolidation and march toward reversing twentieth-century (and early twenty-first century) progressive policy. We can discuss Trump’s racist and dangerous Tweets twenty-four-seven, but we must not lose focus towards laying the groundwork for the next progressive wave.
And that means making sure we know what progressivism is and is not. It means knowing what liberalism is and is not. It requires recognizing when and how progressive policies impact your family’s life (in both positive and negative ways). And finally, it means recognizing your responsibility as an American and global citizen – a responsibility toward those citizens that you know and perhaps more significantly, those that you do not.
Progressive versus Conservative: A short introduction.
*Note: Before we dive into the positive effects that progressivism has had on the state of Kansas, I do want to pay homage to the destructive conservative and libertarian policies that have befallen my home state these last 8 years. I urge anyone not familiar with the Kansas budget debacle to simply Google, “Governor Sam Brownback and Kansas Budget Crisis.” It’s a good read.
While a more comprehensive post with definitions and comparisons is forthcoming (I want it to be ‘next’ but given our president, I cannot guarantee that tomorrow, I do not feel forced to respond to some newly embarrassing and potentially racially charged statements that must be rebuked. So the best I can say is, “forthcoming”), it behooves us to have a working definition of both progressive and conservatism as they apply to public policy.
Progressivism is forward thinking and reform-minded. Progressives view change as inherently good and believe that governments must not only recognize fundamental changes to the economy but also to predict them. Moreover, progressives believe that government power should be used to help equalize the playing field, especially if that playing field is lopsided as a result of changes in the economy and global marketplace. In short, progressives believe that the government should use the levers of its power to redistribute wealth and opportunity to those who do not have the power to do so for themselves.
On the other hand, conservatives believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I promise a more comprehensive and objective definition in that forthcoming post. In fact, I believe I have already provided a good deal of information about what conservatives believe in “The Great Debate.” Conservatives tend to play it safe and prefer to take fewer risks. There is nothing inherently wrong with that perspective and in the right doses, it is preferred. But there is a danger when we start to redefine history in terms that are blatantly false. That danger is playing out before our eyes in the debate over immigration.
I am not hyperbolic when I state that Kansas exists as it does today because of progressive policies (well, as it did before Governor Brownback and his merry band of reactionary Republicans entered the statehouse back in 2011). These policies and acts were debated and opposed at the time they were passed and they were continued to be held in contempt by conservatives in subsequent generations. It has taken generations for the “progressivism” to be erased from the national consciousness and to just be accepted as a given and in some cases a “right” of citizenship. In the Kansas example, what I am about to describe are no longer considered progressive or conservative. They just “are.”
Progressive Policies and Kansas
To some, the 160-acre unit triggered a memory; something they learned in their American history class years ago. During the Civil War (1860s), Congress passed the Homestead Acts, a series of laws that in effect settled the lands making up the Louisiana Purchase (which included Kansas) and the Mexican Territory acquired post-Mexican War. It bears mentioning in no uncertain terms that the losers of each of these “American victories” were the indigenous populations of North America, the millions of natives whose ancestral homes were stripped from their grasps as they were all either killed, diseased or forced onto reservations. This shameful part of our history, like slavery and the racism that followed, has been one of the least taught in our schools and certainly one that I personally need to learn.
Prior to the Civil War, southern conservatives who at the time were part of the Democratic party were opposed to the organized settlement of the western territories. We learned of this opposition through the various Compromises of the 19th Century as territories sought admittance to the Union. But we also understood the debate in terms of the antebellum’s economic arguments over slavery’s future; how northern industrial capitalists wanted an economy based on free labor, while southern plantation owners demanded slavery.
This debate played out in Congress and prevented the organized settlement of the territories until the south seceded. It was then that Congress passed a series of progressive bills that expanded the role of government in the national economy and shaped the political and economic environment for generations. The Homestead Acts were several laws that gave away or sold millions of acres west of the Mississippi River to settlers who promised to live, work, and improve the land for 5 years. The unit given away in these laws was 160-acres. Now whether my Dad and grandfather’s farm are traced back to the Homestead Acts is yet to be determined. My Dad and I have a date with the deed the next time I visit. But whether our farms originated as a Homestead Act or some other government sale, it does not dispute the premise that most of Kansas and the western territories WERE settled via those laws.
Further, to help pay its costs, during the war, Congress implemented a progressive income tax. It would later be found unconstitutional, a decision later resolved by the 16th Amendment. But it was the absence of conservatives that allowed its passage – the idea that higher earners should pay back more of their income to the U.S. Treasury to help those at the bottom of the economic strata.
The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 was a series of laws that provided for bonds and land grants to be raised for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Finished in 1869, the railroad would transport people and goods from coast to coast and while it did not go through Kansas directly, there is no doubt that farmers and citizens alike benefited from the improved transportation that the railroad offered. Ironically, once conservative politicians took control of the government in the late 19th century, it was farmers that were exploited by the railroad titans of the day by being charged exorbitant prices for transportation costs that ushered in the Progressive Era (the subject of another post). But there is no doubt that part of Kansas’s wealth and even the founding of the Kansas City stockyards are owed to government spending on railroad infrastructure and other progressive policies that benefited farmers.
The next progressive policy of import is a bit less known but could not be more significant: the land-grant university system. These are universities and schools of higher education that resulted from the federal government’s transfer of lands to the state with the stipulation that it be used to sell, raise funds, or endow institutions of higher learning. Part of the deal was that the resulting universities would focus on agriculture, science, military science, and engineering (while not excluding the classical liberal arts). Remember, this was at a time when higher education was limited to those who could afford private tuition and most colleges and universities focused on liberal arts. The United States economy was undergoing rapid change with the industrial revolution and the government knew that the country would need scientists and engineers to maintain our rapid expansion. As a result of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and another in 1890, the United States increased its investment in education and the number of college graduates. Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas might not exist without these progressive acts and the funding that went with them. I know the importance of KSU’s research and development in agribusiness and the impact that it has had on my family’s livelihood. I may be a University of Kansas Jayhawk fan, but I would have had a much different existence without KSU.
Now let’s fast forward several decades to the next major crisis to hit the Kansas farm. It does not mean that my great, great grandfather and grandmother did not benefit from progressive thought and policies in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but I know for sure that my grandfather suffered from conservative ones when the 1930s hit. Of course, the Great Depression has been well documented. It had a profound effect on the nation and around the world. What is less well-known, unless you lived through it, or came from someone who did, was the Dust Bowl.
For purposes of brevity, I will try to summarize. The Dust Bowl ran in parallel to the Great Depression and was comprised of a series of droughts, coupled with massive wind storms. The Dust Bowl affected both the United States and Canada but in the U.S., western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, were the hardest hit. But that did not mean that the rest of the Midwest and Plains, including northeast Kansas where my grandfather farmed, were unaffected. One week before he died in 2003, Grandpa could still remember the dust in his mouth and in his eyes. He remembered the feeling of it on his clothes and body after an hour in the fields and the feeling of no control over his livelihood and his future.
The Dust Bowl was an ecological disaster and today, it reminds me of climate change. What caused it? Well, drought was a big instigator, but farmers had had droughts before, some of which had been several years long. The Dust Bowl was different. For years, farmers had expanded their fields at the government’s encouragement, to grow more crops. To do so, they had ripped out the natural prairie grass (natural moisture absorbers and topsoil adherents) and cut down timber. Whether they knew better, I do not know. But the effect was a disaster: by removing all the natural barriers to topsoil erosion and water absorption, the ground was less able to withstand drought and wind. There were no trees or other natural barriers to stop the wind from simply blowing away the topsoil thus destroying crops and the natural habitat for farming alike.
Roosevelt’s New Deal addressed part of the catastrophe with economic support and farm subsidies. We can debate this all day long, but in the end, when Roosevelt followed his progressive instinct and expanded the use of federal power and spending, the economy experienced growth. When he listened to his critics and restricted spending or tried to balance the budget, the economy constricted. Farmers benefited from a variety of programs, some of which lasted for decades including the Soil Conservation Service of 1935.
My Dad still benefits from state and federal farm programs that require taxpayer funding. Consider conservation. Even if we look at the bare minimum: taxpayer-funded subsidies to land-grant universities (Kansas State University) to identify soil conservation techniques to prevent wind and soil erosion, my parents have benefited. (Note that I have mentioned my mother for the first time in this post. If she is reading, she is likely irritated that I have not yet mentioned her as part owner of the farm enterprise. Sorry Mom!). How does one think my Dad came up with the idea of terraces, watersheds, and waterways? It was through the county conservation office, funded solely by the government. Rich people in New York helped to fund conservation policies in Kansas so that my father could earn a living growing corn and wheat. That is how it works. Or that is how it worked for most of the twentieth century.
Progressive Policies Today
Without placing blame, we have all forgotten or perhaps we never learned the truth. Without progressivism, we would not have public education. Today, education is all about choice, prayer in school and sex education. The debate is centered around controversy, not the purpose of education itself: preparing the next generation for the economy of the future. Does it matter that we have protected our kids from the horror of sex education if they cannot compete in the global marketplace? Does it matter that they were able to openly pray before eating lunch at school if they do not know how to develop a firewall to protect their company’s assets from corporate hackers? No! No! No, it does not! And perhaps most importantly, it does not matter if your child knows how to protect their company’s assets from corporate hackers if fifty-percent of the nation’s population live in poverty and cannot afford to purchase your child’s company’s product. None of these social issues will matter in 30 or 40 years. None. But poverty that high will.
Without progressive policies, we would not have roads and bridges. We would not have the interstate highway system or airports. And that means we would not have cars, trucks or airplanes. Conservative policies did not support this investment, and more importantly – the private sector did not fund these investments. To think otherwise is a misunderstanding of history. The west property line of my parents’ farm demonstrates both the importance of public sector investment but also how widespread the New Deal actually was in the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded the east-west road that runs in front of my parent’s house. Today it is paved but in the 20s, it was dirt. The WPA took the stone from an old road that separated my parent’s farm from their neighbor’s (it had long been replaced by a fence row) and crushed it into gravel creating an east-west road making travel much easier. Thirty years later the gravel turned to pavement. But in the 30s, the WPA employed locals who would have otherwise been unemployed to complete basic infrastructure projects. And yes, they were paid with taxpayer dollars.
I could certainly go on. The 1950s and 60s are often considered the Golden Era of American power, but we tend to forget the progressive policies that not only made those decades possible but the ones that sustained the prosperity to which Americans had grown accustomed. Decline and increasing inequality set in as conservative ideology regained a foothold in the American mindset, leading us to believe that it was conservatism that built the American Dream. It could not be farther from the truth. Progressives not only built the American dream but they fought to expand it to everyone, regardless of race or creed.
We need to reacquaint ourselves with progressivism and her cousin modern liberalism. Conservatives have done an admirable job of demonizing the opposition and progressives became lazy with success. And lest we forget, not every progressive victory was complete. They came slowly and entire groups were sacrificed for what at the time was considered the larger good. Champions of progressive policies in some areas were racists in others. Racism and anti-immigration elements ran through even progressive periods of our history.
Yes, we should know that President Wilson supported progressive policies in business and labor markets, he segregated the federal workforce. FDR ignored civil rights in order to get Southern Democratic support for his New Deal policies. Lyndon Johnson jettisoned those same Southern Democrats in pursuit of Civil and Voting Rights and a War on Poverty while ramping up an unjust war that killed millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of American soldiers. We are a complex people. We need no more evidence of that than our current political predicament.
We must be honest with ourselves: we have gotten ourselves into one hell of a pickle. Conservatism is not just a set of political ideas, it has become a reactionary ideology and movement backed by a small number of billionaires and plutocrats. Their progressive opposition, stymied by the fear of communism and the success of the New Deal and Great Society, became lazy and failed to adapt to a new economy and the forces of reaction. Progressives and liberals retreated in the aftermath of the 60s and 70s to academics and special interest groups that focused on identity over the collective responsibility of citizenship. We ceded the field to supply-side economics, states rights, individualism, and a reinterpretation of the Bible that supported something called “The Prosperity Gospel” over the actual Gospels.
America does not have a historical precedent for 2018. We have never suffered such retrenchment or isolationist policies. Analysts and historians compare part of our current experience to the 1930s, but the pre-war international order is in no way comparable to the second decade of the 21st century. Nuclear weapons, the internet, the sheer number of nation-states simply did not exist 90 years ago. Economies, technologies, cultures, and their resulting political policies are entirely different. We are treading on new ground.
But having said that, this is not the first time America has experienced something unprecedented. Change is the only constant; progressivism is how we address change. Conservatism has its place. It can slow down rapid progressivism that might otherwise lead to radical change for which the population is not ready. In that regard, it staves off a revolution. But it should not stymie reform, nor should it resolve to reverse decades of progress. Conservatism in America has been successful when it too is reformed minded and presents ideas based on what has worked in the past, not on idealistic policy proposals written by lobbyists and think tanks funded by billionaires.
So let’s talk about progressivism. It is not a panacea, but its policies have solved problems in our history and there is no reason to think it cannot again. But we have to stop listening and believing what the opposition tells us about what progressivism is and how destructive modern liberals are to our moral fabric. It is not true. All of these lies are distractions from the core issues facing America and the world. Progressivism is with us every day and I would bet my next paycheck that your favorite Trump supporting Republican credits most of it to conservatism. Let’s set the record straight.