President Biden: Today’s standard bearer for the original progressive vision
NOTE: This Article was written for publication in the summer of 2021.
President Biden has gone big. In the American Jobs Plan and the American Families plan, he has put together what would be the most expensive and third most expensive single bills in our nation’s history (the second most expensive being the American Rescue Plan in March). These investments include addressing clean water and affordable housing, broadband and transportation infrastructure, as well as free universal pre-school, tuition-free community college, and expanded child care.
The scope of his proposals has drawn comparisons to President Johnson’s Great Society and President Roosevelt’s New Deal. But, in truth, the President is building off a legacy that stretches back further, to the very beginnings of progressivism.
As we gather to celebrate Independence Day this weekend, we’ll also inadvertently mark another anniversary in American history. On July 4, 1892, a group of disaffected leaders with various partisan ties came together in Omaha, Nebraska and launched the Populist Party. Emblazoned in the preamble of the party platform, the populists declared, “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few… and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.” With that, a national movement to address wealth inequality was born. The platform went on to call for more unionization, improved workers’ rights, democratic reform and land conservation.
The Populist Party was short-lived, and all but dissolved after its endorsement of Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1896, who failed to win the presidency. Nevertheless, it shifted the political discussion and built momentum for policies that were worker-focused and delivered for the American people. At the turn of the century, Republican leaders, from Governor LaFollette in Wisconsin, to Governor Cummins in Iowa and Mayor Sam “Golden Rule” Jones in Toledo, Ohio, enacted policies that we, today, would consider progressive: free kindergartens, eight-hour work days for city workers, and increased taxation on corporations. LaFollette and Cummins both went on to champion those progressive commitments in the U.S. Senate.
On the other side of the aisle, William Jennings Bryan also called for what became a progressive rallying cry: the end to such vast income inequality. “There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”
It was a unique time in American governance, when the tectonic plates of party politics began to shift –– LaFolette, for example, recalled how William Jennings Bryan refused to campaign against him in the 1902 election because, despite their partisan allegiances, Bryan believed in LaFolette’s actions. The party positions of old began to realign and, out of the quagmire, Teddy Roosevelt launched the Progressive Party in 1912. It was here that progressivism on the national stage really began to take hold.
As a Republican President between 1901-1909, Roosevelt revealed his proclivity for the progressive. The Pure Food and Drug Act brought necessary regulation to the food industry, The Hepburn Act to the railroads, and his aggressive application of the Sherman Antitrust Act ensured fairer competition –– not to mention the Transfer Act in 1905 and the Antiquities Act in 1906, which respectively established the United States Forest Service and the authority to establish national monuments and federal lands.
When Roosevelt established the Progressive Party, he went even further. He not only called for greater regulation and a worker-centered economy, with minimum wage standards for women, the expansion of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and transparency over conditions of labor, he also called for a system of social insurance, expanded education, and a graduated inheritance tax (not to mention the ratification of the pending amendment to levy a federal income tax). With regard to unionization, the platform states, “we favor the organization of the workers, men and women, as a means of protecting their interests and of promoting their progress.” He also called for improved infrastructure, the protection of immigrants, and the cessation of public lands being sold to private entities, as well as severed ties between “corrupt business and corrupt politics.”
Now, were all these policies reflective of modern-day progressivism? No, but they represent the seeds from which today’s progressivism has grown. Roosevelt’s land conservation has matured into today’s climate policy; his party’s endorsement of Women’s Suffrage matured into the push for all American adults to have the right to vote, regardless of gender or race. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was undoubtedly influenced by progressives who came before him and, in turn, influenced President Johnson’s Great Society.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party may have ceased operations shortly after his death, but it’s legacy runs true today. It gave a lease of life to a Democratic Party that went on to co-opt many of its policies and champion a bottom-up, middle-out economic philosophy under FDR. Those core principles remain at the center of the Democratic Party today.
Some of the foundational, progressive policies have long been put to bed –– a prohibition of child labor; the direct election of Senators, for example –– but, while others have matured with the times, many remain unresolved. Today’s Republicans still argue for a trickle-down economics that, even 100-plus years ago, was disregarded by progressives; the colossal wealth gap still stands in the way of economic prosperity, and unsavory relationships between politicians and corporate interests still impede a more virtuous democracy.
Nevertheless, the mark of progress is clear. The lineage between progressives then and a more promising American now is on full display. It demonstrates that the fight for progress is worthy, and that it is the direction in which our nation is determined to move.
President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan will not satisfy all the unresolved tenets of the progressive cause, but they offer the chance to make two giant leaps in the right direction. The President’s focus on a clean recovery dovetails with the land conservation roots of progressivism; his desire to raise corporate tax and invest in good-paying jobs speaks to the principle of redressing economic inequality, and his focus on expanded education, child care, and more resilient infrastructure matches the long-standing, progressive rallying cry of implementing a government and an economy that delivers for its people.