Eric Foner on the Evolution of Liberalism
As a historian, what do you make of the American left’s turn back to the term progressivism?
Ever since Reagan and the first Bush turned liberal into a term of abuse, it’s very hard to find politicians who will forthrightly proclaim themselves liberals. The term progressive is a substitute. It sounds good. How can anyone be against things that are progressive as opposed to retrograde? Of course, the term progressive relates to the Progressive Era of a century ago, when certain views that we associate with liberalism entered the political spectrum. Things like governmental regulation of corporations and provision of basic social security for people. If you read the platform of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive Party, it laid out much of the agenda for 20th century liberalism through the New Deal.
Modern liberals and turn-of-the-century progressives share a similar view of the role of government in society. But going back to the term progressive is a little misleading. Earlier progressives had no interest, by and large, in race issues. They accepted segregation. And they were uninterested in civil liberties, which has become a basic element of modern liberalism. They were statists – they weren’t interested in standing up against the state. So today’s progressivism is different from what progressivism meant a century ago.
What would you define as the core tenets of today’s progressivism?
As I see it, the core tenets are somewhat at odds with each other. On the one hand you have the belief in governmental assistance to the less fortunate, governmental regulation of economic activity and very modest governmental efforts to redistribute wealth to assist those further down the social scale. So it’s active government, in the pursuit of social goals, when it comes to the economy. On the other hand, modern liberalism emphasises privacy, individual rights and civil liberties – keeping government out of your life when it comes to things like abortion rights. In other words, in the private realm liberalism is for autonomy and lack of government intervention. And also I think today’s liberalism is strongly identified with the rights of various minority groups within American society. This multicultural element was not really part of liberalism until the radical movements of the 1960s. One of the reasons I chose these books is that I think liberalism has changed significantly since the 1960s. It is no longer the same thing it was in the era of Theodore Roosevelt or even Franklin Roosevelt....
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