Yoni Appelbaum: Why Progressives Are Losing the National Debate

Roundup: Historians' Take

Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.

Americans are grappling with struggling markets, captured regulators, languishing employment, and rising inequality. Self-identified progressives, mostly found on or to the left of the Democratic Party, have for years made these issues central to their agenda. The moment seems ripe for the popular embrace of progressive policies. Instead, progressives find themselves embattled. "Voters feel ever more estranged from government -- and...they associate Democrats with government," explains Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. The result is that "a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism."

That has not always been so. At the beginning of the last century, the movement from which modern-day progressives take their name capitalized on a crisis of government legitimacy to increase dramatically the scope, scale and responsibilities of government. If progressives wish to recapture popular support, they might reflect on that earlier example.

Progressivism, then as now, was less a coherent ideology than a set of loosely allied and sometimes starkly opposed groups and beliefs. Wikipedia defines Progressivism as "a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action." That captures, with reasonable accuracy, its current connotations. But it misses the more important half of the original progressive project. Progressives did not merely seek to use government as an instrument of reform. As historian Robert Wiebe has argued, they pursued a revolutionary approach to government itself. 

Progressives offered a clear diagnosis of what ailed the body politic: corrupt politicians. They had been captured by party machines and powerful businesses, and labored on behalf of their patrons and themselves instead of the people. Advancing the public interest, it followed, would first require radical, structural reforms of government....

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