Rebooting the Progressive Era

It isn’t literally true that history repeats itself, but it is true that one class of excesses is reliably followed by opposing excesses. What Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age, for instance, was followed by the reforms of the Progressive Era.

Two of the giants of the Progressive Era, John Dewey and Upton Sinclair, were self-identified socialists who, upon their deaths in 1952 and 1968, respectively, considered their life’s work substantially complete. The unions were strong and a force to be reckoned with in public life, a social safety net had been stitched together, affordable advanced education was accessible to every American.

Then came Ronald Reagan and the United States became a debtor nation for the first time in its history, the power of unions dramatically declined, educational debt mounted until today it is second to only mortgage debt — and the rich got richer.

And, with a wealthy buffoon who is frankly hostile to American ideals occupying the White House … what do you know? The Democrats are rebooting the Progressive Era, and the First Felon is howling about … socialism!

We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country. — Donald Trump

The Democratic talking points are these:

  • Soak-the-rich taxes

  • Free college for all

  • Medicare for all

The devil is always in the details, but none of these things should be, on their face, all that alarming.

Taxes   Estates were taxed at 70% when Ronald Reagan took office, and the income tax could range even higher. There was, then, a much smaller gap between the very rich and the middle class, and America was not a debtor nation.

Education   When Ronald Reagan took office, the unions provided a gateway and entrance into the trades — plumbing and electrical careers, for example — and most companies provided financial backing for employees and their children who wanted advanced education. My dad worked for Ford Motor Company, for instance, and the Ford Foundation guaranteed my student loans. What is more, it was still a time when it was possible to build a good career and life with a high school education.

Much of the generation ahead of me, including many of the faculty at Michigan Tech, my alma mater, had educations paid by the G.I. Bill.

But a high school education no longer counts for much at all, a lot of the social groups that valued and backed education have declined, and the urgency of the Sputnik Era is gone. The result is that America no longer treats a good education as part and parcel of its duty to the next generation and the country’s future.

Medicare for all   Why is it that it’s the “exceptionalist” crowd which insists that America is the only First World country on earth that can’t afford to guarantee medical care for its people? And am I alone in noting the irony that it was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, who first proposed that America adopt a universal health care plan?

I repeat: The devil is in the details. Unfortunately, the Republican strategy seems to be to foreclose any discussion of the details by raising the spectre of dread SOCIALISM! against two policies that were a commonplace here (taxes, education) just 50-years ago, and a third whose mismanagement has been ruinous and is a commonplace throughout the rest of the First World.

And note this irony: the Loony Right that responds to witless clamor about SOCIALISM! are the very people trying to return America to an era when the country’s wealth was distributed much more equitably than today. Granted, they are much more animated by hostility to gays and other minorities than economics, but the fact remains that their gauzily remembered and yearned-for Sunnybrook Republic was much more collectivist than today — and much happier.

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