May 27, 2020

New Op-ed: What Do Progressives Want? It Depends on Which Ones You’re Talking About

Originally published by AM Greatness.

Progressives are a chameleon-like group, having morphed from Republicans, to Bull Mooses (or is it Meese?) to Democrats. Now is a good time to evaluate what progressives want.

Today, they are more like the cuckoo than the male of the moose species. Having taken over the Democratic Party nest, the Progs pushed out the offspring of FDR, its traditional inhabitants, the tribunes of labor and small farmers the party once nurtured.

If we examine the record, we find on some issues today’s progressives hold fast to the precepts of the original movement, while on others, not so much. 

Let’s start with the similarities.

The original progressives, essentially, were an anti-(small-d) democratic movement. They believed modern industrial society had grown too complex to be ruled by the rabble, aka representative democracy. To their thinking, science had advanced to the point that technocrats schooled in the latest management techniques could run the country more efficiently than anyone else.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, a contemporary of the original progressives, captures the central conceit of the movement. Taylor was the father of time-and-motion studies, a leader of the Efficiency Movement and the original management consultant. He would go into the industrial workplace and, with stopwatch in hand, break each job into its component tasks and measure them to the split second with the goal of finding the “one best way” to do it. Managers would employ “methods based on a scientific study” in Taylor’s world.

Taylor’s technique, dubbed scientific management, was celebrated by progressives, taught at Harvard in 1908 and embraced by a University of Chicago professor named James McKinsey, founder of McKinsey & Company consultants.

The quest to bring scientific management to all aspects of society spawned the urban renewal movement. It’s important to remember that Robert Moses, the man who demolished New York City in order to save it, as Robert Caro has exhaustively documented, came out of the Progressive movement and exemplifies all its prejudices and conceits.

Moses saw the human scale, organic neighborhoods of New York as filthy and backward, ripe for replacement with large “efficient” standardized apartment blocks. This Progressive instinct for centralization, consolidation and efficiency could be seen in the growth of supermarket chain stores that began displacing mom-and-pop grocers and butchers in the 1920s and 30s. The “reformers”—in league with the chain stores—argued the small shops were filthy, backwards, and inefficient.

The same way Taylor sought scientific efficiency in the workplace, Margaret Sanger, another progressive luminary, advocated a more scientific approach to procreation in order to improve the human race. Vladimir Lenin, who brought “scientific socialism” to Russia, was another fan of Taylor’s scientific management.

Labor unions loathed Taylor (the feeling was mutual), accusing him of squeezing every ounce of sweat from workers. Today’s employees have the same fear and loathing when McKinsey & Co., Taylor’s heir, shows up to axe their jobs in the name of improving efficiency.

Progressives have kept their faith in the cult of the expert—paging Dr. Fauci—and scientific management. Whatever nonsense they perpetrate, whether on public health or climate trends, they buttress it with increasingly shrill invocations of “science.” Governor Cuomo proudly announces he has McKinsey & Company advising him on the state’s pandemic management. He should be glad they failed so dramatically or progressive New Yorkers might be asking why we need an elected government at all—or even deep state bureaucrats—when we have McKinsey experts.

Now, as then, progressives aren’t particularly keen on labor unions. They pay lip service to “working people” but the left wing of the Democratic Party is fixated on illegal immigration, LGBLT and climate change—concerns of the professional and managerial, rather than the working class. 

But today’s progressives diverge from the originals in their professed interest in democracy.

The progressives default to experts on every issue of governance, even demanding a multi-pronged multi-phase expert-conceived plan for every facet of every business’ operations before allowing an opening. But they have dispensed with the experts and expert discussion when it comes to how to vote in November. They’ve already figured it out—it’s by mail.

Today’s progressives say anyone skeptical about turning the mailbox into the ballot box just wants to suppress the vote. 

And that’s the turnabout, for the original progressives were eager to suppress the vote.

In the name of “good government” reform, those progressives purged the voter rolls, tightened voting requirements and disenfranchised millions. The original progressives eliminated measures such as universal automatic registration that today’s progressives want to reinstate

The good government reformers of the early 20th century were horrified by the political machines stuffing ballot boxes with the votes of illiterate immigrants and farmers.

Virginia progressive Carter Glass (he of the Glass-Steagall Act which ended stock speculation by banks) summed up their sentiment: “Nothing can be more dangerous to our republican institutions than to see hordes of ignorant and worthless men marching to the polls and putting in their ballots against the intelligence and worth of the land.”

In the 19th century, voters either registered in person once and for life or government registrars compiled lists of eligible voters and registered them automatically. “Good government” progressives replaced that with periodic in-person registration in order to deter repeat and out-of-state voters—the very fraud today’s progressives say doesn’t happen.

Political parties used to give voters ballots with the party’s candidates—and only those candidates—for voters to cast. Progressives replaced the party ballot with the government-issued secret ballot we know today, featuring multiple candidates for different offices. They did this not to offer voters more choices, but to discourage the illiterate from voting.  

Today, the progressives say they want to expand the franchise even though their affinity toward government-by-expert renders elected offices null.

One suspects if they felt they could legalize pre-marked ballots, they would.

But for now, they will settle for mailing a ballot to every name on the poorly maintained voter rolls, recruit an army like the newly hired contact tracers, help the less-motivated, illiterate, confused, deceased or non-existent recipients fill out the ballots, then collect and return them.

If you have a problem with that plan, you’re not one of today’s progressives.

You’re one of the originals.  

Curtis Ellis is the Senior Policy Director for America First Policies.

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