Progressive and proud

January 29, 2002|By Rob Gaudet

STANFORD, Calif. - As we enter a new year, our natural tendency is to look for signs of progress in the preceding year. We want to see milestones. Unfortunately, the words to describe this sense of political change - "progressive" and "liberal" - have been smeared over the past 50 years.

We have become protectors of the status quo. Our ruling philosophy is laissez-faire capitalism. This runs contrary to our own political history. The previous century brought us transformative leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Teddy Roosevelt rode this country into a new century as president from 1901 to 1909. He ran in 1912 as a candidate for the Progressive Movement. His platform determined the next 50 years of social reform: minimum standards of workplace safety and health; medical, old age and unemployment insurance; public ownership of natural resources; a progressive income tax; government supervision of the securities markets; the creation of the Labor Department; and the end of child labor.

Today's leaders don't dare to dream. Instead, they label progressives as "card-carrying members of the ACLU" (George H.W. Bush to Michael Dukakis) or "thumb-sucking liberals" (James Baker to a crowd of Baker Botts associates in reference to people who believe in the International Criminal Court). This name-calling has stifled our confidence to chart the future.

Now, we have an MBA president. He tinkers with the economy and reacts to world events. So far, he's provided solid leadership in the wake of Sept. 11. The problem is that he lacks a progressive agenda to take us to the next level. He'll guard the status quo while Mr. Baker and others use the word "liberal" as a tag of disrepute.

The word "liberal" first started to sound dirty in 1948 when the Progressive Party asked the United States to pursue a policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union. Around 1950, the Progressive Party opposed American intervention in the Korean War. They looked like a bunch of pansies. Even today, "liberal" sounds a little soft. William Safire's New Political Dictionary offers the following synonyms: "knee-jerk," "bleeding heart," "pinko," "parlor pink" and "egghead."

The words "progressive" and "liberal" should be rescued from these shenanigans and restored to their former majesty. George Washington described liberals as generous and open-minded people. He contrasted them with narrow-minded people who wanted to deprive Jews and Catholics of their civil rights.

Earl Warren, then governor of California, wrote in 1948: "I particularly like the term `progressive.' To me it represents true liberalism and the best attitude that we could possibly have in American life. The reactionary, concerned only with his own position, and indifferent to the welfare of others, would resist progress regardless of changed conditions or human need."

The past 20 years have fallen under a "reactionary" model, to use Warren's words, in which each person has been concerned only with his own position.

As the last progressive president, LBJ created Medicare, passed the Voting Rights Act and started what is now the Department of Housing and Urban Development. His progressive vision took its final breath when Bill Clinton dismantled the federal welfare system.

We can learn from smaller countries such as Norway and Sweden, which believe in social learning. We should ask ourselves why 14 percent of Americans, compared with 4 percent of Norwegians and 6 percent of Swedes, live below the poverty line. After all, our gross domestic product is a much higher $32,000 per capita. We should ask ourselves why Sweden has more Internet users as a percentage of its population than the country that invented the Internet. The answer: social learning.

There is more to politics than protecting the status quo. We have LBJ's War on Poverty to finish. We have to fulfill Teddy Roosevelt's dream of national health insurance. We have to encourage female political leadership. Only 14 percent of seats in Congress are held by women, compared with 37 percent of seats in the Norwegian legislature, 37 percent of seats in the Finnish legislature and 43 percent of seats in the Swedish legislature.

As we enter a new season, we should think about the milestones that we can establish in the coming year. In doing so, we should wear the progressive label with pride, scoffing at those who would disparage the legacies of Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK and LBJ.

We must dare to dream again.

Rob Gaudet, a third-year law student at Stanford University, spent most of his teen-age years in Baltimore.

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