BECKET — As the 2020 election approaches, progressive ideas are gaining traction. These would expand the safety net for hard-pressed middle-class and low-income Americans, an expansion that is badly needed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, racial and class injustices, climate change, and long-term economic and societal disruptions down the road.
For these reasons, many Americans support the call by progressives for more generous Social Security, universal health care, a shelf of standby job programs, more aid to education at all levels, rebuilding our public works, better child care, affordable housing and redoubled efforts to close the racial and class divide. As an economist I have believed for decades that the country has the resources and workers to do all these things.
I do not, however, support progressive attacks on the Founding Fathers and earlier American leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, who are being dismissed as "moderates" and "racists." To the contrary, their insights about human nature are the bedrock of the American political experiment.
Alexander Hamilton said, "I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man." He opposed slavery all his life but loved and depended on George Washington, who was a slave owner. The families of the wives of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant were slave owners, but Lincoln and Grant attacked the injustice of slavery and risked their lives to end it.
Hundreds of thousands of imperfect, mostly white northern officers and soldiers "bore the battle" — holding the slopes at Gettysburg; charging the bristling Confederate trenches in front of Fredericksburg, Chattanooga, Petersburg and Richmond; and advancing the fight to achieve racial justice that we are still in. They should be loved and honored for what they did, not attacked for being imperfect by 2020 standards.
American progressives represent an aspect of human nature that the founders understood. They knew that the passions of the moment were dangerous to the liberties Americans imperfectly cherish. They built a Constitution and system of government that depends on political competition between "opposite and rival interests" and "checks and balances" that protect dissidents and minorities and slow decision-making so that ill-considered impulses can be contained.
Progressive passions are inflamed now as the November election approaches, passions that the founders hoped their political system could manage. Progressives seem especially eager to target people who are their friends and allies, older generations of progressives and moderates.
I admire U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for her cutting wit and piercing intellect, as well as for many of her policy preferences. I hate, however, her attacks on other Democrats, especially when they are tinged with a racism that she abhors in others. She must know that the leaders of the French Revolution were guillotined by the more "woke" revolutionaries who followed them. By the same token, Democratic socialists in Russia were murdered by the more ideologically inflamed communists, who then killed and starved millions ostensibly in the name of equality and liberation.
Too many American progressives forget how progress is made in our political system. Theodore Roosevelt was an imperialist, but he was also a reformer hated by the rich exploiters of the Gilded Age, whom he fought tooth and nail. Woodrow Wilson was a racist southerner who believed in the horrific anti-Black eugenics of the time, but he achieved a long list of progressive reforms.
Roosevelt and Wilson used the federal government to help ordinary people and weaken the power of the 19th-century robber barons, who hated them as AOC is hated today by our generation's bloated barons.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a similar story. He created Social Security and used the federal government effectively in other areas to help ordinary people — workers, farmers and small-business owners — survive the Great Depression. He, too, was hated by the financial barons and had to make painful concessions to southern racists in several areas because he needed their support against Wall Street. Political reality often forces distasteful choices.
The search for perfection has too often been suicidal politics. Progressives like Sen. Eugene McCarthy attacked Hubert Humphrey for being insufficiently liberal in 1968, a tactic that helped elect Richard Nixon. Sen. Ted Kennedy attacked Jimmy Carter in 1980 for similar reasons, helping to elect Ronald Reagan, a 1950s shill for General Electric and proponent of tax breaks for the wealthy that have done great harm. Liberal and minority voters in 2016 disliked Hillary Clinton, and their reluctance to get behind her helped make the viciously illiberal, vindictive, self-absorbed, morally repugnant Donald Trump president.
There are lessons in this history that progressives who want to improve the lives of ordinary people need to learn. Government is a tricky business that requires coalitions, workarounds and compromises. Times and mores change.
The goal this November should be to put a good person in the White House and win a working majority in the Senate and House, so that a progressive agenda can be pursued. Perfection is a bridge too far.