The Progressive Paradox

Bob LaFolletteAt the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a broad consensus among reformers in the United States regarding the perniciousness of economic monopolies and winner-take-all politics. After that period of rampant growth and cronyism known as the Gilded Age, groups who had been disproportionately disadvantaged by political patronage and voter fraud began to organize their activities around the need for policies maximizing the inclusiveness and fairness of democratic procedures. This movement had a name: Progressivism. The goal was to improve the outcomes of democratic elections by creating mechanisms that would effectively hold representatives accountable to the informed interests and preferences of the electorate. This required both an alteration in the parties that supplied the representatives and the people who voted for them. The state-level changes included transparency requirements and anti-corruption oversights for elected representatives, suffrage and poll access reforms, while the political parties became quasi-state entities forced to submit their expenditures to public accountability, in exchange for which they received public funding. The electorate began to create spaces, both publically and privately funded, aimed at fostering broad deliberation prior to elections: Chautauquas, discussion clubs, and settlement houses like Chicago’s Hull House formed for the purposes of adult and immigrant education, issue identification, neighborhood organizing, and debate.

Peter Levine has argued that the accomplishments and pitfalls of the pre-Depression Progressive movement are best epitomized by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign as the Progressive Party nominee. As governor and then Senator for Wisconsin, La Follette achieved singular victories in transparency, honesty, and accountability. “Until the last phase of his career, he spoke about little except political reform and generic rights for all consumers and taxpayers.” (Levine 2000, 22) Yet when the procedural reforms were enacted, they naturally created a situation which his successors used to enact substantive policies with regard to the regulation of industry (especially the railroads), funding (a ‘progressive’ state income tax), and to form environmental conservation agencies, complicated schemes for state life insurance, and agricultural subsidies. On the one hand, La Follette’s “political reform produced stronger, more efficient, and more representative government,” on the other hand, the electorate used  their increased involvement and accountability to demand “a massive increase in the powers of government, which (in turn) necessitated the use of expert administrators.” (Levine 2000, 25-6) In short order, the democratic gains were lost to a set of institutions who were no more accessible procedurally than their corrupt and exclusive predecessors, even as they were oriented, at least at first, towards the objectives of justice and the public interest arrived upon democratically.

The greatest irony of the American Progressive era is that the supremely democratic efforts of labor groups, community activists, and the deliberative elements of the public sphere accomplished unprecedented victories, but that these victories led to policy decisions that undermined the very democratic activities that made them possible. The potential for further ‘progress’ was dissipated as state-centric solutions to economic and social problems led to an increasing reliance on the institutions that make up what we now call the ‘administrative state.’ However, this is not simply a matter of kicking aside the ladder once we have ascended. The condition of possibility for future endeavors cannot be sustained without maintenance: public policies must appear, along with the officials who administer them, in public spaces where they can be understood, evaluated, and amended at will. This space must also be open for the appearance of unexpected individuals, encounters, and acts; the only thing that closes that space is violence.

The Progressive paradox was first identified as the ‘the curse of bigness,’ a phrase used by Louis Brandeis to describe the deleterious effects of the expansion and centralization of business and government. As organizations grow, they become increasingly inaccessible and procedurally rational. Their capacity to remain accountable to their constituents is inversely proportionate to their efficiency. Large institutions replace the public sphere, which provides opportunities for individuals to appear through deeds and speech, with a regulatory apparatus ruled by speech codes and language games. Expert bureaucrats rely on complicated schemes like insurance or subtle changes in promulgated regulations, which make it difficult for non-experts to engage as equals in ascertaining the relationship and judging their efficacy between policy measures and policy goals. We live in what Michael Sandel calls a ‘procedural republic,’ where both the forms of administrative power and the plural character of the citizenry prevent meaningful deliberation regarding the public good, which undermines collective action in support of thick cultural values beyond basic fairness.

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