This article attempts to give significant historical context for the progressive movement today.
Early Founding Fathers
The early founding fathers were a divided bunch, representing slave owners such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, and abolitionists including Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton. The abolitionist founding fathers are the antecedents of the modern Progressive movement, not just favoring socially liberal causes which were championed by John Locke but also championing economically liberal ideas which were written by their contemporary Adam Smith. The beginning of economic reforms can be seen clearly by Alexander Hamilton who championed the formation of America’s first National Bank, taxing alcohol, and funding national infrastructure. These original planks of the platform have continued to be part of progressive thought in the United States ever since.
National Republican Party
In 1824 President John Quincy Adams formed a new party which championed significant infrastructure spending, access to college, a national bankruptcy law, national banking, and had an ambitious agenda which was ahead of his time. The National Republican Party grew into the opposition during President Jackson’s time in office. It evolved into the Whig Party during Jackson’s second term.
The Whig Party was a party which existed from 1833 to 1856 which advocated for policies including a national bank and building infrastructure. They were divided over the issue of slavery, and this ended up to be their downfall. William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore were members of the Whig Party. The only trifecta formed by the Whig Party was in 1841 when they accomplished the formation of a national bank and clear laws on bankruptcy.
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by former Whigs and former Free Soilers who were opposed to the expansion of Slavery in to the West. Beyond slavery, economic reforms supported by the Republican Party included anti-trust reforms, infrastructure, national banking, and other economic reforms which can easily be traced as the precedents of reforms which were made during the early 20th century. President Theodore Roosevelt was the last progressive Republican President and he championed these economic policies with his reputation as a trust buster and economic reform, policies which live on with the progressive movement today.
After President Taft was elected he turned the Republican Party into a much more conservative party. In response to this, President Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party to run in the 1912 Presidential election. This party included parts of the platform like campaign finance reform, trust-busting, workers rights, and other planks which can be found in the platforms of modern politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The Progressive movement joined the New Deal Coalition formed by President Roosevelt in the 1930s which adopted many of the Progressive Party’s main ideas.
The current progressive movement traces itself back to the platform of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Comparing policies across such a wide time span is of course difficult because a lot has changed over the last 90 years, but when it comes to economic policies, there is a very clear line of descent from President Roosevelt extending through the Great Society of LBJ down to the Obama Presidency to the present day. This line is most clear through economic policies, and when it comes to social policies the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has moved significantly farther left over the last 90 years as I am about to describe.
President Roosevelt of course pushed for many economic ideas which are strongly supported by the progressive wing today, with the FDIC, public works, and Social Security. President Truman continued this with the foundation of many home ownership programs. These economic policies are clearly reflected in the economic policies of President Obama and the economic platforms of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
During the 1960s we saw the continuation of massive progressive economic reforms including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and more as part of President Johnson’s Great Society. During President Johnson’s term we saw the marriage of progressive economic policies with socially progressive policies into one platform which is very clearly connected with the policies of modern progressive candidates. This was the golden age of American progressivism, with massive progress being done for society.
The Great Hiatus
In 1968 President Johnson was resoundly defeated in the Presidential Primary and Hubert Humphrey was defeated by President Nixon. The main reason for this is the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, which is fairly complex in the scope of the global geopolitical situation era of the time. This point in history deserves an article of its own.
The last major victory for social progress of the previous era was Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The 1970s saw a great decline in the progressive movement, and in 1976 the standard bearer for the progressive movement was Senator Udall who was resoundly defeated by Governor Carter who then of course became President Carter. President Carter took a step back from the socially liberal policies of President Johnson by starting the NSA, and did not have any major accomplishments during his time in office. He faced a challenge from Ted Kennedy (representing the progressive wing) in the primary who he narrowly beat, and then was defeated by Governor Reagan.
The Reagan and first Bush administrations moved America’s culture significantly to the right on many issues. When 1992 came around the New Democrat Coalition’s candidate Bill Clinton won the election with no significant progressive competition and he of course became President. President Bill Clinton took a big step back from the progressive platform of his Democratic forebears by signing the Defense of Marriage Act, deregulating Wall Street, and intensifying the War on Drugs. President Bill Clinton also tried to pass health care reform during his first two years, but unfortunately that attempt failed.
The 2000 election was a massive blow to the Democratic Party of the United States. We saw a victory in the popular vote for Al Gore, a moderate New Democrat, while George W. Bush, a died in the wool neoconservative won the electoral college with 271 votes, only 2 more than was needed to prevent the results going to Congress. The 2000 Democratic Primary was an overwhelming landslide for Al Gore, and he almost won the presidency. Following his defeat, George Bush governed from as far right as it was possible to go in this country, slowly tightening the screws through his presidency to bring America into two new wars, a less progressive tax code, championing conservative social values, and signing the PATRIOT ACT into law less than 9 months after his inauguration, arguing that 9/11 gave the government the ability to suspend Habeus Corpus. He appointed 2 justices to the Supreme Court, and his impact on our court system lasts to this day.
Americans grew fairly used to the increase in surveillance which hums in the background, the War on Terror continues to beat on 20 years later, and his economic policies widened the gap between the rich and the poor.
In the 2004 presidential primary Howard Dean carried the banner of the progressive movement and failed to win even a million votes. He was the first significant progressive Presidential candidate in 16 years.
On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama became the President of the United States. He won a great deal because of his book Audacity of Hope , where he clearly lays out his agenda which included the need for health care reform, support for civil unions, how he is opposed to torture, the need to tax wealthy Americans at a higher rate than middle class Americans, and other items which placed him towards the left wing of the party. He proposed bills on all of these major issues as soon as he got into office, and there he faced significant opposition from his own party on his proposals. All were either significantly whittled down or blocked completely, making a victory in 2010 less likely due to reduced enthusiasm from within the Democratic Party.
In 2012 Obama faced reelection, and 51% of Americans supported gay marriage. On May 9, President Obama announced how he supported same sex marriage. In February 2015 gay marriage was sitting at 63% approval according to CNN. Obama significantly moved America to the left on gay marriage through his court appointments and public statements.
When it comes to health care, Americans have had positive views on the government expanding access to health care for the past 20 years. There was a drop during Obama’s presidency (probably due to the incessant comparison of the Affordable Care Act to the Soviet Union by Fox News) but over the last 3 years we have seen that public support for government being involved in health care has risen back up to historical levels. Medicare For All already had 2/3 approval when Obama was elected President. Despite such overwhelming support, the Democrats in Congress still killed the public option.
It seems to me that President Obama moved America to the left on social issues and brought back a lot of the reforms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt which had been killed b y President Clinton with the Dodd Frank Act, which is a monumental shift in the Democratic Party moving back to its mid century roots.
It is difficult to know how the health care polling would be different if the Affordable Care Act hadn’t been so significantly amended by Congress.
What is even more interesting is that even though Obama campaigned on breaking mass surveillance he failed to defend the Fourth Amendment once he was in office. This involved enforcing the laws which were put onto the books by his predecessor, not the implementation of new laws which continue to clearly violate the 4th Amendment day after day.
So, when we are trying to understand what was facing the Obama presidency, there were numerous challenges. The era of Social Security having a surplus was coming to a close, and that needed to be dealt with. The Federal deficit was large, and he entered during a massive economic crisis. When he was unable to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, one of the most flagrant violations of the US Constitution, it became very clear that the moderate Democrats who controlled congress were not focused on social issues at that point in time. By the time the economy recovered and our social issue compass was moving forward to the point where there might have been enough public pressure to end mass surveillance, the Republicans had both houses of Congress and any chance of making a significant amendment to the PATRIOT ACT was not possible. Any amendment to a major bill which would have at least required the NSA to get a court approved warrant before a search of someone’s personal property was not possible. Obama could have made a stance on this, but he chose not to. Mass surveillance and drone strikes were probably his two biggest failures looking back from the perspective of the 2020s.
President Obama is one of the most consequential and fascinating Presidents in American history. The way in which he moved America forward on issues such as gay marriage and economic reforms are extremely significant, as well as the issues which took a back burner during his presidency such as unwarranted wire tapping and drone strikes.
But one thing is for sure, President Obama was the most progressive President for 40 years and he opened the door for the progressive movement to see a massive resurgence in the mid-2010s due to his work where he moved the Overton Window towards justice.
The 2016 election saw the rise of Bernie Sanders as a candidate. He managed to win a large number of states which would end up voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election, although he came up significantly short when it came to the popular vote. This was the best performance for an unabashedly progressive Presidential candidate in a primary since 1964 when LBJ won after signing the Civil Rights Act. He received 13 million votes.
The 2020 election built off the ground work which Bernie Sanders made in the 2016 election. There were two progressive candidates this time, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. Together they won 12 million votes. Vice President Biden beat them with 19 million votes.
While progressives were defeated in the primary they saw significant gains in congress relative to the New Democrat Caucus in the House. While many New Democrats lost seats, no progressives lost seats in the 2020 election for the House of Representatives.
What happens next remains to be seen. Since Obama was President the views of Americans have moved left on social issues significantly, and there are growing calls for health care reform. Opinion polling implies that the progressive platform is now the more popular vision for America’s future. As we tackle problems such as climate change, immigrant rights, mass surveillance, economic inequality, and others, the question going forward is whether Progressives will become the largest caucus among Democrats in 2022 and take the Senate. If Progressives do this right, we could become the dominant vision in the Democratic Party again.
We live in a world more interconnected than ever before with trade, which means that as countries become ever more interdependent on each other that large wars like we saw during the Cold War are unlikely to happen again. Without a Vietnam War type situation, the probability of a backlash against a Progressive Democratic President becomes increasingly unlikely.
The marriage of social liberalism with economic liberalism is now very strong in the Democratic Party, and is only showing signs of becoming stronger as time goes on.
By running experienced activists with good heads on their shoulders and a solid campaign strategy everywhere we can, I believe that is very possible that the progressive movement could become the dominant vision within the Democratic Party in the next 3 years.
This will allow us to essentially eliminate the Electoral College through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact which will essentially guarantee that a modern Republican candidate will not be able to win. The Republican Party will lose a few elections and then need to restructure themselves and stop emphasizing far right viewpoints.
The main election over the next decade will then be the Democratic Primary, and if that translates into gains in the Senate and House, we can lead America into prosperity which will hopefully reduce the number of Americans who are attracted to simple answers which won’t work from extremist ideologies to solve their problems.
This will allow us to strengthen the social safety net, increase civil liberties and fight racism.
The Progressive movement has been with the United States since the beginning and will likely remain a major force in American politics for a long time to come. Every time we have married progressive economic reforms (government subsidized infrastructure, a strong national bank, economic opportunity) with progressive social issues we have dominated the American landscape.
Every time we have divorced social and economic reforms we have done relatively poorly.
We did this to various levels in the 1860s, 1960s, and 2010s. If we do this again over the next decade we are going to once again dominate American politics, and make America a more prosperous and freer country again.