At the turn of the last century, as America's booming economy generated unprecedented wealth for the fortunate few, many of those so blessed sought to use their money and the political power it bought for them to undermine democracy and further enrich themselves. Would any reasonable person who is paying attention to what is happening today conclude that those developments were any less dangerous to our democracy than the concentration of wealth, unfettered corporate power over the political process, completely unprotected working people, and the huge and growing gap between the most wealthy and the rest of us that is currently under way?
Abuses of the system by those with the most wealth and power led to progressive reforms that we still benefit from today but which have been seriously eroded and are at risk of being eliminated by those who think owning most of America and completely controlling the political process gives them the right to continue to accumulate even more wealth and power. Clearly, this is just as inimical to American values and unsustainable in the long run as the reformers of the Progressive Era believed a hundred years ago.
Who were those reformers? They were a diverse group who looked at what was occurring in America, did not like what they saw, and decided that remedial action was required. Most notable among them were journalists like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker, whose articles appeared in a new magazine, McClure's, at the turn of the last century. Along with a cadre of other investigative reporters, they used their writing skills to expose the dark underside of rapid American industrial development, including the predatory and monopolistic behavior of the new corporate behemoths. Their carefully researched articles informed and outraged the public, helping create a national demand for reform.
Other progressive reformers had begun to examine the systemic causes of unemployment, poverty, unsafe workplaces, unhealthy tenements, and child labor, as well as the social costs of failing to address these problems. Their widely read books helped expose the abuses of an exploitative economic system. A few examples are John Spargo's The Bitter Cry of Children, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Robert Hunter's Poverty. By turning a spotlight on the nation's failure to live up to its ideals, they added immeasurably to the impetus for reform, providing much of the factual and emotional ammunition for the deluge of social reforms that were initiated by states and municipalities during the Progressive Era..
By that time, the labor unions were already winning significant concessions from specific employers and, in some instances, whole industries. Clearly, they were in the forefront of the national struggle for workers' rights to organize, a living wage, safe workplaces, regulated hours, etc. Most of those gains were won with the blood and other sacrifices of those workers who stood up to the intransigent and often violent responses of their employers. Many of the gains initially secured by the unions were adopted by specific states and municipalities and, ultimately, enacted into Federal law, especially in the 1930s.
These workplace rights were expanded and enforced for the next thirty years until the right wing of the Republican Party in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s mounted their systematic assault on ordinary working people, their families, and the people who sought to represent them. We are now experiencing the consequences of three decades of corporate deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, a complete disregard for the poor and vulnerable, and an all-out assault on working people and those who try to speak out for them.
So, who might be the early twenty-first century's version of the Progressive Era reformers? The good news is that there are many serious scholars and journalists producing volumes of material on what has happened in America over the last thirty years, how it happened, and who was responsible. Paul Krugman's recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal, is only one example of the growing body of literature that makes it clear that prevailing government policy was setting the country up for the financial disaster that occurred, causing unprecedented income inequality that is unsustainable, if we are to remain a middle-class country. Other examples are Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's Winner-Take-All Politics and Gretchen Morgenson's Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. These social scientists and journalists are worthy successors to the social reformers of a hundred years ago, as are others too numerous to cite. As was done in the Progressive Era, their findings must be communicated effectively to the widest audiences possible through today's media outlets.
A comprehensive list of potential media outlets that would welcome input from informed citizens is beyond the scope of this article but some obvious ones at the national level come to mind: E. J Dionne, Eugene Robinson, Maureen Dowd, The Nation, The Progressive, and Mother Jones. Several print journalists also regularly appear on radio and television talk shows, as do the aforementioned Paul Krugman and other public intellectuals, like Robert Reich.
Reaching especially large and receptive audiences are such MSNBC programs as "The Ed Show," "The Rachel Maddow Show," "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell," and "Hardball with Chris Matthews." These programs and their hosts have all done admirable work in holding the feet of wrongdoers and their apologists to the fire. Most of the traditional media, as well as the journalists who work for them, are increasing their web-based presence. Such reliably progressive operations as the HuffingtonPost.com, Salon.com, and the DailyBeast.com offer additional opportunities to communicate important messages.
Who among today's billionaires might we expect to step up and call for change in the system that has generated such incredible riches for their class? Is anyone likely to propose radical change? Maybe, but we should not depend on it. Then, what about working to turn back the clock to the time when workers received a living wage, were protected from death, injury and unregulated workplace health hazards, allowed to organize in their own interests, and virtually everyone had medical and unemployment insurance, as well as some income security in their retirement years or if they became disabled? Does this sound too radical for today's billionaires? Perhaps, but one would hope that someone among them would think that restoring those basic rights that have been systematically eroded over the past thirty years is not unreasonable.
So, who might today's Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt who was happy to be called a traitor to his class be? George Soros and Warren Buffett have given signs that they are on the right side of these issues. The Gates family have also shown that they have a social conscience so there is some possibility of leadership here. Or, could Michael Bloomberg turn out to be the twenty-first century's wealthy and principled political leader who will champion progressive reform? The right wing of the Republican Party has decided to attack him -- which is a promising sign. What about Russ Feingold, everyone's favorite battler against the corrosive effect of money in politics? His decades-long struggle to limit the amount of money spent on political campaigns made him a prime target of the money interests and cost him his U. S. Senate seat in 2010. Within months, he founded Progressives United and vowed to continue the fight for ordinary working people and their families. Could he be the one to take the country back from the ultra-Right and the big-money-dependent politicians on both sides of the aisle?
There is a lot at stake here, beyond who wins the next presidential election and which party controls the Congress in January 2013. We are at a critical point in America's history which has remarkable similarities to that which the country faced during the first two decades of the last century and, again, in the Great Depression. Right-wing politicians, with unlimited and undisclosed financial support from the country's moneyed interests, are in the process of dismantling or eviscerating such basic programs as Social Security and its 1965 spinoffs, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as workers' right to organize and any form of government regulation. In doing so, they are, once again, putting the country at serious risk, with reckless disregard for the potential consequences. Once more, as was done in the Progressive Era and, more comprehensively, in the 1930s, we will have to save the unfettered free-market system from its own worst enemy -- itself.