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The Progressive Promise of Today's Technology

04/04/2015 01:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2015

When the 2008 presidential campaign began, iPhones did not exist. Today, as the 2016 campaign gets underway, smartphones are in the hands of 75 percent of Americans, who use them to summon cars at the touch of a button, control their thermostats while vacationing on a beach, take photographs and videos of themselves (and, sometimes, of others), and navigate the streets of nearly any city on earth, among thousands of other uses, including, every once in a while, making a phone call.

It's a small example, perhaps. But it speaks to the way in which new technologies are rapidly transforming our lives. These technologies are not just tools or marvels -- they have reshaped Americans' expectations of businesses, government, community institutions, and one another.

We have been in such a place before. On a sweltering August day in the summer of 1912, before a crowd of thousands in the old Chicago Coliseum, Theodore Roosevelt accepted the nomination of the newly formed Progressive Party. "The prime need today," he declared, "is to face the fact that we are now in the midst of a great economic evolution."

That economic evolution was driven by the birth of new technologies -- trains and telegraphs, phones and phonographs. But these technologies -- and the new assembly-line factories they brought with them -- stood in sharp contrast to an antiquated government still operating on principles more suited to an America of farms than of factories.

For the Progressives, the results were plain to see: growing inequality, an unchecked rise in corporate power, government captured by special interests, environmental destruction. However, they also saw the lost potential due to a government that had been frozen in the status quo. The Progressives were not unnerved by the technology-fueled transformation of American life. They were excited by it. They saw the promise of these innovations and believed government could harness the new ways of organizing human effort they brought with them to make Americans healthier and better educated and liberated from ancient limitations of distance and ignorance.

The foes of Progressivism, the populists on one side and the conservatives on the other, were essentially mirror images of one another, each trying to hold back change -- the former in the economy, the latter in government. They were not only history's losers -- they were wrong. What Roosevelt and others knew was that in order to keep faith with the founders' essential vision of America as a land of equal opportunity, government had to keep pace with the times.

In the face of this new economy, the Progressive Party put forward in its 1912 platform a set of ideas largely new to American politics, a wish list for the century ahead. To review the 1912 Progressive platform is to be reminded of generations of struggles, successes, and setbacks experienced by progressives in both parties over the past hundred years. The platform included calls for a minimum wage, the prohibition of child labor, rights for labor unions, an eight-hour workday, disability benefits, and mandatory days off from work. Progressives sought to choose party nominees through primaries instead of the backrooms of party bosses, and they endorsed the direct election of U.S. senators, women's suffrage, campaign finance limitations and disclosure, the registration of lobbyists, and state-level initiatives, referendums, and recalls.

They proposed a series of new government departments that eventually became the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Labor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Institutes of Health, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and even the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The platform advocated the creation of national laboratories, an interstate highway system, education for all, and federal estate and income taxes. The then-new ideas put forward in the Progressive Party's platform were mere dreams in 1912. Today, they are all realities of American life.

Especially from the perspective of a century later, what might well be the central plank of that platform was the demand for "[t]he protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use." Insurance for the unemployed and for older Americans came to pass in the 1935 Social Security Act. However, in the years since, the first part of this plank -- protection "against the hazards of sickness," the last jewel in the crown of twentieth-century progressivism -- was always out of reach. That was the case until the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. With this achievement, the final empty box on progressives' to-do list was finally checked.

The question we now face is, "What comes next?" Having completed the work of the twentieth century, progressives can now turn their attention to mending and expanding on what has already been built or protecting it against those who would tear it down. Both are essentially conservative approaches.

There is a better course: a new agenda for a new America. Once again, progressives must look clearly and honestly at the wrenching, technology-fueled economic transformations all around us and propose solutions equal in scale to the opportunities and troubles we see.

Like the industrial expansion that created the middle class, the twenty-first-century digital revolution can power a return to broadly shared growth. Instead of accommodating ourselves to secular stagnation, we should be crafting the policy agenda that will make such a revival possible. This means dramatic changes in a tax code and regulatory policies that were created for a bygone economy so that we can unleash private-sector investment and innovation. It includes a new public infrastructure to support smart appliances, vehicles, and buildings. We must rethink what unemployment and job-training benefits look like for an Individual Age in which there are fewer jobs created by corporations than those people create for themselves. Our schools need to be rethought in ways far more fundamental than those contemplated in the tired debate over reform, and a college education must be made as universal as progressives made high school a century ago.

In 2016, we will mark two decades since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This landmark legislation shaped the public-policy landscape of the digital age. However, it mentioned the Internet in only two places -- and one of them focused on prohibiting its use for obscene purposes, which, as you might surmise, never took effect. The twentieth anniversary -- and the 2016 campaign -- should force us to look forward, not only to new, twenty-first-century policies but also to a whole new agenda that takes seriously how much our world has changed. From our workplaces to our streets to our homes, technology is presenting new chances for a better life, and challenges to the laws and lives we know. But smart devices will only reach their potential if there is a wise government that encourages their development and responds to the questions they raise. A future where our cars and coffee pots and computers talk to one another is merely the tip of the iceberg of the prospects of a networked world. A digital policy for the new century, tailored not just to the moment but for the future, is vital if we are to unleash economic growth, shared prosperity, and the full potential of technology for citizens and consumers. But such a policy architecture requires a new consensus -- on privacy, on security, on customer protections, on growth and mobility.

American progressivism was born in response to the technological explosion of the Industrial Age. It can now declare "mission accomplished" and act as a conservator of a proud legacy -- or it can do the hard work to think anew and act anew in response to the possibilities and problems of an economic evolution just as vast. "[I]t behooves Americans to keep abreast of the great industrial changes," Roosevelt said on that hot day in Chicago in 1912, "and to show that the people themselves...can meet an age of crisis with wisdom and strength." We have a proud heritage and much work to do.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. To see the other essays in this series, click here.