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Neo-Progressives

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It seems that just about every hundred years (or so, I'm a lawyer; cut me some slack; numbers aren't my thing), the body politic we call America swells with fever as it fights off a democracy-destroying disease. That disease is "Special Interest Government," a government captured by the economically powerful in society, as they find a way to convert economic into political power; the fever comes from the reform movement, keen to kill that disease and restore an ideal of government of, by, and for "the People."

The rise of Andrew Jackson was the first of these cycles. His fight with the Second Bank of the United States and with the "monied interests" as he called them was the romantic political struggle for most Americans for much of the 19th Century -- far more important than anything Washington or Hamilton had done.

The rise of the Progressive Movement in the late 19th, and early 20th Century was the second of these cycles. Reformer after reformer focused the American democracy on the deep corruption that had captured government. The first round of "robber barons" had completed their theft. Smart and courageous souls fought on every front to end the threat of more robber barons, and reclaim the democracy that Jackson had promised.

We have now entered the third of these cycles. The anger that has broken out across America is rightly targeted at the captured and incompetent institution that our government has become. That capture, most Americans believe, is a kind of corruption. But not the corruption of bribery, or brown paper bags of cash hidden and traded among congressmen.

Instead the corruption of today is in plain sight. The mechanism of its reach is displayed to everyone. It is the simple and pervasive economy of influence that buys access and more through campaign cash. And then without explicit recognition, the actions of our government are guided by the understanding of how those acts will affect the opportunity to raise money.

I'm sure no one in the White House had a second thought about how bizarre it was that the first deals the administration struck to get health care reform was with the insurance lobby and the pharmaceutical companies. Yet how many of the 69,456,987 votes that Obama received came from them? And so why is it so obvious that they get the first seats in the negotiation of what could be Obama's most important (and only?) significant legislative victory?

As with each of these cycles of reform, when the fever gets hot there arises a political movement to fight the infection. Sometimes that movement has a leader. Some of us thought Obama was our Jackson, a thought that feels embarrassingly naive today.

Sometimes, however, it has no single leader. The resistance instead grows in a wide range of affected contexts, and an almost magical coordination among these disparate interests has an effect.

That was the story of the 20th Century's Progressive Movement. It had no single leader. It had no single plan. Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt were both leading progressives. But the two were as different as Jefferson and Hamilton. They shared a common ideal -- to defeat the power of "the Trusts" to control government -- but they had very different ideas about how that should be done.

Thus, instead of a Jackson, the 20th Century Progressives had an army of leaders in every field of social life that finally forced onto a corrupted political stage demands for political and social reform. For the most part, they got these demands. Not all of them, and some that they got some of us wish they hadn't (the referendum process, for example). But that open source political movement achieved something extraordinary against the most powerful economic forces in the world.

Arianna Huffington has become a leader in this third feverish cycle fighting the corruption our democracy has become. Along with scholar/activists such as Elizabeth Warren, Simon Johnson, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich, and maybe even come-back-kid politicians like Eliot Spitzer, she's building a movement to focus America again upon the once-again task to reclaim our democracy from those who would buy our franchise from beneath us. Through a powerful and clear voice, tied to a growing media empire, she is honing a message and an awareness that we have lost control of this democracy. And she is thereby motivating a Neo-Progressive Movement to respond.

Third World America is a powerful complement to this work. The book is a brief -- in honor of perhaps the wisest of the Progressives, we could call it a Brandeis Brief -- that pulls together in the most powerful way that I have seen just how bad things have become. "In the mid-1960s," Huffington writes, "only 29% thought 'big interests' ran the nation. ... [I]n 2008, 80% ... believed government was controlled by 'a few big interests looking out for themselves.'"

Most important to me, however, is that Third World America is the first in a long line of fantastic Neo-Progressive books that places at the top of the list of reform the need to end Special Interest Government with a system of Citizen Funded Elections.

It is this central objective of killing corporate control of government that links these three progressive movements. But if this movement is to be as successful as the last, it needs to learn an important lesson from the last.

Progressivism in its best sense is not a politics of the Left. Or better, not just a politics of the Left. The 20th Century politician who struck the fatal blow to Republican William Howard Taft's presidency was not a socialist, or a Democrat. It was another Republican: Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette. La Follette was among a band insurgents in the Republican Party of 1910 who believed the party had been taken over by corporate interests. In April, 1911, he launched a challenge to President Taft, pushing five principles of "The National Progressive Republican League." The League had been founded upon the recognition that "popular government in America has been thwarted ... by the special interests." And all five of the principles responded to this "thwarting" with anti-corruption ideals: Four calling for stronger democratic checks on government. The fifth demanding an anti-corruption law with teeth.

La Follette failed to beat Taft, but his partial success encouraged Teddy Roosevelt to return from the wild and try his own hand at ousting a sitting president. Roosevelt too failed to win the Republican nomination, but he continued his campaign as a third party candidate, leading the "Bull Moose Party."

And then there were the Democrats. Most in the party feared it would nominate again the populist William Jennings Bryan. But Bryan recognized he couldn't win. And he instead engineered the nomination of New Jersey Governor (and former Princeton University President) Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson was no populist. But he was a Progressive. As described in Melvin Urofsky's extraordinary biography, Brandeis, Wilson pushed back against Hamiltonian-Teddy Roosevelt, and pushed forward a vision sketched for him by Louis Brandeis: against the idea of a cabal of big business regulated by big government, and for the idea of small business and the liberty that would encourage for all.

The 1912 election thus gave America perhaps the most diverse menu of political options ever in the history of Presidential elections. At one extreme was Socialist Eugene Debs, pushing for a radical change in the substance of American social life. At the other was Republican William Howard Taft, insisting that the substance of pro-business politics that defined the mainstream of the Republican Party was the best policy for Republicans and for America. And in the middle were two strong Progressives, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, both agreeing on the urgent need to end Special Interest Government, even if disagreeing on the vision of how government and business should interact.

Almost 70% of Americans voted for the Progressive cause (42% for Wilson, 27% for Roosevelt. Taft received just 23%). Many of them were Republicans, or former Republicans. Many more were Democrats. But they all represented an odd coalition of interests that put aside strong substantive differences about what government should do to address forcefully (and they naively thought, finally) the corruption that government had become.

The Neo-Progressive Movement needs the same catholicism. The vast majority of Americans would willingly go to war to end Special Interest Government. Disgust with Wall Street "reform" is palpable. The compromises of the bailouts and stimulus plans will just fuel that disgust even more. There is an endless reservoir of examples of government corrupted that could convince America of what it already believes: Money buys results in Congress; "the People" are no longer sovereign.

But if this Neo-Progressive Movement is to have any chance of success, it needs to be disciplined enough not to insist that all members also be members of Moveon.org. We need, to borrow and remix the insight of Cass Sunstein, an "incompletely theorized movement." We need Republicans who stand in the tradition of Reagan and Goldwater, yet who are as disgusted with the sellout that corporate money has induced as are we. How can an honest Republican vote to protect domestic sugar manufacturers? Yet many do, because the millions in campaign contributions from sugar lords is just too sweet to resist. How can honest Republicans vote for the corporate welfare we call farm subsidies? Because, as former-Representative Leslie Byrne (D-VA) was told by a colleague when she came to Congress, "always lean to the green." That colleague "wasn't," she clarified, "an environmentalist."

The Neo-Progressive Movement must also make its case to the Tea Party, the most potent political movement in America today, far deeper than it is caricatured to be by both Fox and MSNBC. For whatever extreme social vision motivates some in that party, the belief that government has been bought motivates them all.

And most importantly, the Movement must be willing to sacrifice Democrats who don't commit to its fundamental reform. That party is filled with people who don't actually believe in this reform. The sell out of the Democrats to Wall Street during the 1990s testifies to this split.

But if the failure of Obama teaches us anything, it is that real reform for Democrats won't happen in the world of Special Interest Government. And if the failure of 20 years of Republican presidents in the last 30 to deliver on the fundamental promises of Reagan teaches the Right anything, it should be that real reform on the right won't happen in the world of Special Interest Government either.

There is an opportunity for Neo-Progressives now, much like the opportunity of a century ago. There will be open Republican primaries in 2012. In those primaries, there will be Republicans who want to distance themselves from the "sell our government to the highest bidder" policies of the Gingrich/Delay days. That candidate could well recognize that especially in light of the certain to be grotesque flood of corporate money that will define the 2010 election, America, and especially, grassroots Republicans are starving for a candidate who would deliver what Obama promised in reform, but failed to achieve. And if it becomes the Republican Party that is talking about ending Special Interest Government (again), then the race to achieve real reform will be on.

The Neo-Progressive Movement needs to encourage these Republicans. It needs to be willing to put aside part of the agenda of each within the movement, recognizing that no change, on the Right or the Left, will happen until the fever is broken, because the disease has been stopped. Mainstream parties have lost the credibility for reform. As in 1912, only a breakaway, trans-party movement, possibly with no single leader, could have an effect in 2012.