Why a Second Progressive Era Is Emerging- and How Not to Blow It

America is in the midst of a crisis that needs no introduction. Ideological warfare and policy paralysis in Washington. Declining economic well-being among the mass of Americans combined with expanding wealth at the top and an economy too weak and rigged to change the dynamic. A profound need, and public hunger, for solutions from government together with a widespread lack of faith in government’s ability to deliver.

These trends have been with us at least since I started writing for this magazine in the mid-1980s (though they subsided somewhat in the latter 1990s). What’s different now is that the vast majority of Americans get it. They understand, in a way they did not even a few years ago, that the system is really, profoundly broken; that the downward trajectory of their lives is not temporary or an isolated individual fate, but part of a broad, deep, and long-term trend; and that this decline is somehow connected to the dysfunction they read about in Washington.

In that broad recognition there is a seed of hope. As many observers have noted, there are arresting parallels between our age and the 1890s, the dawn of the Progressive Era. Then as now, vast numbers of Americans found themselves left behind economically. Plutocrats running monopolistic corporations created fantastic accumulations of wealth and enjoyed seemingly unbreakable control of the political, legal, and policymaking process. A rising class of educated, technologically savvy professionals grew alienated from and hostile to a government they saw as corrupt, inefficient, and incompetent at anything other than perpetuating the careers of those in power. This broad dissatisfaction led to sweeping reforms of public institutions and of the rules governing the economy. These reform efforts, which continued in the New Deal, happened in the face of a powerful ideological resistance on the right to the very idea of government having a legitimate role to play in these areas.

Today you see, on the left at least, a growing constellation of voices and organizations inspired by those parallels and trying to build a new progressive reform movement. It’s no accident that liberals now call themselves progressives and that the main Democratic Party-oriented think tank in Washington is named the Center for American Progress. Obviously there are many differences between the two eras, too numerous to name. (I hope we are not going to have a repeat of the eugenics movement, for instance.) But as someone who desperately wants to see a new progressive era come into being, there are two differences that are the most striking and crucial.

The first is that progressivism between 1890 and 1921 was bipartisan. Each party had its progressive wing, and each competed with the other in articulating a reform agenda. Today, progressivism is profoundly one-sided. It is the dominant force within the Democratic Party and at best a tiny, rump, besieged minority in the Republican Party. There are nodes of enlightenment on the right, visible at publications like National Affairs, at emerging think tanks like the R Street Institute, and in the odd David Brooks column. But generally the GOP has given itself over to know-nothing madness on the subject of government, especially the federal government.

The second great difference is the almost complete lack of attention being paid by modern progressives to public administration and government structure. Many of the most important leaders and thinkers of the original Progressive Era—Teddy Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lester Frank Ward, Gifford Pinchot, Robert La Follette—put tremendous stake in the design, functioning, and reform of government bureaucracies and of the broader political economy. We’ve seen flashes of this sort of thinking in modern times. Examples include the Clinton/Gore experiments in reinventing government and Elizabeth Warren and her crafting of the architecture for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In academia there is a cadre of institution-focused thinkers like Warren, many of whom have contributed to this magazine, including Steve Teles, Dan Carpenter, Suzanne Mettler, and Mark Kleiman. Similar-minded individuals can be found at think tanks around D.C., including the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, and the New America Foundation.

But for the most part today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics. These are important subjects. But the vast complex of government is largely a black box to these folks. Other than defending the idea of government against anti-government conservatives, getting rid of the filibuster, reforming the primary system, and occasionally calling for more “accountability” and “transparency,” they would be hard pressed to articulate any coherent vision of how to reform the government we have, or any real understanding of how the damn thing works.

What I’m saying is this: there are energies being unleashed today that give the country a shot at reforming itself. But reform can’t and won’t happen until the left takes government—its structure and functioning—far more seriously, and until the right develops a stronger pro-government wing that can win over conservative supporters and compete with Democrats, challenging their blind spots while partnering on needed reforms.

If both of these things don’t happen, I honestly think the country as we know it is screwed. It’s really as simple as that. We cannot right ourselves without a better-functioning federal government. But we cannot have a better functioning federal government if one party is trying to destroy it and the other, the one that claims to embrace it, has too little knowledge of how it actually functions and no blueprint in mind for how to rebuild it.

The central mission of the Washington Monthly is to promote the filling of this gap. That means running pieces that attempt to discern government’s problems, not just at the level of policy-making but more broadly, as a system, and specifically, at the implementation level; that offer solutions to those problems; that educate left-leaning progressives on these subjects; and that encourage voices on the right who get it and who can articulate conservative arguments for a stronger, better-performing federal government.

The current issue of the Monthly expresses that mission well. In it, Donald Kettl pens a memo to the next president on what he (or she) can learn from the management mistakes of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and where the original source of most of the government’s systematic management problems can be found (hint: it’s a tall domed building on Pennsylvania Avenue). Kent Greenfield argues that the new progressive crusade against “corporate personhood” is not only legally naive but also a threat to a smarter emerging progressive campaign against the primacy of “maximizing shareholder value,” a campaign that might actually help fix what ails the economy. Kevin Kosar explains why dysfunction on Capitol Hill led him to leave a job he loved as a research analyst for the Congressional Research Service. John DiIulio explores the argument of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Political Order and Political Decay, that America’s greatest risk is that its government is reverting to a pre-Progressive Era form of “clientism” in which even supposedly independent bureaucracies are controlled by moneyed interests and the politically wired. A vivid example of precisely what Fukuyama is saying can be found in Nina Teicholz’s new book, The Big Fat Surprise, reviewed here by Kukula Glastris. It tells the story of how a handful of politically connected scientists, working with the vegetable oil and food-processing industries, quietly took control of key scientific institutions in and out of government, and in so doing managed to sell America on a thinly supported policy of reducing saturated fats in their diets, a policy that is now collapsing under the weight of overwhelming scientific evidence.

These are stories you wouldn’t find in any other magazines, including others in what the publishing world calls the “thought leader” category. The sad truth is that fewer and fewer outlets of any kind, print or digital, seem interested in covering the guts of government. One reason, I suspect, is that not that many editors are interested in the subject, and they presume their readers aren’t either. Another is that ambitious writers feel the same way; they don’t want to dive into complicated subjects that can’t easily be turned into “narratives.” (We like narratives too, by the way, as long they have a point—see Sabrina Shankman’s terrific cover story on how climate change is affecting the behavior of polar bears in frightening ways.) Or maybe stories that look systematically at government just don’t fit the business models of publications trying to turn themselves into “vertically integrated digital-media companies.”

Whatever the reason, we think that these other outlets are missing the most important story of our time. In his new book, Fukuyama makes the fascinating point that while European countries built modern states as defenses against foreign military threats, America, unique among nations, did so in response to the demands of its citizens during the Progressive Era. The signs are everywhere that a similar demand is growing again. Whether it gels into a full-blown second Progressive Movement cannot be known. But you can count on the Washington Monthly to encourage its emergence.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.