Progressivism and Government Reform

It’s not every issue of the Washington Monthly where Paul Glastris’ Editor’s Note is arguably as important as the articles it discusses. But in the new January/February issue, I’d argue Paul’s Note is very essential reading. It explains why a backlog of unaddressed challenges and a deep alienation of citizens from government have created the preconditions for a badly needed Second Progressive Era. But there’s something missing that was present abundantly in the First Progressive Era:

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.

You should read the whole thing, but all I’d add is that progressives have too often thought of “government” as a sort of a constituency group rather than as an instrument for the achievement of progressive goals and as a reflection of the popular will, with “government reform” regarded as conceded enemy turf, and citizens frustrated by government dysfunction conceded as well. Some of that impulse may well be an understandable overreaction to conservative schemes to screw over public employees or disable programs. But acting as though government needs no reform is in the long run as destructive as treating government as irredeemable. If progressives insist on waiting until people who don’t like how government operates are so desperate for public activism that they throw away their complaints, before long there may be little of government–or of public faith in government–left to preserve.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.