There have been five presidents in the past century-plus who can unabashedly be called progressives: both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama.
All introduced, usually with a compliant Congress, policies designed either to reallocate money (not necessarily the same as wealth) from the wealthy to the less wealthy (not necessarily the same as poor), or to limit the size and processes of business, which often amounts to the same thing.
Before you progressive (please, do not confuse yourselves with traditional liberals) readers fling this aside, I will add that many of these accomplishments have been beneficial.
Theodore Roosevelt’s actions to improve industrial health and safety, as well as those of consumers, were necessary in the rapidly industrializing economy.
The case has been made that FDR’s New Deal saved America from some form of collectivism. At a minimum, it offered hope and employment to millions of people who had neither.
LBJ’s Great Society finally secured civil rights for all, at least legally.
Other things have been more problematical in their execution if not their intent: the income tax, Social Security, Medicare, ballooning debt and, of course, Obamacare.
All of these presidents were succeeded by Republican administrations except FDR, and Truman was his quieter political clone. Remarkably, though Republicans had railed against most of their predecessors’ policies, they did little or nothing to change them once they gained power. Why?
The obvious answer is that these redistributive policies were popular with more voters than not, and politics is all about elections.
A less obvious answer is that, though legislated with optimism, the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions. Issues of money and administration became progressively (an appropriate word) insoluble and deferment is easier than repair.
This process of poorly planned progressivism by fits and starts has left behind a massively inefficient hodgepodge of departments and agencies, which, if it were possible, could probably be consolidated into something much smaller and more efficient at the expense of Washington’s population and real estate values.
It is not likely.
What we are probably about to witness is another Republican administration, a less-than-irresistable force, bumping up against immovable Washington.
Oh, there will be twiddles around the edges. Something will happen with health care. Tax rates will be reduced, with an accompanying reduction of so-called loopholes, until both are again increased over time as has occurred in earlier cycles.
A defense program or two will be challenged, until congresspersons hear screams from suppliers in their districts. Somebody will propose a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Again.
Many of my Republican friends anticipate wholesale change. They believe bureaucracies will be crushed, businesses will be freed, deficits will disappear. Well, miracles allegedly occur.
Progressives who think their world has ended can lighten up. They may be in for a down cycle, but, for once, they should take a look at history. Their side will keep returning until it collapses of its own weight — unless that time has come.
Longtime columnist Fred Wolferman recently moved from Southern Pines back to his native Kansas City. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.