The story of the twentieth century in America has been the influence of progressive ideology on our government and society. The democratic party, at least the liberal wing of the party, calls itself "progressive." But we must make a distinction between what I am referring to as progressive ideology and modern American liberalism.
Progressive ideology has been in the driver's seat of our government and politics from at least the 1940's. Both political parties have operated from its basic assumptions for the last 70 years, and it has brought us to the current economic mess we are facing today.
Progressive ideology is a product of the Industrial Revolution and is concerned about three things; the "equitable" distribution of income within a given society (no extremes of wealth or poverty), a scientific management of society and the economy to achieve important social ends (universal access to health care, proper nutrition for all, old age security, etc.), and the continual pursuit of "moral progress" (the reduction of racial prejudice, an increased concern for the environment, the pursuit of a more humane treatment of prisoners, etc.).
These three goals were front and center in the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and saw their greatest advance under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Progressive ideology was certainly well intentioned, and has produced many of the values and institutions that we take for granted today and that bring great benefit to our lives. Both parties have endorsed and advanced the progressive agenda, and many of its fundamental institutions such as social security, federally governed public education, and medicare/medicaid are "third rail" issues that cannot be touched for fear of the political backlash.
On the other side of this equation, stands some serious unintended consequences to this attempt to create an improved society. Included in this is the massive growth in the size and reach of the federal government, with unsustainable deficits and a gigantic inventory of unfulfilled promises. We are failing at the education of our children, our entitlement regime is breaking down, we just saw a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans below the poverty line, and we see a reduction in our economic competitiveness.
All of these things are adding up to a serious questioning of all the assumptions of the progressive ideology. When the Tea Party candidates talk about a return to the constitution and to federalism (more power returned to the individual states), this is exactly what is going on. It seems to me that we are at the beginning of a sea change in the way we view the federal government and how it operates. The question will be, do we have the political will and wisdom to restore the freedoms coupled with the sense of individual responsibility that made America so successful?
At this point, it is very important that we, the American voters, understand that this is what it is going on. We have the chance, with this election, to begin to bring America back from the brink of bankruptcy and to start down a long road of reforming many of the basic institutions of our society in order to make them a reflection of our constitutional government. A government, by the way, that has provided more abundance and freedom to all classes of people than any other government in history.
The United States is not the first to pull back from the financial brink. Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher went through a dramatic transition that privatized whole industries and reduced the power of labor unions throughout the country. Many of the European nations are taking dramatic steps to reduce government deficits and reduce entitlements. They have been forced to by economic reality, a reality that is just now beginning to become apparent to the American people. It is no accident that we presently have the second highest corporate income tax in the world (Only Japan exceeds ours and who wants to imitate Japan right now?).
Our goal in the next two elections (2010 & 2012), must be to substantially reduce the size and reach of the federal government. We must next have an intelligent conversation about reducing the long term costs of entitlements and discovering a way to make them sustainable for the long run. My other hope is that the Tea Party movement will have some influence on the debate over education in America. The best case scenario would be much greater local control and parental involvement in a meaningful way that includes vouchers and school choice.
My hope is that this truly is a watershed moment for American society, and not just a short lived conservative backlash against a struggling economy. The liberal narrative about the Tea Party is that it is just a lot of old white people afraid of losing their medicare. There are two things about the Tea Party that should give us all hope for the future, and of which the liberal media is either unaware or mis-understands. The Tea Party is focused on restoring constitutional government to the United States, and more than any movement before it, is committed to reducing the size and cost of government. If we don't appreciate what they are trying to accomplish, our children and grandchildren certainly will.