Progressivism's End: In Obama, Both Americans and Canadians Can See the Promise of Something New

By Eaves, David; Owen, Taylor | Literary Review of Canada, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Progressivism's End: In Obama, Both Americans and Canadians Can See the Promise of Something New


Eaves, David, Owen, Taylor, Literary Review of Canada


A recent poll found that a substantial majority of Canadians want Barack Obama to be the next U.S. president. More surprisingly, another found that if Obama were the leader of the Liberals or Conservatives in Canada, he would win decisively.

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There is no doubt he is exciting. He is a charismatic, skilled orator who has embraced Facebook politics to astonishing effect. His political skills and acumen have driven a meteoric rise. He is a respite from George W. Bush, the Iraq war and neo-conservatism.

All of these qualities, however, distract from a greater phenomenon, one for which Obama seems as much a product as a catalyst. His candidacy suggests a political reconfiguration may be under way: Obama's successes provide an insight into the post-boomer era and the opportunity to transcend the divisive politics of the 1960s.

How the Left Is Killing Progressivism

Confronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many of our friends and colleagues have opted out. Few even vote.

But they are engaged. They start non-governmental organizations, work internationally, create social enterprises, start businesses or advocate outside of organized politics. Among our peers, the progressive spirit is strong, but progressive politics just does not resonate. How did this happen?

The answer is surprising. It is not a vast rightwing conspiracy that is killing progressivism. It is the left.

The rise of industrial capitalism during the 19th century led to a series of tense societal changes. These included the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the new possibility of total war. In response, three generations of pragmatically driven "progressives" emerged. Opposing both the socialist left and the laissez-faire right, they championed values such as equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency and empirical inquiry. And the norms, policies and institutions they developed served as the main instruments for addressing many of the 20th century's seemingly insurmountable challenges: liberal internationalism through the Bretton Woods institutions and the United Nations, middle class entitlements such as social security and medicare, and the advancement of individual rights through the suffragist and civil rights movements. In Canada, progressive ideas likewise drove Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Tommy Douglas and Pierre Trudeau.

By the 1960s and early '70s, the New Deal consensus began to unravel in the face of political crises such as Vietnam, economic crises such as the oil shocks, globalization and the rise of the service economy. Stagflation and the erosion of manufacturing jobs raised questions about the viability of the progressive agenda and opened it up to conservative attack.

Seeing their hard-fought accomplishments under threat, traditional baby boomer progressives began to prioritize the survival of New Deal policies and institutions over the idealistic outcomes they were built to promote. Thus the central paradox of progressivism was born: its older-style advocates, entrenched against innovation and reform, even in the service of progressive values, had unwittingly become the new conservatives.

The Rebirth of Progressivism

Nevertheless, renewal is afoot. Many of our peers who have not found a natural home on the left or the right of traditional politics are increasingly returning to the core values of historical progressivism, using evidence-based public policy to help ensure the equality of opportunity in a market-based economy. They are frequently members of Richard Florida's "creative class"--wired cosmopolitans who work in idea-driven industries--who have begun experimenting with how forces such as technology and globalization can enable a New Deal for the 21st century.

But while traditional progressives promoted their values to smooth the transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism and to spread the latter's benefits, these neo-progressives seek to manage the shift from the industrial to the knowledge economy. …

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