About fifteen years ago, many liberals began to self-identify as progressives—partly because of the implosion of the Great Society and the Reagan reaction that had tarnished the liberal brand and left it as something akin to “permissive” or “naïve,” partly because “progressive” was supposedly an ideological rather than a political identification, and had included some early twentieth-century Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.
But twenty-first century progressivism is not aimed at political reform. There is no new effort at racial unity. There is not much realization that we are in a globalized, rapidly changing, high-tech economy or that race and gender are not as they were fifty years ago. Instead, progressivism has become a reactionary return to the 1960s—or even well before. The new regressivism seeks to resurrect the machine ethos of Mayor Daley, the glory green days of the Whole Earth Catalog, the union era of George Meany, Jimmy Hoffa, and Walter Reuther, the racial polarization of the old Black Panther Party and the old Al Sharpton, and a Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, or Peter Jennings reading to us each evening three slightly different versions of the Truth.
The New Old Chicago
Barack Obama is trying to turn back the way of politics to the era of the pre-reform Chicago machine. He was the first presidential candidate to renounce campaign-financing funds since the law was enacted. He opposes any effort to clamp down on voting fraud. Even his compliant media worries that the president’s current jetting from one campaign stop to another in the key swing states is a poorly disguised way to politick on the federal government’s dime. Bundlers are, as was the ancient custom, given plum honorific posts abroad. Obama has held twice as many fundraisers as the much reviled George Bush had at a similar point in his administration. Obama supporters now target large Romney givers and post their names with negative bios on websites, as if we are back to Nixon’s enemies of the people. Websites sprout up that go after administration critics in Agnew style, but without the latter’s self-caricature. The 2008 criticism about ending the revolving door, lobbyists, and pay-for-play renting out of the Lincoln bedroom was, well…just examine the career of a Peter Orszag. An embarrassed media keeps silent about the new reactionary ethics, apparently on the premise that not to would endanger four more years of the “progressive” agenda. On matters of presidential style, we are likewise retro, as Obama sets records for playing golf, and in Marie Antoinette style the First Family bounces between Vail, Aspen, Martha’s Vineyard, Vegas, and Costa del Sol, often in separate jets, as if we, the people, receive vicarious joy from catching glimpses of the Obama versions of Camelot. We have Kennedy wannabes without their own Kennedy money.