Glenn Beck was on Greta Van Susteren's show last night, plumping his new book, Common Sense -- which, like most right-wing titles, is actually a piece of Newspeak that represents roughly the opposite of what it appears to mean -- and repeating his charge that "the progressive movement is the "disease" that is killing this country".
You see, he's been reading Jonah Goldberg, so he's reached this conclusion (with some help from libertarians). And there's no doubt that the basic argument is right: Beginning in the early 1900s, the progressive movement definitely shifted the direction of this nation and shaped it largely into what we see today.
Glenn Beck thinks that's a bad thing. I don't.
Now, I know that Beck reels in money by the barrelful these days. But he hails from a working-class family and often touts his working-class roots.
So I'd like him to meet some Americans before the progressive movement came along:
These are child laborers from the early part of the last century. They were common fixtures on the American landscape. Possibly some of Beck's ancestors were among them. (Here's a gallery of pictures of them.)
I've remarked on this previously, but it bears repeating:
The United States has always been an essentially capitalist economic system. However, we have experienced periods in our history where this system has seriously malfunctioned, and we've made adjustments accordingly that have largely worked well making things better.
One of those dysfunctional periods came at about the turn of the last century, when McKinley was president, corrupt robber barons ran Congress, and the latter-day version of "strict constructionists" ruled the courts. "Laissez faire" capitalism ruled, and America was functionally an oligarchy.
Squeezed out were the working people: the average workweek was 80 hours, there were no weekends, no vacation, only a few holidays, and the barest minimum of pay. Benefits and health care were unheard of. Child labor was the rule.
What happened between then and now? "Progressives" began agitating for better working conditions, and began organizing as labor unions. After a long period of violent repression, these reforms gradually became government policy -- especially in the 1930s under FDR. Americans began getting 40-hour work weeks with weekends off, paid vacations and benefits.
Probably the most significant and lasting legacy of this period of "progressive" innovation was the progressive tax code. It has been a feature of the income tax since its institution in 1913. Who was one of its original champions? Theodore Roosevelt.
The fact is that the United States -- like nearly every single Western capitalist democracy -- is a variable blend of socialism and capitalism, free-enterprise economies with regulatory restraints and modest income redistribution. The result of those "progressive" reforms from 1900-1940 was the birth of the great American middle class and the quality of life we have enjoyed so long we've forgotten what it was like not to have it. People like Glenn Beck seem never even to have learned.
Indeed, when right-wingers like Beck and Goldberg attack "evil progressivism," it sounds a lot like they want us to return to the bad old days under McKinley, when American workers were indentured servants to the wealthy.
Of course, maybe now that they're both wealthy men, there's a simple explanation for that.