In current American “leftist” discourse, “progressive,” its sister term “liberal,” and their distant cousin “socialist” all tend to overlap in general use. So it shouldn’t be surprising that all three terms are poorly understood by their opponents and adherents alike. Even admirable populist critics of America’s establishment left like Thomas Frank and Glenn Greenwald miss what progressivism truly represents and the key, degrading, historical role it has served in the development of American political culture.
Progressivism originated as an Anglo-American alternative to socialism and populism in the late 19th century. More specifically, progressive political culture was a way for the Gilded Age’s new self-styled “cosmopolitan” wealthy elite class to feel good about fighting for reforms of America’s laissez faire economic structures—but, in a manner that didn't threaten the larger Anglo-liberal tradition, or the Protestant moral norms it relied upon.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, as railway workers, brutal Pinkerton “security” forces, and even battalions of the Army battled it out in violent clashes, the reform tradition in the United States took shape in two distinctly American modes: populism and progressivism. Populism was a bottom-up movement of Middle American struggling farmers, poor working folk, and tradesmen frustrated with a late-19th-century banking and monetary system they saw as “rigged” against them. Progressivism took off as a movement of the guilt-laden offspring of coastal industrialists who looked down their noses upon the Middle American populists and the “Jays” of their “hay seed” “bumpkin” culture.
Where populism was a rural revolt against the overweening power exercised by big cities over the rest of the country, progressivism was an urban movement led by a well-educated, urban, coastal elite, which was top-down in conceptions and mannerisms. While the radical element of this new progressive class identified with what they thought of as the “other half of society” (what we would today probably call the “marginalized” or “underprivileged”), it’s important to note that progressives did not necessarily wish to give voice to the poor or the suffering. Instead, progressive intellectuals sought to elevate themselves as spokespeople for the downtrodden, on terms that cemented the grip of their own class on power.
Rather than a break or interruption in the WASP chauvinism that characterizes most of the country’s political culture, progressivism is little more than a peculiar variation of it —and wokeism is merely a new version of progressivism, updated for the secular mode of the “anti-racist” age.
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