I am the President of a Tea Party chapter and my doctorate in history focused on the Progressive era. As such, I can tell you that modern progressives belong in the Tea Party. Furthermore, the Tea Party has a lot to learn from the progressives.
Glen Beck is only half right. Leaning heavily on Jonah Goldberg’s excellent book, Liberal Fascism, he argues that progressive government programs inexorably lead to totalitarianism. This may be correct. The fallacy comes from not recognizing that historical progressives themselves wrestled with the question of how they could have government programs without undermining local community participation. What Beck does not acknowledge is that progressives themselves were very worried that a tyranny of Washington experts could exclude the voice of the common man.
Tea Party participants often make the fatal error of considering the opposite of big government to be Laissez Faire individualism. They demand zero government and to be left alone. As Alexis De Tocqueville documented in his amazing 1830 classic, Democracy in America, before progressivism local control and heavy levels of civic participation, not unmolested individualism, defined America. The opposite of big government is local citizen participation, not anarchistic individualism.
Prior to the industrial revolution small ‘island communities,’ as the historian Robert Wiebe called them, dotted America’s landscape. In these communities you knew the mayor, the teacher, and everyone’s business. But the emerging large transnational industrial interests could not be regulated by town halls. And ma and pa could not be participants in national affairs. As De Tocqueville before them, progressives largely defined America as the land of political participation and worried that the masses would become passive.
The progressives’ concern for local participation is evident in their implementing the initiative process. This got the common man a voice in State politics and weakened powerful politicians. To foster local control progressives fought for the direct election of Senators. They worried about cronyism between big powers and powerful men. The progressives also got women the vote in order to get more Americans involved in political affairs. While they wanted national systems, progressives also counterbalance distance from the powers that be with increased channels for democratic participation.
My dissertation focused on Frances Kellor’s quest for participatory democracy. As the head of national Americanization efforts, rather than creed, she sought to get immigrants involved in local politics. For her, such participation was the sin qua non of being an American. She got Roosevelt’s Progressive Party to create local activist chapters to guide national policy. And, she wanted civilian training camps, like Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, to foster civic engagement in the populace. All of these projects sought to foster the participation she saw in the island community she grew up in.
Progressives, your heritage demands that you celebrate and attempt to foster local political participation. As it is the greatest popular movement in recent times, you should laud the political activism of the Tea Party members and join them in their activism. Tea Party folk should recognize that smaller government equals local government. Rather than simply seeking to be left alone, we must strive to run our communities locally. That means an interest in civic organizations as well as straight politics. We all, as Americans, must become engaged in our communities again.
For such a revolution to happen, both sides must change their mindsets. Liberals cannot continue to call all those who wish to lower the deficit ‘racist.’ This does not foster the civic participation your progressive forefathers sought. And my Tea Party brethren, instead of simply fighting government, you must demand local control of programs. We need, for example, to quadruple the tax exemption for giving to local charities. And, whether you agree or disagree on the specific programs, please do welcome your progressive fellow-citizens’ help in striving to take care of our communities locally.