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"Are We Making Any Progress?"
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One of our favorite magazines is THE PROGRESSIVE, which has now been published for one hundred years. The current issue, celebrating that fact, dedicates one page for every one of those one hundred years. I have read every word on every page, and what struck me most was that the problems we as a nation face today are not really very different from what's been confronting us for a century. It is amazing how the very same language is used, then and now, to describe each problem.

It became clear as I read all that that the very name of the magazine is full of irony. THE PROGRESSIVE. "Progressives" were a political/philosophical movement, beginning before 1900 -- pro-labor, pro-family-farmer, anti-monopoly business, anti-war. The Progressives hoped to improve the lot of farmers and laborers and their families, through political action, forcing government action. They elected senators, like Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin, founder of the magazine, and they did bring about change, like the passage of laws which prohibit child labor. "Progressive" contains the word "progress," which implies improvement. Nowadays the word is often used simply to refer to change, often needless change, but the original meaning of "progress" was "betterment." Yet the problems confronted in THE PROGRESSIVE, over the last hundred years, are still with us.

[1] Money in politics. In the first year of publication, 1909, THE PROGRESSIVE stated: "Money Should Not Buy Office. The qualifications of two men being equal, the power of the one with a large amount of money to spend should be no greater, in securing votes, than the one without money." Another article in 1927 made the same point, even more forcefully, "Expenditure of Huge Sums for Seats in Congress Cannot Be Justified." It's still true, and still a problem.

[2] Distribution of Wealth. Senator Borah in 1931 told how our wealth was divided. "Let five apples represent all the wealth in the nation, and let 100 people represent the entire population of the United States. Then 96 people would have one apple, and four very rich people would have one apple apiece!" The numbers now may be slightly different, but there has been no real progress in dealing with this matter.

[3] Wire-tapping. In 1928 Senator LaFollette wrote at length in his magazine, objecting to government wire-tapping and the Supreme Court's approval of admitting evidence secured that way. It seemed so modern, such an up-to-date debate -- ongoing for more that eighty years. I wasn't aware that there was any such thing as wire-tapping in 1928.

[4] Punish Law-breakers. "Punish the Real Offenders," says the headline, in 1911. "Is it punishment merely to compel the Standard Oil Company to change its form of organization? What about the men under whose direction these illegal practices were carried on? Are they not to be called to account? [The offenses] were the work of human hands and human brains, and the men responsible for them should be summoned to court." Some of us have wondered about torture, authorization of torture, lying to Congress, illegal wire-tapping, outing CIA agents, and other serious crimes.

[5] War. THE PROGRESSIVE has opposed war in general and specific wars in particular very consistently, from 1909 until today. World War I, World War II even, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. "Take the Profit out of War," cried one headline from 1915. "Back of every big army and navy appropriation bill is the organized power of private interest, pressing for more battleships, more armor plate, more powder, more rifles, more machine guns, a larger standing army, a bigger navy." The following year brought more indignation: "The gentlemen who want war with Mexico are a very powerful lot. They own most of the United States and a good slice of Mexico. They are our Captains of Industry, our Masters of Finance. They own or control our great newspapers." The same indignation could apply to our current wars, and the Pentagon budget which is now up for debate.

[6] Banks and Bail-outs. The problem that seemed most stunning to me, in the language used to describe it, was an old one as well as our current one -- banks and bailouts. In 1934 the headline reads, "Businessmen, Then and Now." "They strutted up and down the avenue in those bygone days. They were free-born, 100 percent American big businessmen who took back-talk from nobody. Now they take a hand-out wherever they can get it. Billions will be ladled into the mouths of the very individualistic big businessmen who, five years ago, were yelling their heads off about 'no government interference with business.'"

The handouts, called bailouts even back then in the 1930s were labeled as "socialism" by some. Norman Thomas, that great Socialist, replied to that claim in 1936. "There is no Socialism at all about taking over all the banks which fell in Uncle Sam's lap, putting them back on their feet again, and turning them back to the bankers to see if they can bring them once more to ruin." It feels like what Yogi Berra called, "Deja vu all over again."

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Copyright © 2009 Harry Willson

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