A review of The New Progressive Era: Toward a Fair and Deliberative Democracy, by Peter Levine

At a recent news conference on "The Legacy of the Progressive Tradition," held at Princeton University (Woodrow Wilson's old stamping ground), President Clinton delivered some thoughts on the ambitious movement that transformed our politics a century ago.

The heart of Progressivism, Clinton said, was "the idea that new conditions demand a new approach to government." And unsurprisingly, Clinton declared himself a leader in recognizing and implementing such a novel approach today. Neither liberal, exactly, nor quite conservative, "Al Gore and I believed that we had to find a new way, something now popularly called around the world, 'a third way.'"

This pronouncement echoed his 1998 State of the Union message, when he claimed that his great accomplishment was to have "moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the answer." Clinton's Third Way seeks to pare back the excesses of the administrative state, while still using government to strengthen civil society. Under the Third Way, state and society are amalgamated in "public-private partnerships" in order to produce a superior arrangement that satisfies the needs of each while transcending both. Thus, we are entering, as Clinton announced at Princeton, "the new Progressive Era."

This is a popular term these days, as evidenced by a spate of books that invoke it. The latest is Peter Levine's The New Progressive Era: Toward a Fair and Deliberative Democracy. Levine, a research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, sees parallels with the old Progressive movement that can guide and inspire our politics today. At the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson declared that the outmoded ways and institutions of the past—limited government, property rights, constitutionalism—could not deal adequately with the new problems presented by big corporations, urbanization, and industrialization.

Today, the globalization of the economy, surging technology, and the dissipation of traditional cultural institutions again demand fresh thinking, Levine argues. Neither the Right's individual liberty and free markets nor the Left's collectivism and bureaucratic government answer our present needs. Both leave people isolated, cynical, suspicious, and narrowly self-interested.

Levine seeks new or better ways to build trust, conversation, and consensus that will restore responsible government and invigorate civic life. Like Clinton's embrace of both welfare reform and national health care, Levine's proposals mix liberal and conservative nostrums. He urges greater participation in voluntary associations, more responsible public affairs journalism, stronger unions, and radical campaign finance reform. At the same time, he advocates rolling back the regulatory state, simplifying the tax code, and prohibiting congressional delegation of authority to bureaucracies. Above all, Levine wants to achieve a new democratic consensus by empowering citizens to deliberate on the common good.

Well. "Jaw, jaw, jaw is better that war, war, war," Winston Churchill famously said. But if enlightened deliberation about the common good is something more than demagoguery or mere blather, some standards must inform it. And it is disagreement over these standards, not lack of information or fresh thinking, that complicates our public debates.

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Not so long ago, arguments about justice—indeed moral arguments in general—recurred to the standard of nature. Today, however, in the schoolhouse, the courthouse, and the White House, the idea of nature as a moral compass is usually dismissed as nonsense. In elite America at least, "history" has replaced nature as the standard for moral judgments. This is a legacy of the Progressive Era, whose philosophers, journalists, and political scientists, in awe of modern economic and technological developments, rejected the idea that nature supplied permanent principles to guide politics.

Levine's The New Progressive Era rests comfortably, if not securely, on this same premise. Early in the book, he quotes the foremost of the progressive philosophers, John Dewey. There are no permanent principles in politics, because, as Levine asserts on Dewey's authority, "consequences vary with conditions; hence at one time and place a large measure of state activity may be indicated and at another time a policy of quiescence and laissez-faire There is no antecedent universal proposition which can be laid down because of which the functions of a state should be limited or expanded."

This doesn't mean that there are no moral questions. Indeed, the major thrust of Levine's book is that Americans don't engage in enough serious discussion about moral issues. It is just that this moral debate has no foundation sturdier than the air on which our earnest dialogue floats. "Some moral positions (for example, abhorrence of torture) are clearly right and are as important as democracy itself," Levine writes. "Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dictate these positions, even if one were king for a day." Here is that awkward but stubborn contortion: there are things we know to be bad, but refuse to recognize as such—the tribute that relativism pays to foolish consistency.

Just as his moral vertigo makes it difficult to keep his philosophical argument straight, Levine's amalgam of policy proposals falls under the weight of its own incoherence. For instance, he decries the influence of corporate lobbyists and other special interests, pining instead for a government devoted only to the common good. Yet private jockeying for government favors is actually quite reasonable, even to be expected, once one accepts the premises of Progressivism. Despite all his wishing for more moral deliberation, in a Progressive regime there really isn't anything serious to talk about. If all moral positions are equally valid, then the only thing to dispute over in politics is who gets what. And lacking any fixed principle (e.g. the natural right to keep the property one has earned) to guide such disputes, unseemly jostling at the public trough is hardly the worst arrangement. Limited government and private property would have to be respected, Levine observes, if they "reflected pure principles of reason or embodied natural and inalienable rights." But of course, he thinks, they do not.

On a slightly more generous note, there is a certain modesty to Levine's Progressivism. His reluctance to say that anything is simply right or wrong, and his deference to popular opinion (even when he laments such opinion as selfish or uninformed), saves his politics from a more radical fervor. In discussing the Students for a Democracy Society and its attempts to promote civic revitalization in urban neighborhoods, Levine notes the delightful case of a SDS "non-project" in Hoboken, New Jersey. Eager to avoid any misplaced confidence in the rightness of their own opinions, Levine writes, "the organizers decided to take no action beyond finding blue-collar jobs and waiting for the working class to mobilize itself."

Now there's an idea.