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David Brook's Take on the Progressive Era is Right On

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Teddy Roosevelt(R) the Progressive Candidate

David Brooks wrote a great article comparing today’s America with that of the progressive era called, “Midlife Crisis Economics“.  In it, Mr. Brooks provides a very cogent analysis of the fallacy in comparing initiatives from the progressive era with those of today.  He notes that the current administration, long enamored with comparisons to the New Deal era, has now realized that this period comparison has led to many false paths and much political baggage and is now promulgating  comparison to the Progressive Era.  Mr. Brooks very capably points out why these analogies are also in error.  I will not rewrite Mr. Brooks article as I encourage you to click the title above and read his more than capable work. However, I would like to discuss this seemingly current trend in a much broader context. While the current administration may have taken the historical analogy as justification for current actions to a new and perhaps much more dangerous level; this is more likely the culmination of a long term trend in seeking justification for a continually failing set of policies.  While it is very easy to bash democrats for this at this point in time because they are the party of the current occupant of the White House, this is in no way just a one party problem.
Both sides of our professional political class have tried to capture the glory days of their bygone eras as rhetoric to stir the masses to their cause in this current period. The main problem, as Mr. Brooks points out so well in his article, is the times have changed and along with the times; the character of our country, underlying economy, and issues that we are solving for have also changed.  Further, the entirety of our government has morphed into that of a professional political class.

I don’t know about you but I am sick to death of the phrase, “the greatest financial crisis since the great depression!”

At the height of the progressive era, a republican, Teddy Roosevelt, was the spur in the rump of the American Horse.  The ideals of progressive-ism were targeting specific sets of problems and solutions using a specific and timely set of tools and actions. If you look forward to the period of “the Great Depression” you find the same thing. The methods that were chosen to try to solve the problems under F. D. Roosevelt’s reign were also specific and timely.  One of the biggest laughs I get out of discussions about the current economic or health care crisis is when modernists begin to espouse what F.D.R.’s position would be.  Since I have spent quite a bit of time on the issues of healthcare I will point to one example. Over the past couple of years, as the debate for “universal healthcare” centered on a national governmental healthcare system, so called “single-payer” system, one pundit after another, and in some cases supposedly well respected congressmen and women, have said this is what F.D.R wanted.  Well that is just so much–what was it the ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf called it?  Oh Yeah, Bovine Scatology!
Franklin D. Roosevelt was fully and distinctly anti socialist and anti communist.  While he proposed many programs that historically we now see in some kind of socialist light, in almost every case what he was advocating for and what we have now are not comparable.  Some of the recognizable  stalwarts, like Social Security, he advocated for but as  temporary solutions. In the area of healthcare, the distinctions are even more stark.  Roosevelt was not solving for the problems we have today.  In fact, it is likely that from his historical perspective he would marvel at how well our current system has improved over the problems he faced in the provision of healthcare to the country.
During this period, the big problems were access to care, and the quality of the care being provided.  While cities could economically support hospitals and therefore provided good places for doctors to congregate, conduct research and solve the needs of the populace, rural areas could not. The profession of physician and doctor had merged into one, hospitals had become vitally necessary for most of them to practice comprehensive quality care and they were expensive to build and maintain.
During Teddy Roosevelt’s era physicians could finally charge for services rendered at hospitals. Rural hospitals were few and far between and the few that did exist were often staffed with the substandard physicians who could not get hired in the cities or in other more egregious cases–outright charlatans.    Compounding the problem was that cash and money payment in rural communities was still not a wide spread practice. Both as a result of custom, and the depression, cash was not a favored form of transaction in rural communities. Many people simply did not have cash or ready access to it. Many still bartered for goods and services.  It was nearly impossible to construct a hospital, fund its expenses, and attract good physicians to an economy where cash played an often secondary role. F.D.R. was solving for access to quality healthcare in rural communities. He failed to get his proposed solutions through congress in his second New Deal legislation before his death.
It was Harry Truman who finally got the Hill Burton Act passed that stimulated the construction of rural hospitals and helped increase the quality and availability of care in these under-served areas.  It is very easy to say, as Michael Jackson did in his song, “They Don’t Really Care About Us” ‘that if Roosevelt was livin’ he wouldn’t let this be, No No No….’ But it is probably just not true.
In the song, Jackson is referring to racism, but even in this area, historians point out that Roosevelt was not quite the staunch humanist we now perceive him to be; and in fact contemporaneously was repeatedly accused of being racist. In the end, it is never a good idea to believe that historical figures would immediately support any of the solutions we propose today. Often, they would marvel at what we have achieved and find ridiculous some of the ideas our politicians now choose to rail about.
From racism to healthcare, from the economy to poverty, historical figures would probably strongly suggest we appreciate a bit more of what we have.  They would be lost in a world where political correctness gets parsed to which words are used to reference a problem.  They would be horrified at the areas we are allocating so much of our money–spending huge amounts to support politically correct causes while allowing many other real problems to get under-funded or unfunded.
None of these historical progressives believed in debt, nor in the deference to those who lack personal responsibility.  While our historical figures were long on helping the downtrodden and the helpless, they had no patience for the avaricious nor the clueless.

“Don’t pee on my leg and tell me its raining!”

We should look to history to review the things that were tried and whether or not they succeeded. But the blanket application of those historical fixes and the dishonest misrepresentation of the issues and the solutions from then to today are dangerous and duplicitous.  We need more than this kind of behavior from all of our politicians today.
Perhaps, we need to get rid of the professional political class we know have and go back to the very same type of citizen politician who they now wish us to say they emulate. We need leaders that can propose solutions!  We need leaders that have learned the lessons from history and can apply those lessons to the problems we face today and help us come to the hard realizations we need to make in order to pull ourselves back to a viable path.  We need those who can both tell us the truth and apply the learning not just rehash the historical solution because as both Mr. Brooks and Bob Dylan said,

“The times they are a changin”

What we all need to focus our attention on is eliminating (please pardon the crude analogy–but I think it applies) any political party or professional politician, who simply “pees on our leg and tell us its raining!”

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Tom Loker
Tom Loker

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