In 1969, a young Hillary Rodham was chosen to give a commencement address to the graduating class of Wellesley College, and she used the occasion to deliver some fairly radical remarks. She spoke of her generation feeling “that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” She praised the student protest movement as “an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age” and said that she and her peers perceived society as hovering “between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men’s needs.”
To be sure, it was a confusing, middle-class, soft-New Left radicalism—hardly the stuff of the old farmer-labor coalition. But it was still a challenge to the established order. Surely, if those listening had been told that in half a century this young woman would be a candidate for president, they would have expected her to run as a radical.
But the opposite is true. Since she left the State Department, Hillary Clinton has been consumed with two decidedly nonradical activities: making as much money as possible and developing a precisely modulated candidacy, built on small ideas so as to cobble together a critical mass of voters. It’s a left-wing approach, for sure, but it is premised on a liberalism that views the status quo as mostly fine.
Somewhere along the line, Clinton left behind her youthful radicalism and embraced the assumptions of mainstream progressivism. And good for her. College life is lived in a bubble inside which it is easy to waste time indulging leftist nonsense. Growing up usually means leaving this behind.
Still, the juxtaposition of the youthful aspirations of Clinton in 1969 and the joyless, money-grubbing Clinton of today says something about progressivism. By embracing the “prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life,” progressive elites have made a lot of money, but they can no longer “imaginatively respond . . . to men’s needs.” Clinton, as presumptive nominee of the major progressive party, embodies this denatured idealism.
When it began, the progressive movement was actually a middle ground between early-20th-century “reactionaries,” who wanted to retain a corrupt status quo, and surging radical forces, notably agrarian populists and urban socialists. The progressives called for abandoning the Constitution’s limits on the national government. They believed fervently that an alliance between the state, business, farmers, and laborers could solve the nation’s problems. The progressives presumed to manage everything, from growing the economy to regulating business responsibly, providing social welfare, mitigating inequality, and combating corruption.
To a large extent, both parties have accepted the core assumptions of the progressive model. Much of the GOP’s domestic agenda during the George W. Bush administration—targeted tax credits, a Medicare prescription drug benefit, an expanded federal role in education, and substantial use of earmarks—was cast in this mold. It was progressive for Republicans to expand the scope of the state via a broad political alliance of “stakeholders,” even if they made heavier use of free market concepts than leftists and jilted many Democratic clients in the process.
Yet it is increasingly difficult to accept the premises of progressivism. Over the last 15 years, the economy has stagnated, inequality has worsened, cronyism is much worse than it was even in the Gilded Age, and the United States is now burdened by a large structural deficit that yearly adds to an already $18 trillion national debt. These problems can be traced, at least in part, to the inherent limitations of the progressive model.
Above all, progressivism requires an omnipotent government coordinating a broad alliance of factions for, it believes, the greater good. Over time, this approach tends to heighten inequality, as the groups with the resources to acquire influence win the most favors. It facilitates cronyism, as politicians cash in on their connections. It puts upward pressure on budget deficits, as the political incentives inevitably favor increasing expenditures without commensurately raising taxes. It constrains the options of policy-makers, as all proposals must win the consent of a vast array of clients. And it stifles reform, as stakeholder factions thwart changes that hurt their bottom lines, regardless of the public interest. Progressivism eventually produces sclerotic and corrupt government.