If someone were to ask me what a “progressive” is, I’d be at a loss to reply. The term as used by those who call themselves such seems but an exercise in self-approbation. The progressive does not tell us to what place we are progressing, what we must abandon to take the journey, and why we should want to go there anyway.
If I were pressed to give an empirical rather than an analytically coherent answer, I’d say that a “progressive” believes in an ever-wider scope of sexual license for the individual and a greater concentration of authority in quasi-governmental bodies outside the direct control of the political process (Child Protective Services, the World Health Organization, the National Education Association), to effect changes that the subject peoples would be too slow to accept on their own.
Such a progressive is not a rebel against, but a collaborator with, the social influences of the very thing he affects to disdain—for there is something else that thrives upon the symbiosis between sexual license and centralization of power.
It is instructive to turn to a progressive who wrote before the movement cast its lot with powers and principalities. Samuel W. Dike, founder of the Divorce Reform League, wrote “Problems of the Family,” one of a series of articles by seven progressive signatories for Century Magazine, in January 1890. I bracket certain words in the passage, and beg the reader to substitute “the sexual revolution.” None of the rest need be altered:
The Disintegrating Work of [Property]
The general movement of [property] has, so far, been like that of a huge glacier, breaking and wearing away into their elementary atoms all forms of cooperation, whether political or economical. Its ultimate atom is the individual; its favorite corporation is the largest possible combination. The family has in it the greatest cohesive strength, and has most successfully withstood the grinding power that has tended to crush everything subjected to it. This operation of [the modern industrial system], and the commercial outgrowth of it, combine with other social causes to help postpone marriage and reduce the size of families in those sections of society where these tendencies are the least needed. It brings the family into the labor market as a mere collection of individuals on the same economic footing as the unmarried. For small provision, at the best, will be made in fixing wages, for the rearing of children, the care of other dependents, and all those little things that make the home. In [the market of wages] the family is the accident of the laborer rather than his essential.
Dike was not arguing against private property. He was progressive because he was conservative. He did not wish to see an abstract commitment to private industry crush private industry itself, with small businessmen and property owners swallowed up in the larger industrial system. He reminds his fellow Americans that business is for man, and not man for business. And man is not that “ultimate atom,” the individual! No man is an island, said John Donne; and if every man’s physical death diminishes me, then every man’s spiritual death diminishes me all the more.
We are made for one another. The clearest proof thereof is our division into male and female, the man for the woman and the woman for the man, and both for the children to be born from their love. In the family, in wedded love, says Milton, are founded “Relations dear, and all the Charities / Of Father, Son, and Brother,” while “casual fruition” is left for the beasts. Thriving societies are made up not of individuals but of families. Yet families are more than foundational: they both build up the society and are the prime beneficiaries of the society they build. It follows that nothing that harms the family can be just—as we would not propose to heal a man’s cancer by removing his lungs.
Dike is not fooled by people who insist upon an individualism, whether sexual or capitalistic, that results in the preferred vehicle of social, economic, and political influence, “the largest possible combination.” He is thinking of the large corporations of his day. He had not yet seen what the drive to combine and amalgamate would do to schools, communities, and bodies of government.
The consolidation of school districts and the construction of large facilities for many hundreds of children from widely scattered areas, for example, have robbed ordinary families of most of their influence over the single feature of political life wherein they are most nearly concerned and might most fruitfully exercise their wisdom and talents.
The direct election of senators was a victory of the later progressives that led to consequences that were quite the reverse of what many of them hoped. At a single stroke, this change turned each state into a geographically arbitrary field for culling votes without regard to state districts or communities, in a manner very similar to that in which large commercial operations sweep indiscriminately across the populace for customers, one here and one there.
I’m no goldbug, but even the move from a gold-based currency to a fiat currency, with the fiat vested in a Federal Reserve Board, the single most powerful economic institution in the history of the world, partakes of that same double movement of amalgamation and atomization. When American dollars declared that they might be redeemed in silver, the Treasury was effectively subject to the determinations and transactions of ordinary people’s buying and selling. The household in possession of gold or silver, even in promissory notes, had something of intrinsic value. But when that declaration was removed, power was taken out of the hands of ordinary people and vested in the members of the Federal Reserve Board.
Shall we not also call to the dock the federal judiciary? It will be objected that judges have no armies to enforce their decisions, but that’s not true. Their army is the vast apparatus of the bureaucratic state, which at once seizes money and lends it back with usurious interest—interest paid not in dollars but in submission to the bureaucratic will. The erstwhile citizens of a small town in Pennsylvania—reduced to atoms, as far as their influence over the national government is concerned—may dearly wish to tell the Supreme Court where to go and whom to harass, but they have been rendered poor clients of the state and cannot afford the legal burden of trying to maintain federal funds, much less losing them outright. Lawyers proliferate, and justice dies; self-government degenerates into self-will.
Instead of a government of governments, a national authority built upon and by and for states, communities, parishes, guilds, free associations, and households possessing prescriptive rights and duties and authority, we have an all-determining empire of managers.
It no longer strikes us as bizarre that nine lawyers in Washington should have anything to say about what a valedictorian may utter; or that imperial bureaucrats from the Department of Housing and Urban Development should issue directives regarding zoning for ethnic diversity; or that there should even be a national department devoted to something essentially local; rather as if the most powerful woman in the nation should embark on a crusade to alter what is served to children in school cafeterias, or as if a court should instruct a beneficent organization such as the Kiwanis or the Boy Scouts on their rules for membership, or as if the very definition of the family should fall under any political jurisdiction. The “largest possible combination” now works not simply to weaken its rivals, but to absorb them—to say what they are and what they are not.
I’ve mentioned that Samuel Dike was the founder of the Divorce Reform League. One might assume, since he was a “progressive”—an ally of men like Seth Low, the progressive mayor of New York City and president of Columbia University—that he advocated liberalization of divorce laws. Quite the contrary. Because he was a progressive, because he was deeply suspicious of those largest possible combinations in business, he understood that it served those combinatorial interests to weaken family ties, especially as the labor of women and children would undercut the salaries paid to male heads of households. Dike wanted to make divorce much more difficult to procure, to protect one state from the heedlessness and license of another.
Dike did not want the machine to function more efficiently—the glacier, to grind mountains down to dust. His was a call for citizens to block its action, by recovering the integrity and the authority of their homes and communities. It is a call we would do well to heed.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This article has been republished from Public Discourse with permission.