Mike Lux’s The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be is a thoughtfully examined analysis of the dichotomy of progressive and conservative philosophy and the long-term effects of each when they prevailed.
The central thesis is that American history has been a long battle between conservative philosophy and its proponents, focusing on individualism and maintaining the wealth and power of the economic elite using fear as its weapon, and progressive philosophy and its proponents, focusing on equal rights and community by utilizing hope. This conflict has existed at the core of American society from the first calls for independence to the 21st century, and when progressives are on the winning side America advances and prospers.
Lux argues that in history dramatic change occurs for three major reasons: “earthshaking events” such as war, disaster, and revolutionary technologies, groundbreaking new policies such as the New Deal and civil rights legislation, and “intellectual change moments” when a speech or debate dramatically alters public sentiment. He observes that many of the major events that fall under the previous categories are bunched together within certain decades, and while he believes that the theories of historical and generational cycles have merit, such dramatic change also requires strong leaders or an important movement:
History has big patterns and trends, but very little is inevitable. The decisions, courage, and failures of individual leaders and mass movements of people determine its course.
Each chapter progresses through American history by identifying the core philosophical and policy battles, the players on both sides of the debate, and the results of either the progressive or conservative victory. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and the progressive vs. conservative debate during the formation of the United States and how conservative misinterpret them to lend support to their own beliefs.
The Progressive Revolution also identifies many of the setbacks and failures of progressive causes, leaders, and today’s Democratic Party. For example, how the alliance of the civil rights and feminist movements broke down after male abolitionists took a deal to pass the 14th Amendment by excluding women from its protections, how following 1968 “the movement quite literally allowed itself to fall to pieces by focusing on identity politics and single-issue causes,” and how the Democratic Party has been held back from making major progress in the last couple of decades because of a “culture of caution.”
Lux believes that we have the chance now to create a “big change moment.” As the American people struggle in the wake of George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency and eight years of conservative philosophy in practice and the progressive movement “emerge[s] from its period of relative slumber,” the time is right to launch a new progressive era. The organizational power of the internet and the rise of the Millennial generation increase this potential:
Young people are becoming engaged again in the political fray, voting and volunteering at levels one could only dream of just a few years ago–a trend that was helped, though not started, by Barack Obama’s campaign.
The Democratic Party can once again be the party of progress if they “think big and bold, rather than small and cautious” and run as “strong progressives, rather than as careful, defensive-sounding centrists.”
The Progressive Revolution provides us as readers with the historical context and philosophical grounding to carry forth the progressive banner of Paine and Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, and write our own chapter in American history.