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That sounds like a Lyle Lovett song, Our Big Mistake; we are repeating it over and over and over again, from the 1968 election to the present. Isn't it sort of sad, we gave up working from the inside to continue to move government in a more progressive way?
Republicans right now have a real death wish for the country and while liberals; progressives and democrats fight over who is the more perfect leader the country burns. The Democratic party has been around for a long damn time, is it perfect, no not in the slightest, has it at times had its share of criminals and bandits, sure enough. But we are making a big mistake constantly making Barack Obama the issue and claiming we have no power…. okay it is true the power of liberals and progressives have been waning since 1968. The question needs to be asked, why? Why has the United State grown increasingly conservative? Why do American’s seem to believe in the “lower my taxes to nothing” mantra? And while we fight with one another we lose yet another battle.
There are few people more colorful in modern American history than Harold LeClair Ickes. A man of America, he loved politics, we all do really, and in his time he was a member of the Republican Party, the Progressive Party and ultimately became not just a member of the Democratic Party but was the longest serving Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From his perch he saw the rise and fall of the Progressive Party. His experience should give current progressives pause, because he offers clues to how to be an effective party in his critique of the Progressive Party of 1912.
Ickes was a young man in 1912, he was born in 1874. He had moved from being a member of the Republican Party, to the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party was formed because of a schism in the Republican Party, really it was a schism between two men, W.H. Taft and T. Roosevelt. The schism was deep, deep enough that is allowed Democrats to sweep into congress in 1910. In Congress, the split between "old guard" Republicans and "progressive" Republicans intensified. As the year wore on, an alliance was formed between Democrats and "progressive" Republicans in the House. Under these tensions the house revolted. It stripped the current speaker of the house and the office of the speaker of most of his out-sized powers.
Joe Cannon had once ruled the house with an iron fist, but On March 17, 1910, after two failed attempts to curb Cannon's absolute power in the House, Nebraska Representative George Norris led a coalition of 42 progressive Republicans and the entire delegation of 149 Democrats in a revolt. With many of Cannon's most powerful allies absent from the Chamber but enough Members on hand for a quorum, Norris introduced a resolution that would remove the Speaker from the Rules Committee and strip him of his power to assign committees.
And so began a tumultuous time in the history of American politics. And it is a time we can learn from and wrest control of the argument about what government is supposed to do for its citizens. Is government really just to be used to keep taxes low and services almost non-existent? Republicans insist this is the purpose of government? If this isn’t the truth, then why don’t we fight back the way they do, by infiltrating the government itself and by changing it from the inside. Because most democrats and progressives feel the government is supposed to provide services for the citizenry, via our taxes, republicans up until this point have won the argument, because all their arguments become about not paying taxes because of X number of reasons.
By 1912, the progressive wing of the Republican Party had completely peeled off and begun their own party. It was ironically called, “A Contract with the People”. Wow who knew Newt Gingrich stole his Contract with/on America from some former disgruntled Republicans! I certainly did not know this.
Sound familiar? Yes it sounds like the New Deal! Let’s just say the Gilded Aged suffered from many of the same issues America suffers from today, income inequality being a prime source of discontent, and as social nets are whittled down, there will be more discontent in the future. This was a time when Progressive could have had much impact on society and they could today too, but it takes organization and work, not just blogs bitching and moaning about the awfulness of everything.
Progressives didn’t have a big impact until Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power. The Gilded Age, yes, there are many good comparisons to today. The Gilded Age in the US is marked by having the wealthiest congressional members, just like today.
Progressives today are failing in the same way independent progressive movements failed in the past, and Ickes work “Who Killed the Progressive Party” gives us insight into those failures. Ickes point was the failure of the Progressive Party came down to one man, but it was so much more than that, through Ickes work we can see the ultimate failure in these words:
"The Progressive party contained few practical politicians in its ranks. The rank and file did not know how parties were run. They were blindly following Theodore Roosevelt, and they were not concerned about what machinery was necessary or how it was to be used. " (Ickes, Who Killed the Progressive Party 309)
By 1916, the Party was essentially dead. It did not have any initial impact other than to break apart the Republican Party. But progressive ideals did manifest in the next Roosevelt Administration, because it is here where people like Harold Ickes came to change America, and they did it by working from within the government. And they were able to change the trajectory of American government.
Ickes himself was most successful in advancing progressivism when he was participating in the government as a man off all things to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ickes held several posts simultaneously in the Roosevelt Administration, most famously of course, as the Secretary of the Interior a position he held from 1933 – 1946. But he was not just the Secretary of the Interior, in 1941 President Roosevelt appointed him the Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense (Ickes, Fightin' Oil vii). In fact he wrote a book called Fightin’ Oil based on his experience regulating oil companies. According to Ickes the Presidents objectives were stated clearly that his office was to; “make petroleum and petroleum products available, adequately and continuously, in the proper forms at the proper places …. to satisfy military and civilian needs (Ickes, Fightin' Oil viii). ”
Here is the interesting passage from Ickes introduction:
There were two ways in which I might have approached the job. I could have said to the President: “Mr. President, you have given me a bunch of tough hombres to deal with, and the only way that I can get along with them is for you to give me dictatorial power so that I can tell them what to do, and see that they do it.”
That would have been Hitler’s way. In fact some people, including, I suspect, a good many oil men themselves, thought that it would be my way, too. But I fooled them. It just so happens, that in spite of contrary opinions here and there, I believe in the American system of free enterprise. It is also the fact that I believe that business can best do its part – in peace as in war – with the least possible direction, and with the least interference, by the Government.
Harold Ickes was a long time progressive and this book is a policy book, written in clear narrative form, it calls on American patriotism and begins to broach the subject of conservation of oil as a natural resource. Chapter 9, speaks to the issue of conservation and admonishes Americans for being extravagant in overusing oil and oil companies for leaving the public with the impression that we could never run out of oil. Ickes style progressivism was on display.
But the point is, Ickes and progressivism had great impact because he and others like him worked from within the system to implement progressive policies and to defend those policies to the public. Ickes was an equally controversial Secretary of the Interior.
Right now, we are fighting each other, and when we do that, like the former progressives did we lose. We’ve lost ground for more than 30 years by giving up control of our power within the government. Changing the system means participating in the system, and every single time we fail to do that, we lose ground to the Norquist crowd and we allow Republicans to gain more power and keep control of the message.
We have to keep ourselves together, tight in order to push for changes we want to see. We have to infiltrate all levels of government like the right has, because if we don’t they will continue to control the debate and we will always be reacting to that circumstance rather than pro-actively countering those ideas. In short, we have to quit fighting with each other.
I often invite people to come to our meetings… so what I am doing now is imploring people to begin to attend their local democratic party meetings, so that the same old people don’t continue to control the message. If you want new ideas introduced and you want an emphasis on more social programs and infrastructure you have to participate in some way, and the OFA isn’t the way to accomplish that, infiltrating the Democratic party is the way to accomplish that, make it what it could be. The President is just one guy, and he only serves for a short time, changes come from long term concerted efforts. Ask anyone who is a reformed smoker, so buck up, and get organized, infiltrate, just like the TeaPeople did to Republicans.. TeaPeople aren’t new, they were the black helicopter people during the Clinton era. Begin to pressure them from the inside, that is how to ultimately win the war.
Ickes, Harold L. Fightin' Oil. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943.
—. The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1943.
—. "Who Killed the Progressive Party." The American Historical Review 46.2 (1941): 306-337.
Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes 1874 - 1952. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.