Having read R.J. Pestritto's essay, "Why Progressivism is Not, and Never Was, a Source of Conservative Values," I am convinced that I was rather clumsy in making the points that I wanted to make in my Ashbrook Center article, "What's Wrong With Progressivism." In retrospect, I am afraid that this sloppiness began with the title of the article, which left open the possible interpretation that I was implying that not much was wrong with progressivism. It was actually an attempt to turn Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? around, indicating that the real problem is with today's progressivism, not with Kansas.
The point I was attempting to argue was of much narrower scope than Pestritto perceives. He is quite right that some "big government conservatives" have adopted Theodore Roosevelt as a putative model. My argument was much misunderstood if he thought it proper to put me in that category. I myself am not a "big government conservative," and my article was not intended as a positive defense of 1906 progressivism or as a flattery of T.R., whose New Nationalism speech still curdles my blood. My point was simply that whatever the flaws of the progressives in 1906, they have gotten worse since then. I happened across the 1906 State of the Union message in the course of other research, and it struck me that there is no liberal or "progressive" politician in America today who would give that speech. This was, to me, an interesting fact, and one that helped explain Frank's conundrum, his observation that many regions with a history of populism or progressivism have "gone conservative."
I did not at all mean to suggest that modern conservatives should learn from the old progressives, since the examples I citedassertive patriotism, defense of the traditional family, and unwillingness to simply bow before the courtsare already conservative positions, long held for our own good reasons. Rather, it is modern liberals who could learn something from the old progressives. (Of course, they could learn much more from Publius, but one thing at a time.) The positions I cited were not progressive positions per se in 1906, but represented a broad consensus in American politics and society to which the progressives happened to adhere. Modern "progressives" have thrown all of that overboard and have removed themselves from that consensus. It was largely this radicalization of the Left on cultural issues and patriotism that broke up the Democratic majority. At bottom, my argument was an electoral one of cause-and-effect, not one about the net value of progressivism, then or now.
I certainly did not mean to excuse or minimize the old progressives' assault on property, the Constitution, and natural rights. Indeed, I had hoped that mentioning those problems not once but twice would signal readers that I was not letting the progressives off the hook. I agree, not disagree, with Prof. Pestritto that those views are not counterbalanced by any of the old progressive positions I cited, and that those views disqualify them as a source of values for conservatives, who should indeed make the founding their North Star. I merely meant to suggest that our quite appropriate disdain for the fatal errors of the old progressives should not prevent us from acknowledging that they yet retained at least some worthy American sentiments, which their intellectual descendents have completely foresworn, to their own electoral ruin. After being subjected to decades of pro-progressive hagiography passing as history, conservatives have reason to blanche when discussion of the progressives turns positive. However, I contendand will not yield on this pointthat refusal to see any good at all in old progressivism makes it harder to put the real radicalism of today's Left in perspective.