Progressives, New Dealers, and the Politics of Landscape


One of the greatest ironies of our time is the fact that today’s leading progressives tend to despise the very decentralized landscape that an earlier generation of New Deal liberals created.

Franklin Roosevelt and his successors from Harry Truman to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sought to shift industry and population from the crowded industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest. They did this through rural electrification based on hydropower projects, factories supplying the military and federal aid to citizens seeking to buy single-family homes in low-density suburbs.

This is precisely the environment – which brought so much opportunity and improved living conditions to so many – that today’s progressives so often despise. Since the 1960s, environmentalists, for example, have waged a campaign against the great dams that symbolized New Deal economic development policies. Artificial lakes that generate electricity for millions of suburban homeowners and businesses, and have brought an end to devastating, cyclical floods, are condemned by progressives for having wiped out local fauna and flora. And it goes without saying that the middle-class swimmers, picnickers and motor-boaters that enjoy government-created lakes on weekends are… well, vulgar.

Similarly, the defense plants that the Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy-Johnson administrations scattered throughout the country are often lambasted as emblems of the fascistic “military-industrial complex,” part of a wicked “Gun Belt.” In fact, industry is increasingly seen as undesirable by today’s Arcadian progressives, who appear to believe that it would have been better to leave the farmers of rural America as quaint specimens of authentic folk life.

But nothing riles the progressives of today than the low-density, single-family home suburbs made possible by New Deal liberal homeownership policies. Since the 1950s, intellectuals on the left have been bemoaning the alleged cultural sterility and conformity of the suburbs. Now anti-sprawl campaigners allege that the suburbs are also destroying the planet.

So the question is: How did the American left, in a short period of time, come to repudiate the New Deal and the American landscape it created? The answer is simple: today’s center-left, which calls itself progressive rather than liberal, is not the heir of New Deal liberalism. It is the heir instead of early twentieth century elite Progressives, who were shoved aside and marginalized during the heyday of New Deal liberalism.

The original Progressives were overwhelmingly professionals and patricians of old Anglo-American stock in the Northeast and Midwest, many of them the children of Protestant clergymen, teachers or professors. They despised the nouveau riche of the Gilded Age, but also tended to view European immigrants and white and black Southerners as benighted primitives.

Their vision of the ideal society, influenced by the Hegelian Idealist culture of Bismarckian Germany, was one in which a university-trained elite ran everything with minimal interference by ignorant voters and crass politicians. As heirs of the moralistic Northern Protestant Whig and Republican traditions, these Progressives also had a strong interest in the social engineering of private behavior, from prohibition to eugenic sterilization.

From Reconstruction until the Depression, Progressive moralism and elitism alienated European immigrants and rural Southerners and Westerners alike. This benefited the industrial capitalists of the dominant Republican party. Franklin Roosevelt created a powerful, but fundamentally unstable, Democratic majority by adding many former Republican Progressives to the old Democratic coalition of Northern white “ethnics” and white Southerners.

Yet in the process Roosevelt helped undermine many of the signature initiatives of the progressives, starting with the repeal of Prohibition, a policy loathed by German and Irish Catholic voters. It signaled a repudiation of the Whig-Republican-Progressive ambition to use the federal government for moral reform and social engineering. (FDR’s tactical appeasement of Southern segregation had a similar tactical logic).

Another goal of Progressives, economic planning, died with the collapse of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in the first Roosevelt term. Jettisoning the Progressive dream of a planned economy run by technocrats, the Roosevelt administration instead focused pragmatically on state-capitalist public infrastructure projects like the Tennessee Valley Association (TVA) and the Lower Colorado River Association (LCRA).

Plans for an all-powerful executive civil service subordinate to the White House – a progressive reform that FDR unwisely favored – were rejected by a Congress jealous of its prerogatives and suspicious of executive power. Finally, nanny-state supervision of the poor, another Progressive theme, found little sympathy among New Deal Democrats, who preferred universal social insurance to means-tested public assistance, and preferred employing the able-bodied poor in public works to what FDR called “the narcotic” of the “dole.”

The New Deal ultimately left little of the old Progressive project but created what could be considered a Golden Age that lasted until the 1970s for the white lower middle class majority. Progressive intellectuals and activists, however, sensed that they had been marginalized. Over-represented in the prestige press and the universities, they increasingly denounced what they saw as the vulgarity of the New Deal’s constituency.

The assault on the suburbs was one of the most powerful expressions of this discontent. It was led by two figures. One was Jane Jacobs, the romantic chronicler of dense urban life, and its villain in New York’s highway-building Robert Moses. A rival school, headed by Jacobs’ enemy Lewis Mumford, sang the praises of planned “organic” villages – “highwayless towns” connected by “townless highways.” The Mumfordian strain of Progressive planning is represented today by the New Urbanism, with its hyper-regulated low-rise pedestrian communities.

The resurgent progressives also clung to their vision of a society in which an enlightened, nonpartisan elite governs the ignorant masses from above. The Civil Rights Revolution, and the era of judicial activism that followed, permitted progressives to transfer power from the elected political class to the federal judiciary. By the 1970s and 1980s, federal judges were regulating practically all aspects of American life. Social engineering schemes like busing for racial balance and race-based affirmative action, which “color-blind” New Deal liberal opponents of segregation like Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson opposed, now became critical pillars of progressive ideology.

The New Dealers had been ardent conservationists, but their conservationism focused not only on nature but also the well-being of people. New Deal soil conservation and agricultural productivity policies allowed the amount of land in cultivation to decline, freeing up vast tracts of land for wilderness or habitation. Farmers, middle class suburbanites and nature all gained.

This approach is repudiated by most contemporary progressives, who know nothing about farms except that they are cruel to livestock. By the 1970s many progressives abandoned liberal conservationism for radical environmentalism, which seeks to protect nature by separating it from humanity and industry. Radical environmentalism tends to shade into misanthropy, as in the proposal by two New Jersey environmentalists to turn much of the Great Plains into a human-free “Buffalo Commons.” (Curiously, nobody seems to have proposed evacuating New Jersey in order to create a “Migratory Bird Park.”) The radical Green goal of “rewilding” North America by creating “wildlife corridors” from which humans are banned repudiates the New Deal liberal vision of allowing working-class Americans to enjoy the scenery of national parks.

So in every respect except racism and opposition to immigration, today’s progressives are genuine heirs not of the New Deal liberals but of the capital-P Progressive economic planners and social engineers of the early twentieth century. Even their social base is the same as in 1908 – college-educated professionals, particularly those in the nonprofit sector and education, like public school teachers and academics.

This class – enlarged ironically by New Deal liberal programs like the G.I. Bill and student loans – has been increased in number by upwardly-mobile Americans to whom mass university education imparts a blend of the worldviews of old-fashioned Northeastern progressives and the old Bohemian left-intelligentsia. This enlarged college-educated professional class has allied itself with African-Americans and Latinos in the identity centered post-McGovern Democratic party.

With perfect symbolism, the two bases of the alliance of white progressives and nonwhite Democrats – college campuses and inner cities, allied against the middle-class and working-class suburbs – correspond to the alternate urban utopias of Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs respectively, if we consider the college campus to be a Mumfordian paradise.

With good reason, then, today’s progressives despise the suburban, middle-class America created by yesterday’s New Deal liberals. Today’s progressives may invoke the New Deal, but they are the heirs not of mid-century liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson but rather of the Progressive social engineers who believed that enlightened elites should alter both the built environment and human behavior to meet their social goals. Some things never change.

Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author, with Ted Halstead, of "The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics" (Doubleday, 2001). He is also the author of "Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics" (New America Books/Basic, 2003) and "What Lincoln Believed" (Doubleday, 2005). Mr. Lind has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The New Republic. From 1991 to 1994, he was executive editor of The National Interest.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Hawaiian Vacation Rental

Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author, with Ted Halstead, of "The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics" (Doubleday, 2001). He is also the author of "Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics" (New America Books/Basic, 2003) and "What Lincoln Believed" Hawaiian Vacation Rental