Writing in The New York Times, Timothy Egan celebrates Barack Obama’s reelection as the dawn of a new progressive golden age. There’s a lot to debate in the piece, but as George Mason University law professor David Bernstein observes, Egan’s historical illiteracy is particularly egregious. To set the stage, first here’s the offending passage from Egan:
The Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run — direct elections of senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public schools, cleaning up the food supply — with only one major blooper: Prohibition.
Now here’s Bernstein:
I’m not a big fan of either the Seventeenth Amendment or of antitrust law, but put those aside; what about, among other things, residential segregation laws in the South and border states (fortunately invalidated by the Supreme Court, much to the dismay of Progressive commentators), eugenics legislation, hostility to the Equal Rights Amendment/support for “protective” law for women only, support for American imperialism (at least via one of the Progressives’ great champions, Theodore Roosevelt–and Woodrow Wilson didn’t exactly distinguish himself with American intervention in World War I, which may be the single greatest “blooper” in American history), and support for state legislation monopolizing certain fields on behalf of incumbent businesses (see, e.g., New State Ice v. Liebmann)? Do these count as only minor bloopers, or has Progressive support for these policies slipped down the old memory hole?
It certainly would not be the first time a modern liberal ignored the misdeeds of the Progressives.
On a related note, two years ago Washington University law professor Brian Tamanaha criticized several libertarian writers, including me, for complaining about the ugly record of the Progressives while failing to acknowledge libertarianism’s “own embarrassing grandparents.” To make his case, Tamanaha pointed to the proto-libertarian social theorist Herbert Spencer, who, Tamanaha asserted, “opposed all government aid to the poor and infirm because it thwarted the biological law that the weakest should die.” That description of Spencer’s thought is totally incorrect, as I explained in my response to Tamanaha. Unfortunately for today's liberals, the Progressives remain guilty as charged.