Progressive Puritans

From e-cigarettes to sex classifieds, the once-transgressive left tries to criminalize fun.


When I first started hearing people on the political left describe themselves with some frequency as progressive back in the 1990s, the term did not seem tethered to the epoch-defining, early-20th-century spasm of moral crusading and government centralization that helped give us everything from trust busting to Prohibition to the Federal Reserve. As articulated by champions like Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins, the progressive label was both a way to get out from under the generation-old baggage of liberal-a term Ronald Reagan and others had turned into an epithet-and to differentiate lefties from seemingly apologetic triangulators like Bill Clinton and that now-vanished tribe known as the New Democrats.

From a libertarian perspective, '90s progressives were good on issues the New Democrats stunk up (particularly criminal justice and the drug war) and bad on those that made the Clintonites worthwhile, such as lowering trade barriers and restraining federal budget growth. At their best, such as at the "shadow conventions" organized by Arianna Huffington in 2000, progressives of the era challenged both parties to address long-neglected issues and reverse government policies that actively damaged people's lives.

Since many of the people who self-identified that way came of political age in the '60s and '70s, progressives on the whole clearly belonged to the longhaired side of the culture war. They were the ones mocking the squares, pushing the envelope on free expression, and taking up arms in the sexual revolution. The more progressive the publication, the kinkier the sex classifieds in the back.

If you could put a date on when modern-day progressives fully re-inhabited the moral rigidity of their Progressive Era forebears, it might be September 24, 2012. That's when Village Voice Media, the country's biggest chain of alternative newsweeklies, split off its online classifieds site Backpage.com after a years-long, progressive-led campaign to shutter the site over claims that it facilitates "sex trafficking."

"If street pimps go to jail for profiteering on under-age girls, should their media partners like Village Voice Media really get a pass?" New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the country's most prominent progressive scold, wrote in a March 2012 column that blamed Backpage for the 2003 peddling of a 16-year-old prostitute, even though the site didn't exist in 2003. "Paradoxically, Village Voice began as an alternative newspaper to speak truth to power. So it's sad to see it accept business from pimps in the greediest and most depraved kind of exploitation."

Kristof had the paradox almost exactly backward. It is he and his fellow crusaders, not the buyers and sellers of controversial products and services, who are aggrandizing power at the expense of the little guy and mangling truth in the service of that unseemly goal.

Take e-cigarettes. In March, the 15-member Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to outlaw vaping in all the places that cigarette smoking is currently banned, including parks, beaches, and restaurant patios. Among the anti-scientific reasons cited by councilmembers was the nastiness of secondhand smoke (even though inhaling vaporized nicotine instead of the byproduct from burning leaves does not create any of the stuff) and the horrors of long-term cigarette addiction (which vaping is tailor-made to prevent).

Look around the country and you'll find a strong correlation between e-cigarette bans and progressivism. Los Angeles joined New York, Boston, and Chicago with its prohibition, and now D.C. is threatening to get into the act with regulation from the Food and Drug Administration. The same moralizing impulse is leading to blue-city bans on everything from plastic bags to fried chicken joints to bottled water.

Banging the journalistic drum loudest for these buttinsky interventions is modern progressivism's hometown newspaper, The New York Times. In a series of breathless front page scare stories, the Times this year has warned darkly that the "emergence of e-hookahs and their ilk is frustrating public health officials who are already struggling to measure the spread of e-cigarettes, particularly among young people."

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum summarized the newspaper's alarmism at reason.com: "E-cigarettes are bad because they look like cigarettes. E-hookahs are worse because they don't. Using either of them might lead to smoking, although we can't find any real-life examples of that. Fruity flavors show these products are aimed at children-or maybe at young women, middle-aged actresses, or old Arab men. But the point is, they are aimed at somebody, and the companies selling them clearly are trying to make them appealing, which cannot be tolerated."

One reason that turn-of-the-century Progressivism lost its attractiveness as a self-label was its inextricable linkage to the disaster of alcohol prohibition. Yet many modern-day progressives have seemed to forget those policy lessons as well.

Kristof in 2012 advocated the boycott of Anheuser-Busch on the grounds that the brewer was selling too much beer just outside the alcoholism-ravaged Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. And in February of this year, the columnist made the amazing claim that prostitution can finally be nipped in the bud if only we got serious about locking up johns. "Police increasingly recognize that the simplest way to reduce the scale of human trafficking is to arrest men who buy sex," he wrote. "That isn't prudishness or sanctimony but a strategy to dampen demand."

Au contraire, as Thaddeus Russell demonstrates on "Sex Slaves and the Surveillance State" (page 62). Not only were prudishness and sanctimony vital to the Progressive Era project of cracking down on the chimera of "white slavery," but that misguided strategy to dampen demand helped give rise to the modern FBI and a host of illiberal laws, which were deployed like clubs against disfavored populations. And instead of learning from that history, modern-day progressives are repeating it with their factually untethered ranting about "human trafficking."

This issue of reason is filled with such stories about progressivism gone terribly wrong. In both the cover story by Sonny Bunch (page 44) and the economics column by Veronique de Rugy (page 20), the Progressive Era bureaucracy known as the Department of Commerce comes under fire for crony capitalism, mission incoherence, and indestructibility.

Jim Epstein's "Port Authoritarians" (page 26) explains how the real villain of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's bridge scandal is an unaccountable, corruption-wracked agency that was once held up as a model for enlightened Progressive Era governance. The bad news is that even a prolonged national outrage isn't shining a critical light on the Port Authority. The worse news is that the agency has spawned literally thousands of imitators across the country. And on page 76, Thaddeus Russell is back with a provocative essay ("'That Kind of Luxe Just Ain't for Us'") about how progressive pop culture congratulates itself by sneering at the consumption choices of lower classes.

The transformation of modern-day progressives from transgressives to scolds was on display after the death in February of legendary comedic writer/director/actor Harold Ramis, of Animal House, Caddyshack, and Ghostbusters fame. Over at Salon.com, professional sourpuss Thomas Frank offered up the unintentionally comic headline, "Baby Boomer Humor's Big Lie: Ghostbusters and Caddyshack really liberated Reagan and Wall Street."

"Each of the films," Frank wrote, "features some prudish or strait-laced patriarch who is spectacularly humiliated by a band of slobs or misfits or smart alecks. With their dick jokes and cruel insults, these movies represented, collectively, the righteous rising-up of a generation determined to get justice for the little guy. [But] the dick joke is not always what it seems to be. The dick joke is not always your friend."

The skill and dedication of our puritan progressives should not be underestimated. If you can take the fun out of Caddyshack, you can take the fun out of anything.