Meet John Podesta: Architect and Salesman for the New Progressivism

Editor’s Note: Be sure to mark your calendar for April 15-16, 2010, when The Center for Vision & Values hosts its sixth annual conference on "The Progressive Surge and Conservative Crackup."

John Podesta is a 60-year-old son of Italian/Greek immigrants, raised in Chicago tenements, graduated from Knox College (Illinois) and Georgetown Law School, campaigned for George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy–where he met Bill Clinton. He eventually became Clinton’s fourth and last chief of staff. By 2002, Podesta had founded the Center for American Progress, which he now directs as CEO. The goal of this center is nothing less than a political revolution. Podesta says so clearly in his new book The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives can (Once Again) Save our Economy, our Climate, and our Country (2008).

Most Americans are probably not familiar with Podesta’s progressive movement, though they know vaguely the term "progressive" from their high-school history classes. Their teacher probably extolled the virtues and vices of leading early progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Robert LaFollette.

A crucial point in understanding Podesta’s modern-day progressivism is the validity of his claim that this movement is but a continuation of the original progressive movement, usually dated 1890-1920. Emphatically, his claim is false.

In his book, and 70 some articles published over the last eight years, Podesta embraces many government programs initiated by the old progressives. Significantly, however, he goes much further and claims that the New Deal and Great Society were but later chapters in a century-long development of progressivism.

He also enumerates dozens of additional government programs that he would like to see passed into law or created by executive order. A few examples show the flavor of Podesta’s vision for the future: He advocates restructuring cities to promote "denser" neighborhoods. Most Americans probably do not want the federal government to tell them that they must live in a city with denser population patterns. And he proposes a three-to-four percent Value Added Tax on top of all other taxes to pay for a national health insurance program–run by the government.

Podesta punctuates his own program in prefatory remarks made in another book, Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President (Obama), published early in 2009. This book, edited by the well-known left-wing activist Mark Green, contains some 60 essays, each discussing a new government program or structural changes to achieve these programs.

It is not difficult to conclude that both of these books map out much of the Obama administration’s projected or already instituted agenda. Moreover, the president’s daily addresses echo much that Podesta and friends have proposed.

One purpose here is to alert readers to the massive and vigorous efforts of what should be called the new or liberal progressives’ efforts to reorganize American society. But, there is a second purpose, too: These progressives are not lineal descendants of the original progressives, as Podesta claims. There are, indeed, profound differences between the original progressives and Podesta’s movement. Here are two important examples:

Old progressives assumed that their reforms were rooted in moral absolutes, grounded in the prevailing Christian flavor of society in their day. The new progressives have a moral, or moralizing, tone but reject moral absolutes in favor of the relativistic. It must be noted in fairness to Podesta himself that he clearly states his own deep personal Christian convictions which, he says, his secular friends do not understand.

A second significant difference between the new and old progressives is in their view of the Founding Fathers. The old had a deep reverence for the Founders and their views–especially government and its limited uses. Not so with the new progressives. They may give lip service and a nod to the Founders and their ideas, but ignore most of what they had to say. One example illustrates this point well: The Founders, suspicious of government and its power, invented the separation of powers and other measures to limit governmental power. It’s true that the old progressives did enlist government to make certain changes in society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution–some anti-trust measures and the creation of the Federal Reserve. The new progressives, however, clearly believe that the government can and should solve all of our problems and expand government to ensure success–or so they hope.

A final note on Podesta’s progressivism: The late 19th century was awash in versions of the idea of progress. Most versions were tied, however, to the pervasive belief that America was to usher in the New Heaven on Earth as part of a Christian millennium. Many progressives at that time were heirs to this social doctrine. This view likely does not motivate Podesta’s progressives.

So, what does? Many things, no doubt. Speculation that some utopian schemes may be at the heart of their vision seems correct. America has had, after all, its own socialist utopian tradition. Examples include Thorstein Veblin (1857-1929), Henry George (1839-97), John Dewey (1859-1952), and Saul Alinsky (1909-72), who invented the Obama-embraced practice of "community organizer" in Chicago. It is a truism that utopians, socialist or otherwise, assume the perfectibility of man and society. Experience belies this view of human nature.

If what has been said so far seems like a bit of interesting, though obscure, information, consider the following: Included in the epilogue of Podesta’s book, The Power of Progress, he wrote out a full inaugural address that he hoped the new president would deliver on Jan. 20, 2009. And what is in this speech? It contains a summary of the programs he had been outlining in his book. It is not difficult to conclude that both of Podesta’s books map out much of the Obama administration’s projected or already instituted agenda. Moreover, the president’s daily addresses echo much that Podesta and friends have proposed.

Ponder Podesta’s progressive program. Does it deserve your support?

L. John Van Til, Ph.D., is a Fellow for Law & Humanities with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.