The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be is the latest in a long line of books that make a case that progressive politics–and not conservative politics–have a long history of making positive change in the United States. In it, author Michael Lux–a Democratic strategist and former advisor to Bill Clinton–argues that conservatives have been on the “wrong side” of the issue since the United States’ founding.
In the opening sentence of his introduction, Lux writes that “American history consists of one long battle between the forces of reaction and the defense of wealth and power, on one hand, and the forces of progressivism and community, on the other.” It’s a thesis that makes sense if one looks at the history of the United States and Lux offers a number of examples through which he proves his assertion. He discusses the founding of the country and the discussions over how to organize government, the debate over slavery, the Bill of Rights, the right to vote, and other major debates in the country’s history. In each case, he identifies the “progressives”–for example those wanting to extend the right to vote to women–and the “conservatives”–those who sought to maintain the status quo.
Overall, Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be is a fairly simple book. It offers some basic historical arguments that counter the idea that the United States is and always has been a conservative country. They are the kind of arguments that you might share with your conservative, but somewhat sympathetic relative–nothing too detailed, but just enough to add some weight to what you might argue yourself. Often times, the arguments gloss over complex details and oversimplify, but that’s largely inevitable for any book that aims to cover such a broad period.
Unfortunately, while Lux simplifies history, I’d argue that he also repeatedly emphasizes the actions of politicians and “great thinkers” over those of the folks working on the grassroots to make the changes that he talks about possible. At times he does mention movements–for example the abolitionist movement or the Civil Rights movement–but he tends to over-emphasize the contributions of the leaders. He argues that progressive social change needs both a strong movement and strong progressive political leaders in the final chapter, but the emphasis is clearly on the leaders.
This isn’t too surprising, given that the back of the book contains blurbs by former Democratic Party politicians, strategists, and activists. In the final chapters, Lux makes it clear that he sees the history of progressive politics in the United States to be the history of the Democratic Party. He argues that Democrats have led–or perhaps responded to movements demanding–progressive changes over the years. While this is certainly true to an extent–Democrats are more “progressive” than Republicans–they have hardly been harbingers of radical change. Lux is willing to offer some minor criticisms of Democrats–they are too cautious and they have been unwilling to undertake bold political changes–but he is quite forgiving. He encourages people to support them even after he gives a fairly extensive critique of how they have failed repeatedly in recent years on major issues.
Overall, Lux’s book is pretty basic. Some of the historical arguments are interesting, but I didn’t really get too much out of it. More often than not, I found myself frustrated with the simplicity of the history. Lux’s book–if it was read widely by Democratic politicians and activists–might inspire some to take stronger stands, but I can’t imagine too many outside the party gaining much from his book. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States makes a more convincing case regarding the power of the left to make social change and does so in a far more inspiring manner.
Michael Lux, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, (Wiley, 2009).