On the vagueness of "change."

March 16, 2008

teddy roosevelt

Over and over I am asked by supporters of Hillary Clinton why I’m supporting Obama. The conversations usually devolve into heated arguments over policy differences, and usually end with the simple claim: “I’m not voting for Obama until he explains what he means by change.”

These frequent conversations about change have inspired me to re-read Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book The Age of Reform, which won the Pulitzer for its appraisal of the period of American social and political reform from 1890 to the Second World War.

The following quote stuck out to me, as it so clearly provides an analysis (in my opinion) of this demand/question about the meaning of change, and why as a campaign theme it’s intentionally kept vague.

Hofstadter writes about the undercurrents of Theodor Roosevelt’s Progressive/Bull Moose Party, which formed for his run for the presidency in 1912:

“…By “Progressivism” I mean something more than the…party formed by those who supported Roosevelt… I mean rather that broader impulse toward criticism and change that was everywhere so conspicuous after 1900, when the already forceful stream of agrarian discontent was enlarged and redirected by the growing enthusiasm for middle-class people for social and economic reform. As all observant contemporaries realized, Progressivism in this larger sense was not confined to the Progressive Party but affected in a striking way all the major and minor parties and the whole tone of American political life. It was, to be sure, a rather vague and not altogether cohesive or consistent movement, but this was probably the secret of its considerable successes, as well as its failures. While Progressivism would have been impossible without the impetus given by certain social grievances, it was not nearly so much the movement of any social class, or coalition of classes, against a particular class or group as it was rather a widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specific self-reformation. Its general theme was the effort to restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was widely believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the great corporation and the corrupt political machine; and with that restoration to bring back a kind of morality and civic purity that was also believed to have been lost.

I could explicate this for pages and pages, but what strikes me most is the cyclical nature of American democratic impulses, and how this analysis of events from over 100 years ago, written almost a half-century ago, seem so relevant and true to what we’re experiencing today in American politics.

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