Of Progressivism and Conservatism: which way Nigeria?

26 Jan 2013

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By Ekerete Udoh

President Obama’s second Inaugural Speech has been lauded or pilloried (depending on  where one stands on the ideological  spectrum) as representing the final death -knell to Reagonomics- a resort to rugged individualism and laissez-fair economic policy that has loomed large and shaped the American socio-political landscape for the past 20 years,  or the ascendance of Progressivism- the belief that government cannot willy-nilly be exorcised from the people’s lives and that government whether big or limited has a role in creating the enabling environment for the provision and safeguarding of ‘Negative Rights’ to its citizens- a governing philosophy that shaped most of the enduring public policy of the 20th Century America.

As the depressed and disconsolate Republicans watched Obama forcefully and unapologetically make the case and advocating the ennobling ideals of liberalism- a label that has been attacked, muddied, defaced and ill-defined with the view to  discrediting it  and render it toxic and unappealing by a determined Republican media echo chamber and other  conservative think-tanks, liberals who used to loath being so addressed suddenly found a new lease on life- a new fillip, a new voice – a sudden sense of dare and drive and in a voice and demeanor that stuck it to the conservatives proclaimed their newly invigorated ideological stripes.

To the liberals-Obama’s ringing endorsement of liberalism and falling on Martin Luther King’s birthday, was to reprise the seminal words of the late civil rights leader “Free at last. Thank God, we are free at last”-free from the negative portrayal by the conservatives and a president who in the last four years was too cautious, too tentative to reveal his true ideological stripes, so as not to be negatively defined by the Republicans which may have imperiled his re-election prospects.

American politics and its two-party system has always been illuminated by two disparate ideological currents- the conservatives on the right and the liberals on the left. The ability for the electorate to have two contrasting vision embedded in the two party system has made it easy for them to make informed decisions about which of the two visions presented by the two parties best address and articulate their broad concerns,  hopes and aspirations.  From the founding of the union, the founding fathers were people who entertained strong philosophical perspectives and had clear thoughts as to how the nascent Republic should evolve and develop.

Thomas Jefferson-arguably the intellectual arrowhead of the American Revolutionary War of Independence favored a union where the untrammeled forces of capitalism will not knock down the little man. He wanted a nation where the farmers, the artisans and the non-propertied class would be looked after and their collective interest protected against the rampaging forces of the mercantilist class favored by his arch-rival-Alexander Hamilton, whose vision revolved around a nation that would be shaped by the market forces and where banks and the manufacturing class would provide the engine of growth.

Thomas Jefferson’s eternal disdain for the mercantilist and banking class can be gleaned from one of his popular quotes “if the American people ever allowed the banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people all the property until their children will wake up homeless in the continent their fathers occupied. The issuing power of money should be taken from bankers and restored to Congress and the people to whom it belong. I sincerely believe the banking institutions having the issuing power of money are more dangerous to liberties than standing armies”. In another quote, in his 1781 “Notes on the State of Virginia” he likened farmers   “who labour in the earth” as the “chosen people of God” and the “most virtuous citizens.”

Determined to have a platform where his vision and philosophical groundings would find better expression and act as a galvanizing platform for the recruitment of like-minds to pursue political and economic goals, he formed the Democratic-Republican Party- one of the early political parties in the nascent republic. The seed for the propagation of the ideals of liberalism was thus planted in America and it is this philosophical underpinning that great and consequential presidents of America in the 20th Century internalized and adopted as their governing philosophy, and in the process helped to a large extent to make America a fairer, more equitable society that President Obama gave vent to, in his second Inaugural address. I will come back to this later.

The other vision that was championed by Alexander Hamilton considered the manufacturing, mercantilist and banking class as the favored class. These groups in Hamilton’s considered view were the institutions that would help the young republic catch up with its older cousin-Great Britain. He advocated the establishment of a strong army and a central bank that would become the monetary issuing organ. His philosophy was grounded in severe conservatism and to help provide a contrasting platform, he formed the Federalist Party to help recruit candidates who shared his philosophy on governance.

These two contrasting vision of government which the parties that evolved from  Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican, which came full course under President Andrew Jackson  as today’s Democratic Party and Hamilton’s Federalists Party which went through numerous metamorphosis-from Whigs to  President Lincoln finally adopting the name Republican Party, has helped deepen American political culture and help the American people to select and elect their leaders based on these two contrasting philosophies.

For most of the 19th Century-especially the period known in American history as the Gilded Age- conservatism and capitalism ran amok. It was the era of conspicuous consumption, of laisser-faire economic policies, where politicians were in bed with big business, and shirked their oversight responsibilities.  Regulation was non-existent and companies such as Standard Oil operated along both vertical and horizontal lines and completely monopolized the market, creating such obscene wealth for such people as Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegies, the Astors, and the Vanderbilts. In all this, the small people were used as tools for the accumulation of wealth and their living conditions-mostly in the tenements cried for attention.

This was the face of capitalism that Thomas Jefferson had feared and had fought the intellectual light of the doctrine-Alexander Hamilton squarely. Was this the right way for the American society to create an equitable society? Obviously, it wasn’t as the turn of the century would reveal.

The turn of the 20th Century ushered in America, a new governing philosophy promoted by an unlikely person- a president who was elected a Republican, and who was expected to preach the catechism of small government, laisser-faire policies and the trampling of worker’s rights. President Theodore Roosevelt- the former New York City Police Commissioner, later Governor of New York state and Vice President under the President William McKinley came on the political scene after McKinley was assassinated and the Progressive Era was born in America.

The ideals enshrined in Jefferson’s political doctrine of liberalism were forcefully followed. Companies that operated as monopolies were broken up, and regulated. Workers rights were protected, environment preservation came on top of government’s agenda, the little man was no longer seen as a pawn in the capitalist’s chess board, but as a major contributor to the growth of the society. Accent was placed on equitable distribution of resources. Numerous regulatory bodies and agencies were established and all these were enshrined in what Roosevelt called a “Square Deal” for Americans.

For close to 20 years, Progressive Era made America a fairer society until the Roaring 20’s when the untrammeled forces of capitalism again were unleashed by a number of Republican Party elected presidents and the result was the Great Depression that hit the country in 1929 which almost destroyed the foundation of American socio-political identity of democracy and capitalism.

It would take another liberal- a progressive leader in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt- a Democrat, also from New York, to restore Americans faith in democracy and capitalism through series of creative polices enshrined in his “New Deal” for America. Under his leadership- the only American President to have been elected thrice, capitalism and democracy was saved and the restiveness in the society contained.

America for almost 40 years was led by Democratic presidents who were guided by progressive or liberal governing philosophy. Except for President Eisenhower, who was a moderate to liberal Republican president, and whose liberal creed could be seen in the number of people-centric policies he championed, such as the massive road network that he built, which today has kept the American economy humming,  Progressivism-from  Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR,  Truman to John Kennedy, to Johnson who introduced  Greater Society, with accents on the needs of the common folks and the middle class ensured that the American society would become a more equitable and fairer one.

The articulation of severe conservatism championed by Barry Goldwater-the 1964 vanquished Republican Presidential was to signal the rise of conservative ideology- first with Richard Nixon- and later with Ronald Regan, who in most conservatives considered opinion, is the most iconic conservative figure of the 20th century.

Ronald Regan’s conservative government fought hard to roll back some of the gains of the previous 40 years of Democratic progressivism and these tensions- big government versus limited government, social safety nets versus rugged individualism, unilateral foreign policy versus engagements, wedge issues such as abortion rights, gay rights versus pro-life and marriage as traditionally ordained, regulation of the private sector versus laisser-faire have continue to shape American political discourse.

The last conservative government of G. W. Bush, which resulted in the economic meltdown of 2008, again illustrated the deep philosophical chasm between the two governing ideologies. With an eye toward re-election President Obama had treaded cautiously by not fully revealing his ideological stripes. His second Inaugural speech freed him to chart America once again on the path of Progressive governing philosophy.

I have gone to this great extent to look at the history of the two governing philosophies in America and to let the reader decides which of the two should apply to the Nigerian situation. This has become imperative as the opposition is gearing up to introduce a mega party it hopes to do electoral battle with PDP come 2015. If one were to ask: what is the governing ideology of PDP? Or what would the opposition party stand for? I am sure one would draw blank. The question remains: why can’t we have an ideologically driven two-party structure in Nigeria?

Next week: Why an ideologically distinct two-party system is needed in Nigeria.

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