[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
I don’t mean to make a habit of responding to Matt Bowman’s essays in The New Republic, if for no other reason than that the man’s scholarly chops and writing skills are both impressive and intimidating. Both those talents are fully on display in his latest piece, which thoughtfully postulates a link between Mitt Romney’s technocratic worldview and organizational acumen (as well as his occasional history of deviating from quasi-libertarian, Tea Party-conservative Republican orthodoxy) and Mormonism’s history of progressive-style responses to social problems. But there’s a problem with Bowman’s essay: what he identifies from Mormon history and culture as a variation upon “classical American progressivism” isn’t really, or at least isn’t at its roots, despite his claims otherwise. In fact, the affinity which Matt sees between Mormonism and progressivism is actually just an echo of an ever deeper, more radical historical parallel and inheritance–one which, I’m sad to say, Mitt Romney (like most American Mormons) shows little sign of having been influenced by at all.
Bowman presents this affinity as emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, “when the [progressive] movement itself began,” which in a way tips his hand. He is presumably assuming–not without a good deal of historical warrant, to be sure–that progressivism’s genesis was concomitant with the collision of several particular forces and transformations in American thought and practice a little over a century ago: the rise of the Social Gospel; the example of European (particularly German) models of scholarly research, public administration, and technical expertise; the increasing complexity of the industrial economy; and the many political controversies resulting from the ethnically and racially fraught corruption which characterized political parties and governing bodies throughout America’s immigrant-packed cities. This is a good story to tell about progressivism–but it ignores the enormous historical influence which the many populist and communitarian movements of the previous century, particularly the last thirty years of it, had on the progressive movement’s moment in the sun. Bowman unknowingly acknowledges this debt with this early progressive agenda owed to the Populists when he talks about “influential progressive leaders like William Jennings Bryan” visiting Salt Lake City–Bryan being, of course, more generally and accurately known as a progressive only by accident and association, as the agrarian populist movement he’d helped to lead into the Democratic Party in the 1896 and 1900 elections slowly adapted both itself and its titular leader to more urban constituencies and priorities. 19th-century American populism–with its borderline utopian insistence upon economic sovereignty and the virtuous potential of the “plain people” organizing themselves without the assistance of monied and corporate elites–is too often wrongly understood as a kind of primitive dry-run at the more successful political reforms of the later progressive era, and Bowman’s piece unfortunately perpetuates that understanding, by eliding the deeply communitarian roots of those Mormon practices which supposedly make Romney into something of a progressive himself. The story is more complicated than that.
It is true that throughout the first half of the 20th century the Mormon church built (or, in the case of the Boy Scouts, borrowed) a large number of social organizations for its membership, culminating in the construction of the extensive Church Welfare Program, which enlists the time, effort, and financial support of both the church itself as well as its individual members to provide basic necessities and opportunities for productive work to all whom local church leaders reach out to as potential recipients of aid. But to what extent were these organizational and charitable reforming institutions and practices “progressive,” in the sense of seeing a grand alignment between emerging standards of economic and technological efficiency and the moral goal of charity and general human uplift? The actual history suggests that the connection was negligible. The ideal of the “Mormon beehive”–which to this day remains the symbol of the state of Utah–wasn’t associated with the competent management of the Social Gospel, but rather with the kind of cooperative organization that presumably would characterize a devout, consecrated, and sovereign community of equals, of the sort that we Mormons attempted to build repeatedly in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally Utah, stymied at every juncture by our own failings and the relentless hostility of state and national governments to Mormon separateness and communitarianism. This old egalitarian Mormon attitude–mostly abandoned long ago in the face of legal challenges over plural marriage, but echoes of which remain in Mormon culture and practice today–isn’t progressive, but utopian. And moreover, not utopian in the way Matt stretches to associate that idea with the early progressives’ tendency to conflate good administration with moral virtue; rather, it was utopian in the way most of the radical and populist experiments of 19th century were utopian–that is, it aimed challenge the inequities and ugliness of capitalism and competition, and replace that system with one more cooperative and divine. Indeed, the Church Welfare Program itself was not understood by those who created it as solely some kind of work-centered charity program designed to “cultivate habits of thrift and industry”; on the contrary, as longtime church leader J. Reuben Clark (ironically, a man who considered himself a strong conservative opponent of any kind of socialism) put it, “the Welfare Plan has [within it]…the broad essentials of the United Order,” in which all would contribute to, and may, as needed, be “given portions from the common fund.” The organizational world we Mormons move through, and which Romney spent years administrating on various local and regional levels, is a world haunted by something much grander, much more populist and egalitarian and community-minded, than the progressivism that Bowman points to.
This is not to say that the progressive perspective in America, as it flourished and developed into a technocratic, generally (if not deeply) egalitarian, and regulation-friendly liberalism through the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, and up through Romney’s youth in the 1960s, didn’t maintain an important hold on the Mormon mind. It absolutely did, and Bowman’s essay makes important points in its second half as he observes how typical Romney’s “white collar, well-educated” leadership style is of the American Mormon elite today. It is indisputable that, to whatever extent we wish to look at Romney’s Mormon inheritance as a way to understand the manner in which he will likely frame in his mind the social problems, fiscal dilemmas, or moral controversies that he’d encounter as president, he will probably exhibit “a profound faith in the efficacy of organizations.” (A common Mormon joke, riffing on both the thirteen “Articles of Faith” originally penned by Joseph Smith and the language of Paul from the Letter to the Corinthians, is to speak of a fourteenth Article: “We believe in all meetings, have endured many meetings, and hope to be able to endure all meetings.”) But it is wrong to suppose that the tangential, historically vitiated moral connection between utopian populism and technocratic progressivism, as important as it may be for appreciating the development of liberalism in the 20th century, provides a legitimate story for seeing parallels between progressives “who fought for workers’ rights and organized private charities” and the political priorities of Mitt Romney. The egalitarian aspects Mormon politics have deeper, more radical, more communitarian and utopian roots (and potential!) than that…and for better or worse, they play a far smaller role in the majority of contemporary American Mormon political discourse than any circumstantial progressivism might happen to. Mitt Romney is definitely a moderate, but to make him out as influenced by progressivism is, I think, to leverage Mormon history towards the wrong target.