No period in US history resembles our own more than the Progressive Era. It was a time when the old political binaries broke down, and a stunning variety of schemes for social, spiritual, and economic reform were paraded before the public. Like today, the Progressive Era presented a mighty challenge of distinguishing between good ideas and merely fanciful ones. One of the defining events of the era, the 1912 political battle between Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” and Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom,” illuminated a critical divide in Progressivism—a divide that has reappeared among today's would-be reformers.

Teddy Roosevelt announced the New Nationalism in a 1910 speech at Osawatomie, Kan. He was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination that would ultimately go to William Howard Taft, leaving Roosevelt to make his failed third presidential run with the Progressive Party. The dominant issue of the day was the growth of huge corporations that dwarfed the power of workers to bargain and of small producers to compete. The New Nationalism was Roosevelt’s answer to the problem.

Under the New Nationalism, the government would recognize the legitimacy of large interstate corporations in exchange for their accepting the level of government supervision then applied to public services like railroads. This would mean granting the government a supervisory role in setting wages, prices, and conditions of work. Roosevelt had already taken steps in this direction as president with his advocacy of the little-remembered Hepburn Bill, which would have passed the power of corporate chartering from the states to the federal government. The New Nationalism combined acceptance of the large corporation as a natural, even positive development in economic life with an insistence that these institutions serve the national good.

Woodrow Wilson, the ultimately victorious Democratic candidate, needed to define his alternative to Roosevelt’s platform. He hit on the New Freedom, a populist rebuke to the New Nationalism. In his 1913 speech “The Old Order Changeth,” Wilson lamented that monopolies had closed the field to new entrants in myriad industries. For Wilson, this was a failure of America’s promise of unlimited individual opportunity. To form the kind of partnership with the big corporations Roosevelt proposed was to cement their permanence. Instead, Wilson wanted government to intervene by breaking up monopolies to increase competition. This way, economic policy would favor “the men who are on the make, rather than the men who are already made.”

Wilson won the race, but the clash between the New Nationalism and the New Freedom didn’t end there. It is a perennial conflict in American life, going back to the divide between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson wanted an America where market power was divided between innumerable small producers and the government stayed out of economic affairs. Hamilton wanted a strong federal government that financed new industries and set tariffs to maximize exports and minimize imports. In essence, Jeffersonianism entails a solicitousness toward “the little guy,” and independence from both government and market tyranny. Hamiltonianism stands for support of strong government and strong industrial firms working together for the common good. After World War II, when industry worked with government to end the Depression and produce the materiel that beat the Nazis, Jeffersonian voices were quieted. To a great extent, Americans accepted an economy in which Big Business existed alongside Big Government and Big Labor, which checked it. John Kenneth Galbraith, highly influential in midcentury America, called the ideal balance of these forces a system of “countervailing power.”

Yet by the late 1970s and into the ’80s, a kind of perverse Jeffersonianism took the stage. Countervailing power would be stripped away through deregulation, union-busting, and free-trade agreements. This policy mix gave us the neoliberal economy, against which today’s reform voices are raised. These reformers, like those of the Progressive Era, are divided into Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian camps.

Among reformers on the right, a new enthusiasm for anti-monopoly has come by way of antipathy toward Big Tech and environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, investing. In recent years, the stage of Conservative Political Action Committee and the pages of conservative magazines have seen myriad proposals for using antitrust enforcement to punish these industries. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri (a contributor to these pages) has led the antitrust charge, but he isn’t alone. With the Republic House Judiciary Committee’s 2022 letter alleging that ESG violates antitrust law, anti-monopoly has become part of the mainstream of the Republican party. The essence of Republican opposition to tech companies like Google and investment firms like BlackRock is that they use their market power to push ultra-liberal social agendas. Google and Facebook censor criticism of vaccines or transgender identity, while BlackRock steers the companies it invests in toward climate and diversity initiatives. Cultural politics are the driving force behind this new enthusiasm for busting up big companies.

The essential thing to realize about this kind of sentiment on the right is that, like its predecessors in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, it is not critical of market imperatives. (Consider Josh Hawley’s statement in an interview about his book The Tyranny of Big Tech: “Monopoly is the enemy of the free market; monopoly is the enemy of capitalism.”) In many cases, the major objection of Republicans to big corporations is precisely that they are taking on considerations other than profit. An investment firm should only be concerned with returning maximum value to its clients, not promoting green energy or diverse boardrooms. A tech company (or a beer company, or a cookie company) should only care about the profits of shareholders, not promoting progressive gender ideology. While conservative critiques of the private sector have been cast as a major departure from Reaganism, this departure has been over-touted in many cases. A minimalist conception of a company’s proper responsibility is perfectly compatible with the doctrines of Milton Friedman, as is the idea that competition is a virtue.

This minimalist anti-corporate sentiment on the right is also compatible with a neo-Wilsonian element on the left. Hawley has been embraced by Matt Stoller, a star of the “Hipster Antitrust” movement centered on the Open Markets program of the New America think tank. Adherents of this movement want to overturn the Chicago School doctrine that antitrust enforcement should only be concerned with low consumer prices, and reinvigorate trust-busting to open the field to small competitors. They are squarely in the Wilsonian-Jeffersonian tradition that sees the small business owner as the main client of government. This tradition harmonizes well with Hawley & Co.’s enthusiasm for killing the woke giants. This marriage of right and left populism has been one much-remarked upon feature of the post-Trump “realignment.”

But the realignment has also given rise to another, smaller camp on the right, with a clear family resemblance to New Nationalism. Central elements of this coterie include Oren Cass and his American Compass think tank, Julius Krein and his policy journal, American Affairs, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; all are Compact contributors, as are Michael Lind and Sohrab Ahmari, both of whom have explicitly set out to revive the Galbraithian tradition of countervailing power.

While these figures and institutions take periodic swings at woke capital, they are primarily interested in industrial policy and labor’s countervailing power. The thread of Trumpism picked up by these outlets was the promise to reshore American factories, a thread the MAGA right has largely dropped in favor of a narrow focus on cultural issues. They have highlighted such forms of countervailing power as “works councils” through which workers can participate in corporate governance and transferring the voting rights of index funds to the federal government to tie company behavior to the national interest. Rubio’s concept of Common Good Capitalism is similarly concerned with placing constraints on company behavior that will make corporate leaders stewards of a flourishing national economy, rather than servants of shareholders. The most significant thing that distinguishes these ideas from other anti-corporate views on the right is the call for corporations to take on more, not fewer social responsibilities.

“Anti-monopolism, at bottom, is merely dogmatic laissez-faire.”

This view can’t be easily wedded to the neo-Wilsonianism of a Stoller. Nor can it coexist for long with the narrow anti-woke agenda that dominates the Republicans’ populist wing. Markets that readily admit newcomers, or eject woke ideologues, are by no means guaranteed to work for the national good. Anti-monopolism, at bottom, is merely dogmatic laissez-faire. In a state of maximum competition, firms are too harried to be concerned with anything but the bottom line. Historically, it was only when oligopoly eased the pressures of competition that large-scale bargaining with labor and extensive regulation of workplace conditions became possible. With neoliberalism, the delicate balance of power between Big Government, Big Labor, and Big Business that made for the highest living standards in history was torn down. The dominant impulse on the right is still to talk of tearing down, slashing and burning, albeit now in populist terms. Conservative reformers should look to the small cadre who, in the tradition of Hamilton and Roosevelt, are talking about building.

Hamilton Craig is a Compact columnist and a doctoral student at CUNY researching farmers’ movements in the United States.

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