What Barack Obama's 'Forward' Slogan Really Means

It behooves conservatives to understand where progressive are coming from.


My friend and former colleague Victor Morton of the Washington Times has a provocative take on the Obama campaign's use of the slogan "Forward." Unfortunately for Obama, Victor writes that the term brings with it a lot of leftist baggage:

The slogan "Forward!" reflected the conviction of European Marxists and radicals that their movements reflected the march of history, which would move forward past capitalism and into socialism and communism. ...

There have been at least two radical-left publications named "Vorwaerts" (the German word for "Forward"). One was the daily newspaper of the Social Democratic Party of Germany whose writers included Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotsky. It still publishes as the organ of Germany's SDP, though that party has changed considerably since World War II. Another was the 1844 biweekly reader of the Communist League. Karl Marx, Engels and Mikhail Bakunin are among the names associated with that publication.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Over at National Review Online , Jonah Goldberg responds that Victor "misses the more basic point."

Which is this:

"Forward" is simply a synopsis of the progressive understanding of the State. The State has always been seen by the left as the engine of history. When Obama says he's about going Forward, he's also saying that he thinks the government is the thing that moves us all forward, that the State is the source of Progress. I have no doubt he believes this. And obviously the government is a major driver of change—however change is a very different thing than progress. Sometimes government driven change is good, sometimes not. The more important point, however, is that government is only one of many sources of change. Technology is at least as important. The car was certainly had a far more profound impact on society than, say, Warren Harding. The birth control pill, antibiotics, the telephone, frozen pizza, etc: These all are far more significant than 99% of what passes for politics. Culture, religion and demography are also often far more important and relevant than the State. The problem is that progressives tend to see all of these things as products of the State in some way. If we are to go forward it must in the saddle of the State.

[ See photos of Obama's re-election campaign.]

Again, I hate to sound like I'm throwing in with capital-P Progressives, but I actually think Jonah is pushing at an open door here. Progressives, at least as I understand them, would not disagree one whit with the idea that technology, demography, and other forces are the primary drivers of widespread changes to the way society functions. Indeed, they would concede to this obvious fact as the basis for progressive reactions to such changes: The world has changed; government needs to change with it.

You get this sense from the titles of progressive-minded histories like Samuel P. Hays's The Response to Industrialism: 1885-1914 and Robert H. Wiebe's The Search for Order: 1877-1920.

Michael Lind makes something like this case in his latest book, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States. See this quick five-minute intro to the book here, as Lind speaks of "waves of technology-driven economic change" followed by "waves of political change." The steam engine, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the transistor, the personal computer—all these innovations radically changed the economy; but, Lind says, "regulatory systems, laws, and political institutions" lagged behind by about a generation. In this view, government is not in the "saddle." It's forced to play catch-up.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

I'm happy to have an argument about whether the first generation of Progressives, the New Dealers, and modern progressive liberals had an appropriate reverence for the Constitution as they fought for the aggrandizement of the state. It's an important argument of which progressives are often far too dismissive. But I think in fairness, it behooves conservatives to understand where they're coming from.

Does Obama fancy himself History's stage manager? Or is he trying to restore the New Deal/Great Society status quo in the brave new world of global finance? The former possibility makes for great fodder in the conservative media complex—but my money is on the latter.