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Progressives and a more perfect union

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My growing-up years in the Ozark Mountain river town of Van Buren, Missouri was highlighted by a scattering of colorful characters.

My favorite was Saint Joe. Saint Joe was a rugged, fiercely independent mountain man with long stands of graying hair and an uncut beard. He wore long john thermal underwear under his bib overalls, which I am certain had never seen a wash tub in ages.

Every five or six months, Saint Joe would come to town riding in his mule-drawn wagon to get a fresh supply of essentials at Mann’s Mercantile Store.

Saint Joe spoke his mind. It was about the time of some of the first rural electric authority cooperatives in this rural Missouri area. One of the cooperatives had been organized to get one of those REA government-provided, low-cost loans. This was a part of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The rub came when Saint Joe learned that at least three of the supporting electrical pole lines would have to be placed on his property. (Keep in mind that this was an effort to bring electrical power to farms and homes in the early 1940s United States that had no electricity.)

Saint Joe would have no part in it and vowed to cut down any REA poles placed on his property. The REA team went ahead and placed the essential poles on his property and Saint Joe promptly cut them down.

I tell you this story because progress is difficult. There are always those who only think of themselves, who prefer things just as they are or were in the “good ole days.”

In the wake of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt set his sights on aggressive actions to repair and transform both our federal government and society to see new possibilities where all Americans could prosper. He would have the hard task of turning the nation from isolationism and strong conservatism toward a new form of progressivism.

This vision of a new and progressive form of a government as begun in this era has given our nation and each of us as citizens the following benefits:

• The eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek.

• Prohibitions against child labor and workplace exploitation.

• Protection against contaminated food and medicines.

• Hundreds and millions of protected wilderness areas, waterways and national parks.

• Social Security and Medicare to aid the elderly and Medicaid and CHIP to help low-income families and children.

• Minimum wage laws.

• National infrastructure including electrification, railways, airports, bridges and roads.

• The right for women to vote.

• Civil rights legislation and the integration of public schools.

There is much more!

Contrast the above list with the factual record of the conservatives’ political actions. This political philosophy opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was against women being given the right to vote. Conservatives fought against the 40-hour workweek and the restrictions on child labor.

Why? They opposed anything that would cut into the profits and greed of the corporate powers, including almost all regulations. When it comes to Social Security and Medicare, conservatives still demonize such as socialism if not outright communism. The rank and file conservative politicians continue to fight against equal pay for women.

Just as Saint Joe viewed the REA program as another big government socialist program — never mind that it would bring much-needed electrical power to make life better for hundreds of local families, not to mention the future improvement of the area’s economy — he was going to have none of it.

Today, the strong “conservatism” concepts of America first and the use of fear regarding any form progressive political and social responsibility is being debunked as dangerous, socialist, even communist.

Under President Trump’s neo-conservative leadership, greed and corporate profits are the guiding lights. In the meantime, any sense or moderation and creative progressive programs are disappearing just like the glaciers at the North Pole setting back any efforts to move our nation forward toward a more perfect union.

Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.