Puerto Rico as Progressive Playground

President Trump’s press conference in Puerto Rico made clear that whatever the island’s political designation may be, Puerto Ricans are Americans and he will act accordingly. The Commonwealth’s recovery—and not just from this hurricane—is part of the goal of making America great again. But the difficulties involved extend far beyond differences in political status or institutions. Clearly, Puerto Rico’s lack of a strong civic culture hinders reconstruction and the storm that caused this mess is of a kind much worse than hurricanes.

For the most part, the battered island has been portrayed in the media as utterly helpless, dependent on a trickle of U.S. aid and battling a hostile president, who because he tweeted that some Puerto Rican politicianswant everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort” is now taken to mean that there is something inherently and irredeemably wrong about the Puerto Rican people. The slander is as unjust as it was predictable. But focus on that distraction will only hinder efforts to help solve Puerto Rico’s current and ongoing real problems.

The President’s bluntness about the absence of local civic associations and vigorous local government once again exposes a sad—if incomplete—truth about Puerto Rico. It is absolutely fair to say that it lacks the emphasis on individual freedom Tocqueville appreciated in Americans, as working to benefit neighbors and cooperate in local ventures for the common good. This culture of civic engagement spurred by confident and free citizens helps explain the Texas and Florida reactions to less severe, but still deadly and destructive, storms.

But even beyond the much-commented on financial and other acute crises that permeate the culture of civic friendship in Puerto Rico, there is still more under the surface that helps to explain the deep roots of the problems that will make Puerto Rican disaster recovery much more difficult than it otherwise might have been.

The Commonwealth labors under a severe debility—not merely a “culture of poverty” abetted by Spanish imperialism—but rather its subjugation to the cutting edge of Progressive theory and practice. Puerto Rico could have been a model for how freedom might be a blessing for nations that dared for a higher dignity than colony status. Instead, as Puerto Rico was liberated from Spain, American Progressives made it a model for government planning and dependence. If President Trump is serious about deconstructing the administrative state, then those same principles that apply to the United States proper should apply even more to Puerto Rico. All Americans deserve freedom.

As crucial as Franklin Roosevelt is for understanding the way the United States is governed today, it is even more the case that understanding Rexford Tugwell (1891-1979) is crucial for understanding Puerto Rico. Tugwell was FDR’s appointee from 1941-1946 as Puerto Rico’s Governor and New Deal Brain Truster. To encapsulate the economist Tugwell’s ambitions, it is revealing that novelist Philip K. Dick (of Blade Runner fame) made Tugwell his “hero” in an earlier novel, The Man in the High Castle, about the U.S. under Nazi and Japanese rule.

The non-fictional Tugwell, however, poured his ambitions into turning Puerto Rico into a laboratory for the New Deal. He gushed that the island “was a planning agency of the kind that I had said to myself I would someday try to see set up somewhere. This was my opportunity.” According to historian Michael Lapp, “it used to be said there that when one asked Puerto Ricans to describe the typical family on the island, they would answer: ‘the father, the mother, the children, the grandparents and the resident social scientist.’” Tugwell’s conceit was that social scientists would make Puerto Rico a “showcase for democracy” and a model for post-colonial development.

Tugwell enlisted the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) to establish a planning board that would issue top-down reforms of the government, the university, and the economy, including state-owned industries and infrastructure. His successor governors continued this Progressive experimentation. The current governor, a graduate of MIT, with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan, is from the PDP.

As Lapp summarizes, Catholic “Puerto Rico in the 1950s became the chief testing ground for the birth control pill. That decade also witnessed the rapid increase in the number of sterilizations performed, to the point where, according to one study, more women had what became known as ‘la operacion’ than in any other country in the world.” Everything, including the existence of human beings, would result from planning.

Such a territory, Tugwell and later his planners averred, could provide an alternative to Communist ambitions for the Third World. The blend of races would, they hoped, present a multicultural face to the world.

But the Puerto Rico we see today is not this hoped for utopia. Instead, it is the administrative state gone amok. Tugwell’s progressive influence remains on the island, and the results should stand as a testament to the flaws of progressivism. When we see Puerto Ricans waiting for the government to act, we are seeing the atrophy of civic culture brought about by many decades of big-government Progressive ideology.

This attitude is very much the product of unhinged ideological schemes. We should keep in mind Tocqueville’s observation that Americans help out people who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances—as their fellow Americans in Puerto Rico are today—but that they cease their generosity after a while, to show that they respect the independence of the unfortunates; their inherent ability to use and enjoy their freedom.

That is what America owes all Americans. As the World Series approaches, we recall baseball heroes from Puerto Rico such as the late Roberto Clemente and Carlos Beltran, who are also our fellow Americans. Puerto Rico is part of the American team. In rebuilding the island, the Trump administration needs to roll back its Progressive legacy and allow the island to be the truly American model Governor Tugwell, because of his Progressive blinders, failed so miserably to create.


About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

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7 responses to “Puerto Rico as Progressive Playground”

  1. Puerto Rico is a perfect example of what the parasitic Democrat Party ultimately does to any metropolitan area they are allowed to govern.

    • Masugi’s history needs an update. It’s not the old-timey machine-Democratic Party – it’s the SEIU/1199 plus Working Families Party takeover of the Democratic Party that has destroyed ‘governance’. Add Connecticut, Illinois & California to the list… and apparently Minnesota: https://spectator.org/the-purple-monster-at-your-door/ led me to re-read this for the sixth time, “The Union That Rules New York: Powerful and well funded, 1199SEIU has unprecedented reach into city and state government.” Stephen Eide, Daniel DiSalvo Summer 2015 https://www.city-journal.org/html/union-rules-new-york-13736.html and remembered something in the current news that the USN pulling out of Vieques, Puerto Rico was a significant factor in PR’s financial problems:

      “…A game emerged, in which 1199 would push management to the brink of a strike, and then city or state government would swoop in with an 11th-hour offer of funds to secure “labor peace.”

      Davis’s tactics were honed further under Dennis Rivera, who led 1199 from 1989 to 2007.

      Rivera grew up middle-class in Puerto Rico and moved to New York in 1977; his first job on the mainland was as an organizer for 1199. Rivera also burnished his progressive bona fides, championing tenants’ rights, gay marriage, universal health care, and the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. …”

      • I completely agree; I have been a victim of unions myself and know for a fact, what they are noted for.

  2. Mr. Masugi, thanks for pointing out how the laboratory style of progressive social engineering never works and can never work. Progressives live in a world of theory and I recall this old line where a progressive economist huffs, “it may work in practice, but it will never work in theory.” Uh huh.

    • I wish I had recalled that one. Maybe Tugwell actually said that.

  3. The ethos of PRs is no different from Mexicans, Central Americans, Northern South Americans. Just read Conrad’s Nostromo to understand what ails Latin America.

  4. Or maybe “there is something inherently and irredeemably wrong about the Puerto Rican people.”

    It reminds me of that General in Full Metal Jacket who quips, “Inside every Vietnamese is an American waiting to get out!”

    Maybe it’s time to be a realist instead of an idealist. Not every country in the world is like us. Some don’t want democracy. Some don’t want multiculturalism. Some think materialism is bad instead of good. Some hate Americans, some don’t. All empirical evidence shows Puerto Rico is much more similar to their fellow Latin American nations than the U.S.. Latin Americans love big government.

    This kind of article shows the exact same hubris of the Progressives it rightfully mocks. That is, WE could fix Puerto Rico if we just instituted the correct economic measures. It’s time to realize Puerto Ricans aren’t really Americans. They should have their independence to live as they want. Our overlordship has not helped in the past century. We can still be friends but we need to break up.