When we elect politicians to office, it’s with the expectation (or at least the hope) that they will do something meant to improve our lives. Presumably this improvement will require change, the correction of past mistakes or persistent injustices — a process known, in its most benevolent guise, as “reform.” In personal life, reform means a brave step toward self-improvement and purification; nobody reforms himself becoming an alcoholic. It’s much the same in the public sphere: a promise to fix what’s wrong with the body politic, usually through sober bipartisan policymaking. The process, in theory, goes only one way — onward into a brighter, better future.
This air of positivity helps explain why nearly every policy proposal in Washington ends up advertised as a reform. Slashing taxes on the wealthy is “tax reform.” Repealing Obamacare is “health care reform.” Building a wall along the Mexican border is “immigration reform” — but so is finding a path to citizenship for Dreamers. In his State of the Union address, President Trump mentioned reform nine times, describing solutions for problems ranging from border control to opioid addiction and hailing — to thunderous applause, if not high factual standards — the recent passage of “the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.”
Reform lives and breathes good intentions. It declares the existence of a concrete problem that really does need to be solved. Political enemies are forced onto the defensive: Opposing reform means defending the status quo, no matter how bloated or feckless the current state of affairs may be. This tactic is particularly useful when so-called reformers hope to gut the very programs they’re claiming to improve. “Welfare reform” set that template in the 1990s, purporting to free Americans from dependency by giving them a whole lot less welfare. Attempts at “reforming” Obamacare, in 2017, meant getting rid of as many of its provisions as possible.
All this reflects the continued hollowing out of our political language, in which words often generate emotion without producing meaning. “Reform,” these days, may purport to fix things, but it tends to evade the hard work of defining either a problem or a solution. It posits a self-evident consensus — about a system’s failures, and about what might be preferable — where none exists.
all reforms is still the Protestant Reformation, that long assault on the luxuries of the Catholic Church. In the early 19th century, though, a more secular meaning appeared, as elites considered whether judicious tweaks to the existing system might help contain social disorder or prevent uprisings. Reform emerged as the moderate alternative to revolution: still full of passion and ambition, but without so much chaos and lopping off of heads. It soon became the essential tool of progress — a way for society to evolve, slowly but surely, into an ever-more-ideal state. In Britain, “parliamentary reform” sought to root out corruption and lower the requirements for voting. On both sides of the Atlantic, early-19th-century reformers held on to strains of Protestant moralism, going after drinking and slaveholding as not only bad politics but also sins.
The shift toward reform as a matter of public policy came with the rise of industrial capitalism. By the early 20th century, middle-class Americans found themselves awash in social crises: overcrowded cities, political corruption, mass immigration, wild disparities of wealth. But they were also surrounded by new ideas about how to solve those problems, from a muckraking press to the budding expertise of social scientists, who promised that humans could understand and fix large-scale problems. From this mix came the idea of “reform” as a way to adjust society to cope with its new realities — and the image of “reformers” as a special breed of educated do-gooders. Crusading intellectuals like Jane Addams and John Dewey came to epitomize this type: privileged members of society who put their talents to work devising new ways to help the poor or to educate children, aiming to liberate the human spirit to reach its full potential.
Progressive reformers helped bring about tenement laws and income taxes, trustbusting and labor protections, women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. Some of these measures tried to rein in the capitalist beast, returning the country to an age of yeoman farmers and small-scale producers; others embraced the modern dream of organizing human activity in ever more rational, efficient ways. In either case, some Americans wanted none of it, and saw “reform” as perilously close to an elite conspiracy. The era’s conservatives insisted that human nature — and therefore human society — was irredeemably imperfect, and that too much mucking around with social legislation bred an overreaching, tyrannical government. Left-wing radicals often disliked such projects, too, insisting that the dribs and drabs of reform were a bourgeois project that only delayed what really needed to be done, which was obviously revolution. In her famous 1899 essay “Reform or Revolution,” the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that reform should never be an end in itself, but that agitating for it could be a means of preparing for the final confrontation with capitalism.
These tensions lasted well into the New Deal, the crowning years of America’s enthusiasm for reform. New Dealers held on to progressive ideas while sloughing off some of the moralizing. Over time, though, their economic policies ushered in what the historian Alan Brinkley has described, in the title of a 1995 book, as “The End of Reform.” The New Deal, he wrote, grew from a complex tradition of progressive reform, then “attached the word ‘liberalism’ to it, and set about transforming it.” The new liberals ultimately pinned their hopes on economic growth and Keynesian tinkering, not the trickier task of actively redistributing wealth and power. Over the decades that followed, they would orient themselves increasingly toward civil and social rights rather than sweeping economic reform, a subtle but important shift.
This may have spelled the “end” of a certain mode of reform, but it did little to change reform’s association with progressives and liberals — even when it was taken up by their opponents. In 1955, the historian Richard Hofstadter published a book whose title named the period from the 1890s through the 1940s “The Age of Reform.” He accepted as axiomatic that reformers came from “the side of the left in American history.” Still, he noted, there was now a tendency among conservative politicians to claim “reform” and “reformer” as gauzy, feel-good labels. “We usually reserve our highest acclaim for the politician who has in him a touch of the liberal reformer,” Hofstadter wrote. As a result, any talented conservative politician learned how to “exert his maximal influence by using the rhetoric of progressivism and winning the plaudits of the reformers” — while otherwise working against what most progressives would want.
Six decades later, a similar impulse seems to hold sway in Washington. While Democrats search for a muscular patriotic language to win back Trump voters (or galvanize their own), Republicans and conservatives seem happy enough to claim the gentler mantle of reform, especially when facing popular skepticism or outright hostility toward their policy proposals. Having accomplished “tax reform,” Speaker Paul Ryan now dreams of “entitlement reform,” through which he envisions reducing the deficit by cutting back on signature liberal programs like Medicare and Social Security. In a recent open letter sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, 12 conservative figures urged Ryan, along with Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, not to forget about “health reform,” by which they mean continuing the effort to undo Obamacare. Several signers of that letter have been described as “reform conservatives,” a loose term that signals inside-the-Beltway policy seriousness while creating distance from the more xenophobic elements of the Republican Party.
Not all aspects of reform carry quite the same partisan or ideological tinge. “Criminal-justice reform,” intended to reduce the harms of mass incarceration, seems to be one of the few genuinely bipartisan agenda items in Washington. (Trump himself, who rails against “savage” criminals, has spoken about “reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”) “Campaign-finance reform” occasionally rallies support across party lines, as do a few select aspects of “immigration reform.”
But even those issues — narrow, practical and still contentious — point to some of the limits of reform right now. A century ago, reform meant coming up with inspiring new ideas that would lead to greater justice, a confidence that human planning and ingenuity could accomplish grand and transformative things. Now it seems to mean, at best, restrained corrective measures — and far more often than that, actively undoing the policies of the past, an act of hardheaded resignation rather than of collective hope. Reform once promised a future of unparalleled opportunity. Today, it often marks the opposite, a loss of faith in the idea of progress itself.