What do modern progressives (i.e., “liberals”) have in common with The “capital-P Progressive” movement that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? What do Bernie Sanders and the late Paul Wellstone share with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson? To what degree do both movements/ideologies favor lower- and middle-class interests over those of the rich; avoiding war if at all possible; renouncing empire and colonialism; separating church and state; prizing the welfare state over big business interests; a willingness to invest in new social programs; and securing abortion/social/civil rights? You can probably toss in anti-death penalty sentiments and a general approval of world government. Women achieved the right to vote in ‘33, so that is not something both groups called “progressives” could share.
Indeed, the early reform movement known as Progressivism started in the crowded and dismal cities, appealed to both political parties, and claimed two prominent adherents in Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican and warmonger) and Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat and a racist). Indeed, history professor Mark A. Stoler, in a video on this topic, notes that “A close examination shows that The Progressives held many views totally repugnant to contemporary liberals.” He admits that “There is a kernel of truth between the supposed connection between Progressivism and contemporary liberalism, but it has been grossly overstated….”
Our definitions of liberalism and conservatism have “changed rather dramatically” over the years Stoler shows. Both were influenced to some degree by the late 19th and early 20th-century Progressive Movement. Only liberals nowadays have much in common with the “capital-P” Progressives, but as Stoler notes, the two are by no means synonymous or isomorphic. The People’s Party has some similarity to the Left of today, but Bernie Sanders is not exactly the same as Eugene V. Debs.
Wikipedia indicates that: “The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States, from the 1890s to the 1920s. The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government.” Capturing the moxie of the movement, Mary Lease exclaimed: “It’s time to raise less corn, and more hell!”
Wikipedia continues: “The movement primarily targeted political machines and their bosses. By taking down these corrupt representatives in office a further means of direct democracy would be established. They also sought regulation of monopolies (Trust Busting) and corporations through antitrust laws. These antitrust laws were seen as a way to promote equal competition for the advantage of legitimate competitors.”
The People’s Party platform, 1892 was based on the following: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench… The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes – tramps and millionaires.” That might be a tad bit “pitchfork-y”, but let’s face it, kids were working in factories and many were being injured or killed. All were missing school and being abused.
It is worth noting that The Progressive Movement was not a unified movement; it was a mish-mash of different interests. For example, Constitutional Amendments #s 16, 17, 18 and 19 were from this era. They a) established the income tax, b) established the direct election of Senators, c) prohibited alcohol, and d) instituted the vote for women. Major bills regulated the railroads, the Pure Food and Drug Act was signed, and anti-trust legislation was instituted. Social work and birth control were created, and muckraking journalism by Tarbell, Steffens, Sinclair and others flourished. Mark Twain was a prominent writer, Charlie Chaplin was a promient Leftist, and Emma Goldman and Mary Lease and Mary H. “Mother” Jones were prominent agitators for rights and organized. Woody Guthrie was born in this era. The New Republic got off the ground and is in fact still going strong.
However, the era also involved major attacks on civil liberties and immigrant restrictions, and the condition of African Americans deteriorated, eugenics and “Social Darwinism” had oxygen, and the “social gospel” movement took shape. One can clearly see from these things and wars that this was no utopia. Progressives were a mixed bag, and were not only Leftists.
Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson ran against each other in 1912, both claiming to be Progressives to some degree, “but diametrically opposed platforms,” Stoler points out. Philosophers William James and John Dewey and social activists such as Jane Addams were alive and well, and both Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis were jurists. Roosevelt was an interventionist and imperialist, and Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette was neither.
Khan Academy teaches: “Though Progressive reformers achieved many noteworthy goals during this period, they also promoted discriminatory policies and espoused intolerant ideas. The Wilson administration, for instance, despite its embrace of modernity and progress, pursued a racial agenda that culminated in the segregation of the federal government. The years of Wilson’s presidency (1913-1921) witnessed a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and a viciously racist backlash against the economic and political gains of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction period.”
Most leaders were anti-Populist, due in large part to the desire on the part of activist, blue-collar, grass-roots “progressive types” to regulate big business. Many leaders in the movement, though, were anti-immigrant and pro-business. “Many African Americans supported the movement, even though many of the leaders were highly racist,” Stoler indicates. Few politicians at this time were really pro-equal-rights for women. Stoler makes sense of this “confused” and “contradictory” set of principles, goals, leaders, and constituents by noting that it was probably an attempt to make sense of the national challenges ushered in by the incredible social force, the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps, I would wager, the Reconstruction and the issues wrought by the disastrous Civil War. Such social change and the ensuing urbanization took place at such a rapid pace and held such upheaval for the populace that it was almost like shaking up a social snow globe.
Stoler does identify a few discreet goals of the movement as a whole: “To end the abuses of power and corruption that had come to dominate the economic and political life.” He also sees it as aiming to b) replace corrupted institutions with reformed ones, and c) restore power to the people via the initiative, referendum, and recall. Improvements and democratization of voting were also significant aims. Note that there was a “Gilded Age,” that party bosses were a big problem in cities, and that the stock market and the wealthy were ascendant in the run-up to the 1929 crash.
The kind of profligacy, penury, greed, income inequality, garish wealth, and debased existences of the era certainly appear to have led to the stock market crash of 1929. Perhaps government ineptitude led to some worsening of the crisis, but it was fundamentally about a society imbalanced and under great pressure. Right economist Paul Samuelson noted this: “If we made…an income pyramid out of a child’s play blocks with each layer portraying $1,000 of income, the peak would be far higher than the Eiffel Tower, but almost all of us would be within a yard of the ground.” I am not sure to which era he was referring, but it is an apt description of The Gilded Age. Incidentally, the debacle became a world-wide phenomenon and indirectly led to the conditions that foisted Hitler upon an ailing Germany.
“Progressives also wanted to restore morality to American politics and American life,” Stoler indicates. Honesty was seen as sorely lacking. He adds that “Progressives wanted to help the victims of industrialization – children and women forced to work, immigrants, and others.” This public morality was welcome, in a way, but also required coercive legislation to try to stop the scourge of alcoholism, for example. That is definitely attacking the effects, not the cause, of such social ills.
Progressives also extolled the virtues of science and expertise, aiming to improve society and social functions. Placing priority on rationality and order, Wilson said to his cadre of experts: “Tell me what is right and I will fight for it.” I wish he had fought hard for his League of Nations, and that the astonishingly foolish Congress had ratified it in 1920!
The almost-forgotten Progressive-by-necessity, New-Dealer Henry A. Wallace, said this: “At the bottom, this whole business is a struggle to maintain the ideals upon which this great American republic was founded, and for which, when the pinch comes, we are always ready to fight. Emperors fight for commercial supremacy, for extension of their domain, for their right to rule. Democracies fight for human liberty for the rights of man.”
When eventually he would lose a bid for the presidency, he would write: “My job as editor of The New Republic is to help organize a progressive America. The American people have rejected, as they will always reject, a Democratic party that is not militantly progressive…. Of course, we need organization. The primary effort of progressives may be to rebuild the Democratic party as a liberal party. But we are the captives of no party. If the Democratic Party is incapable of change, we shall strike out along other lines.”
Though Milton Friedman specifically denounces licensure for doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, professionalization, regularization, standards, and licensure were seen as important by Progressives of old, and it was thought of as a public good to attempt to curtail quackery and the literal “snake oil salesmen” who peddled homeopathic and illegitimate cure-alls.
It did, however, dampen the doctors and lawyers available to poor, often illiterate immigrants, however.
“Finally,” Stoler says, “Progressives wanted to restore a sense of discipline, virtue, and service; to get people to look beyond their narrow self-interest, and to look instead to the good of others and the good of the country as a whole.”
William James, for example, developed a metaphor of “the moral equivalent of war,” in that war was of course hideous and hypermasculine, but it did bring about a sense of camaraderie, service, and honor in the ranks. Soldiers often fought, in the end, to not disgrace themselves in the eyes of his fellows – to get his brother’s back, as it were. “If we could get the civilian population to think the way soldiers do,” James pointed out, “then it would be a great advance.”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Armed Services are about the most socialistic of American institutions. Maybe this is why the G.I. Bill was so instrumental in bringing about the education of America’s veterans and assistive in ushering in an era of unprecedented peace, prosperity, jobs, and an increase in the standard of living. Note the progressive triumphs such as the 40-hour work week, laws prohibiting certain aspects of child labor, and compulsory schooling, and it all seems pretty laudable. Missed, even.
The upshot when it comes to finding a thread of continuity between Progressives then and liberals now, according to Stoler, is “positive government action.” This is “the liberal perspective; what we might call the one and only very clear link between The Progressives and contemporary liberals.” Stoler claims that both eras see “government as not the problem, but the solution to many problems that plague American life.” He notes that “traditional 18th and 19th-century liberalism feared government power.”
When Milton Friedman and others speak of “liberalism,” he is referring to non-monarchs; the bourgeoisie. Neo-liberalism, for example. Free-market liberals. That is how and why modern liberals of the Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee stripe are confused with liberals such as Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and John Locke. That might be part of the reason why “progressive” is a decent and preferred term to “liberals.” Also, Reagan et. Al. Played a role in denigrating the term to mean “tax and spend” and “make your child run amok.”
Indeed, for many years – centuries – government was monarchical and tyrannical and selfish and dangerous. We fought a revolutionary war against the overweening Parliament in England, and the idea that government was to be our servant, not our master, took a little getting used to. It gave the conservative elements in society pause, and also a toe-hold, when it came to creating the belief that “big government” is bad.
Of course, progressives would retort that conservatives were in bed with big business interests who had even less reason to serve the people than do elected representatives.
“Progressives turned traditional ‘liberalism’ on its head by arguing that the large, monopolistic corporations and the corrupt urban political machines had become the key problems, and that positive government action was now imperative to control big business, to reform the political and economic systems, and thereby, to restore and save the ‘American dream,'” Stoler indicates. Many victims of unbridled capitalism and this austere industrialization needed help. Due to anti-unionization efforts and the laws and enormous power of the owning class, the only entity that could conceivably marshal the resources to provide solace and succor was government – elected representatives who were supposed to be serving the best interests of the populace. Then, as now.
Stoler discusses Herbert Croly, a significant leader in the original Progressive movement. I would also point to Eugene Debs and the aforementioned Robert Lafollette. What Croly did, Stoler notes, is to point out that Adam Smith might have been mistaken in the assumption that the free market and the “invisible hand” would be the best – or even a sufficient – system on which to base society’s economic and, to some degree political, system. “The marketplace, Croly argued, was no longer self-regulating, and was not leading automatically to better things in the economic sphere – or any other sphere,” Stoler maintains.
As Sidney Pierson writes in a piece for the upside-down Heritage Foundation: “Croly’s major claim to prominence came with publication of The Promise of American Life (1909). Ever since its appearance, this work has been read as perhaps the single most emblematic statement of the Progressive liberal political aspiration. This one work catapulted Croly into the first ranks of leftist intellectuals, where he has remained ever since.”
Here is a Croly quote I quite like: “In the long run men inevitably become the victims of their wealth. They adapt their lives and habits to their money, not their money to their lives. It preoccupies their thoughts, creates artificial needs, and draws a curtain between them and the world.” He also said this superlative one: “Unless the great majority of Americans not only have, but believe they have, a fair chance, the better American future will be dangerously compromised.” Progressives, at least now, believe these things.
The belief that the marketplace was sufficient to organize America’s economic system was, thought Croly, “actually helping to destroy the American dream.” This leads to the conclusion that “greater government power” is what was needed to reform or rebuild society. We are talking about nationalization and centralization.
I would note, though, that progressive taxation, ingenious laws to restructure the business-society relationship, and regulations to curb corporate excesses and the power of the wealthy to dominate social institutions, are tried-and-true stances that fall well short of measures such as state ownership of too many services and means of production. Gar Alperovitz is a bit skeptical of progressive taxation and wealth redistribution as means to bring about real change in the U.S., and favors what he calls “The Pluralist Commonwealth,” which is heavy on worker ownership of businesses. Empowering small business, breaking up monopolies and behemoths such as banks that are “too big to fail” are obvious solutions most progressives would get behind.
Fire stations and the Army and perhaps utilities are perhaps the proper sphere of government, but the government placing the airlines or the majority of agricultural production in the hands of “the people” is a bridge too far. It only invites lackadaisical participation in the economy, as it did in Soviet Russia. We want business to struggle mightily to out-compete others similar businesses – competition – and to place limitations on it. Like a referee. We don’t necessarily want a Con Agra Foods or a too-powerful State.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and unabashed progressive, Joseph Stiglitz, writes in The Price of Inequality: “At their best, markets have played a central role in the stunning increases in productivity and standards of living in the past two hundred years. …[b]ut government has also played a major role in these advances, a fact that free-market advocates typically fail to acknowledge. On the other hand, markets can also concentrate wealth, pass environmental costs onto society, and abuse workers and consumers” (note that he thinks they need to be “tamed” and “tempered” so that the majority of Americans benefit).
Indeed, corporations can pool resources and limit some liability, and that is a good thing. However, they don’t need to go as far as to christen corporations “people”, capable of massive contributions to politicians’ never-ending pursuit of campaign cash, or allow them to run roughshod over environmental, occupational safety, anti-monopolistic measures. “Or, as one cliche put it, Use Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends,” Stoler encapsulated.
Whereas Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” “sought to use government to break up big business in order to restore competition,” Stoler points out that “Roosevelt’s ‘New Nationalism’ argued that this was both impossible as well as counterproductive,” and that instead, government “should seek to control and legitimize big business.” Play the role of arbitrator. So, when I credited “capital-P” Progressives with sharing the anti-war sentiments of the modern Left, I spoke too quickly.
Professor Stoler points out that conservatives were borne of this Rooseveltian approach to government, and that it retained some of the fear of government power that its predecessors did. Again, the irony of Roosevelt – the “Rough Rider” – saying something like: “I have taken the Philippines, let Congress debate it” is rich.
Though there are echoes of the Progressive movement in Trump’s brand of populism, and neoliberalism, and the “alt-right,” it is, in my opinion, a cynical smokescreen to draw public support. That is the difference between a demagogue and a statesman. Fascism says: “The media and my opponents are corrupt and illegitimate; I will take you to war and I will tell you the truth; I will put you back to work in the coal mines and building a border wall; I will appoint Supreme Court Justices who will curtail your rights and liberties and actually act on behalf of business’ interests – but in the name of freedom!” One can hear Bush speak while Paul Volcker and Kenneth Lay look on, or Trump making things up while the populace votes against its own economic interests and the national good. Or Orwell writing his characters using doublespeak.
If liberals envision a strong central government to be an elected and manageable bulwark against corporate and plutocratic power, modern neoliberals and rightist populists would place power in the hands of a strongman, trusting that big business will be kept at bay. I think few of Trump’s supporters would favor a bailout of AIG, but if Bush and Obama would do it, Trump certainly would. I believe Bernie when he said he would break up big banks and other true-blue, progressive ideas. Here is a deeply humane and idealistic statement by Sanders: “In my view, there is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires, while at the same time the United States of America has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on Earth. I want you to go into your hearts, how can we talk about morality, about justice, when we turn our backs on the children of our country?”
There is a distinct difference between the power placed in the hands of social-democratic governments such as Germany and Norway, New Zealand and Canada, and the far-right one here in the United States. Indeed, journalist with a conscience, Bill Moyers, said: “Regressive forces in the guise of a conservative movement have for a generation sought to redistribute the wealth of America upward, and are now succeeding to an extent even its most ardent ideologues could have hardly imagined back in 1970 when Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, predicted that “this country is going so far to the right you are not even going to recognize it.”
Hero of the Left, Ralph Nader, has this to say about both the Progressive Movement and the modern success of Reagan and subsequent presidents: “The concentration of economic power in a few giant corporate structures has been the stimulus for many populist and progressive revolts in our nation’s history. Republicans authored the first federal antitrust law, the Sherman Act, in 1890. Teddy Roosevelt thundered against the “giant trusts.” Franklin D. Roosevelt assailed the ‘malefactors of great wealth.’ The trustbusters of yesteryear would be shocked at what has occurred in the past  years.”
War, infrastructural problems, and the revolving door between business and government are woeful developments in America. With inadequate health insurance, a diminishing social safety net, and longer hours for stagnating pay – while we go further into debt – we are far afield we are from our peers in other industrialized democracies. It’s an embarrassment. We drop out of climate accords and fail to ratify the U.N.’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW. I have been consistently disappointed by politicians since
I have been consistently disappointed by politicians since 1990, when I first began watching them court big business dollars and eschew their mandate. Progressives have made some strides – gay rights have been surprisingly quick in coming, as have eased prohibitions against marijuana usage. But for the most part, they have been on the ropes as the GOP outmaneuvered the Dems (and the latter shot itself in the foot by spurning labor in favor of business interests.
In fact, I lamented that the U.S. embarrassed Wilson and unwittingly contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler by failing to sanction his brainchild, the League of Nations. It is shocking. But that’s not all. As this list shows, other treaties and agreements the U.S. has been conspicuously absent from include the 1930 Forced Labour Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, and it withdrew from a strategic missile reductions pact.
Though I see the benefit to attempting to outlaw alcohol consumption, I don’t think that many Americans (at least, non-evangelicals) would support that type of intervention into the lives of citizens. It seems well-intentioned, but much less welcome than economic types of intervention in the natural state of affairs. In other words, many modern liberals would feel that pursuing legislation that supposedly brings about greater morality in society is much more suspect than, say, making a minimum wage law, or reducing environmental pollution by industry, cars, and cows.
I feel like laws outlawing 2nd-trimester abortion rights is more indicative of unauthorized government power than is the government leaning on pharmaceutical companies, creating a Medicare for All option, or even nationalizing the insurance industry. That seems to be a fundamental difference between modern liberals and conservatives. If one had to pick a word that characterized the difference between the kind of power conservatives see the government having, and that which liberals do, it would be: money.
Indeed, Stoler notes that “[m]uch progressive legislation simply failed. Big business today is in many ways more centralized and destructive of competition than it was 100 years ago. Big government has in many ways failed as well. And overall, today, whether rightly or wrongly, big government seems worse than the problems it originally grew to address.” I think we can all agree with that. A friend of mine believes that “The only thing government is good at is a) growing and 2) growing more corrupt.”
Stoler remarks that oddly, progressive reforms coincided with a decrease in the percentage of Americans who vote, rather than the other way around. Stoler shows that “As with populism, there are links, but there are dramatic differences [between modern progressives and early Progressives].” He sees Progressivism as relevant to modern America, but not necessarily as the progenitor and intellectual forbearer of modern liberalism, a la Bernie Sanders or Paul Hawken or Barbara Ehrenreich or Medea Benjamin or Thom Hartmann. After all, though, humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but we don’t consider ourselves “the same as” them.
Stoler also points out that oddly, progressive reforms coincided with a decrease in the percentage of Americans who vote, rather than the other way around. He claims that “[a]s with populism, there are links, but there are dramatic differences [between modern progressives and early Progressives].” He sees Progressivism as relevant to modern America, but not necessarily as the progenitor and intellectual forbearer of modern liberalism, a la Bernie Sanders or Paul Hawken or Barbara Ehrenreich or Medea Benjamin or Thom Hartmann. After all, though, humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but we don’t consider ourselves “the same as” them.
Eugenics and the racism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are illegitimate goals nowadays, just as the anti-immigrant platform of the modern Right and the continuing drug war and Middle East wars are not particularly welcomed by liberals. Thus, progressives can make common cause with libertarians on some issues.
We also should remember the great debt we have to the social reformers, the labor activists, the ant-war intelligentsia (e.g., Mark Twain), and later the Civil Rights strugglers when it comes to modern rights and sensibilities. Though modern liberals are not direct descendants of the “capital-P” Progressives, they do share some of that DNA.
One of the main strains of similarity involves the emphasis on a responsive, responsible, manageable, powerful government. We envision a better government not to curtail some cherished rights, such as those sacrificed by the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, or the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, but to legislate and govern in ways that are sorely needed, such as healthcare, a living wage, and the greening of the American economy. Instead of “the white man’s burden,” “Manifest Destiny,” Rooseveltian imperialism, and Wilson’s new segregation, modern progressives ought to lobby for equal rights for all, less corporate domination, greatly expanded educational opportunity for every American, net neutrality, public television, and a greatly strengthened and reformed United Nations.
Here are a couple of sources for the eager reader: a book entitled A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, and a Khan Adademy synopsis. Here is the link to the video and audio lecture series I quite like by Mark A. Stoler called A Skeptic’s Guide to American History. I also recorded a podcast you might be interested in listening to HERE.