Introduction to Progressivism

Introduction to Progressivism


“It is hard to fix a specific starting date for the progressive race to the Great Society,” writes Jonah Goldberg, “but a good guess might be 1888, the year [when socialist] Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward burst on the American scene.” Set in the year 2000, this futuristic book depicts a utopian society run with the hierarchical efficiency of a military battalion. All workers in this idealized world belong to a unified “industrial army” that labors within the confines of an economy controlled by a coterie of central planners who are deemed to be more capable of fostering prosperity and productivity than is a free marketplace. A preacher in the story lauds the earthly paradise, while the population at large looks back upon the “age of individualism” with a blend of amusement and derision.

Bellamy’s book became immensely influential, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It was particularly effective at setting afire the hearts of idealistic young people who were moved by the author’s vision of a socialist utopia. All across America, “Nationalist Clubs” were formed to advocate for “the nationalization of industry and the promotion of the brotherhood of humanity.” Bellamy presented his utopia as a forum for the genuine expression of Jesus Christ’s teachings. The author’s cousin Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who penned the “Pledge of Allegiance,” shared this perspective, as he stated forthrightly in a sermon titled “Jesus, the Socialist.”

By the turn of the 20th century, many intellectuals had wedded this socialist-utopian vision with the psychological confidence spawned by the technological and scientific advances of the age. People saw that they clearly lived in an era of progress, where, for the first time in human history, the darkness of night had been overcome by the electric light; where the need for efficient, safe transportation had been met by the automobile; and where the chains of gravity had been broken by the airplane. The ability of scientific ingenuity and expertise to master the physical world, suggested that similar mastery might be achievable in the realms of politics and economics; i.e., that an intellectual elite might be able to assess society’s defects and prescribe appropriate remedies. That belief was part and parcel of the progressive vision that flourished in America from the 1890s through the 1920s.

As progressives saw things, most societal flaws were attributable to capitalism’s inherent injustices. Foremost among those flaws was economic inequality – the plainly observable reality that some people lived in poverty while others basked in splendor. Progressives saw these inequalities as by-products of the industrial age, which had enabled some innovators and entrepreneurs to earn vast fortunes that contrasted sharply with the destitution of others – among whom were people whose traditional livelihoods may have been rendered obsolete by technological advances. Progressives also believed that industrialization had led to social “disintegration” and materialistic decadence throughout America.

By progressives’ reckoning, solving the foregoing problems would require government intervention on a very large scale. Affluent progressives in particular led the chorus of criticisms against the gap between rich and poor. Giving voice to their sentiments, in 1899 the economist Thorstein Veblen published Theory of the Leisure Class, which ridiculed symbols of affluence and tarred the allegedly greedy “leisure class” as “the conservative class.”

Progressivism soon evolved into an umbrella label for a host of economic, political, social, and moral reforms aimed at curing the ills of American society. Some of these reforms were quite beneficial, and indeed necessary, as they provided social mechanisms that allowed the U.S. to make a peaceful transition into 20th-century life.

The Progressive Era was, among other things, the age of “muckrakers” – journalists and authors who sought to expose the corrupt underbelly of industrial-age America and, by extension, of capitalism itself. Muckrakers called attention to such negative trends as child labor, urban poverty, government corruption, ruthless business practices, dangerous factory conditions, and the horrors of lynching. Major progressive projects included the elimination of red-light districts from American cities; the enactment of minimum-wage laws; the provision of industrial-accident insurance; restrictions on child labor; legislation to regulate the meat-packing, drug, and railroad industries; laws to improve working conditions; the strengthening of anti-trust laws; and the formation of a vibrant conservation movement.

A number of progressive reforms also made their influence felt in the American political system. For instance:

  • Direct primaries were instituted, where citizens could select the candidates who ultimately would represent their party in the general elections. (Traditionally, from the 1830s until the early 1900s, candidates had been nominated by delegate conventions.)
  • The secret ballot was implemented, whereby citizens were assured of privacy when voting in any election.
  • Citizens in numerous states were granted the rights of initiative (empowering them to draft laws and constitutional amendments and place them on the ballot for a popular vote); referendum (providing for a popular vote on laws passed by the legislature); and recall (allowing citizens to remove elected officials from office if the latter failed to fulfill their obgations).

According to R.J. Pestritto, author of American Progressivism, “America’s original Progressives were also its original, big-government liberals.” They set the stage for the New Deal principles of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who cited the progressives – especially Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson – as the major influences on his ideas about government. The progressives, Pestritto says, wanted “a thorough transformation in America’s principles of government, from a government permanently dedicated to securing individual liberty to one whose ends and scope would change to take on any and all social and economic ills.”

In the progressive worldview, the proper role of government was not to confine itself to regulating a limited range of human activities as the founders had stipulated, but rather to inject itself into whatever realms the times seemed to demand. The progressives reasoned that although America’s founders had felt it necessary to limit the power of government because of their experience with King George III, government, as a result of historical evolution, was no longer the menace it once had been; rather, they believed government had become capable of solving an ever-greater array of societal problems — problems the founders could never have envisioned. Consequently, the progressives called for a more activist government whose regulation of people’s lives was properly determined not by the outdated words of an anachronistic Constitution, but by whatever the American people seemed to need at any given time.

This perspective dovetailed with the progressives’ notion of an “evolving” or “living” government, which, like all living beings, could rightfully be expected to grow and to adapt to changing circumstances. Similarly, progressives also coined the term “living Constitution,” connoting the idea that the U.S. Constitution is a malleable document with no permanent guiding principles — a document that must, of necessity, change with the times.

R.J. Pestritto writes that the Progressives “detested the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines the protection of individual natural rights (like property) as the unchangeable purpose of government; and they detested the Constitution, which places permanent limits on the scope of government and is structured in a way that makes the extension of national power beyond its original purpose very difficult.” Given their contempt for those documents, the progressives’ mission was to progress, or move beyond, the principles laid out by the founders.

In 1913, the progressive historian Charles Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which offered a Marxist view of history and smeared the captains of industry. It also portrayed America’s founding fathers as basically selfish men who had established a form of government that they thought would benefit them, and only them, financially. From Beard’s premise, it was a short logical leap to discredit the Constitution itself as “essentially an economic document” unworthy of the lasting reverence of legislators, judges, or ordinary citizens.

Woodrow Wilson likewise gave voice to the progressive antipathy for America’s founding documents when he said that “if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface” – i.e. that part of the Declaration which states that the only legitimate purpose of government, regardless of time or place, is to secure the natural rights of the individual. By Wilson’s calculus, the truly vital portion of the Declaration was the latter part, where it enumerates a litany of time-specific grievances against George III. Wilson suggested that “we are not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” and that the Fourth of July, rather than celebrate the Declaration’s timeless principles, should instead “be a time for examining our standards, our purposes, for determining afresh what principles, what forms of power we think most likely to effect our safety and happiness.”

Whereas classical liberalism saw government as a necessary evil whose involvement in social and private affairs needed to be limited wherever practicable, progressivism saw the state as the rightful overseer and regulator of significant portions of American social and economic life. To compensate for the inequities of capitalism in industrial-age America, Progressives favored a government empowered to redistribute private property under the banner of social justice.  R.J. Pestritto compares and contrasts progressivism and socialism:

“Since the Progressives had such a limitless view of state power, and since they wanted to downplay the founders’ emphasis on individual rights, it is only natural to ask if they subscribed to socialism….

“[We must] bear in mind that there was an actual socialist movement during the Progressive Era, and prominent progressives such as Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were critics of it. In fact, Wilson and Roosevelt both ran against a socialist candidate in the 1912 election (Eugene Debs). The progressives were ambivalent about the socialist movement of their day not so much because they disagreed with it in principle, but because the American socialist movement was a movement of the lower classes. The progressives were elitists; they looked down their noses at the socialists, considering them a kind of rabble.

“Keeping these points in mind, it is, nonetheless, the case that the progressive conception of government closely coincided with the socialist conception. Both progressivism and socialism champion the prerogatives of the state over the prerogatives of the individual. Wilson himself made this connection very plain in a revealing essay he wrote in 1887 called ‘Socialism and Democracy.’ Wilson’s begins this essay by defining socialism, explaining that it stands for unfettered state power, which trumps any notion of individual rights. It ‘proposes that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view,’ Wilson wrote, and ‘that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will.’ After laying out this definition of socialism, Wilson explains that he finds nothing wrong with it in principle, since it was merely the logical extension of genuine democratic theory.”

As its name indicates, progressivism suggests movement toward a goal – in this case, bigger government and increased state control. But it is a gradual, incremental movement rather than a sudden transformation. Progressives endorse evolution (rather than revolution), a process by which society drifts gradually but inexorably toward statism.

To facilitate this evolution, progressives have sought, ever since their entry into the pages of American history, to infiltrate society’s power structure and its key institutions – the schools, the media, the churches, the entertainment industry, the labor unions, and the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judiciary).

Among the most noteworthy figures of the Progressive Era were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, social worker Jane Addams, child advocate Florence Kelley, historian and political scientist Charles Beard, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, suffragette Lucy Burns, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, journalist Herbert Croly, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, inventor Thomas Edison, economist Irving Fisher, automaker Henry Ford, feminist Charlotte Gilman, philosopher William James, California politician Hiram Johnson, Wisconsin politician Robert M. La Follette Sr., journalist Walter Lippmann, suffragette Alice Paul, historian Ulrich Phillips, conservationist Gifford Pinchot, theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., novelist Upton Sinclair, sociologist Albion Small, sociologist Ellen Gates Starr, reporter Lincoln Steffens, President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, muckraker Ida Tarbell, economist Thorstein Veblen, and social reformer Booker T. Washington.

Resources: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg; and American Progressivism: A Reader, by R.J.Pestritto.

Additional Resources:

Understanding the Progressive Mind
By David Horowitz
April 4, 2022

Progressive Crime Syndicate: Understanding the Progressive Mind II
By David Horowitz
April 8, 2022

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