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Understanding The Progressives


And the Transformation of the American Political System


By Josh Lerner


If you've had an opportunity to peruse the latest works by some of the less nuanced members of the conservative movement, you will have noticed that a rather unusual term has entered the lexicon of "synonyms for liberal." From relatively high brow figures like, say, Jonah Goldberg, to the openly populist Glenn Beck, the term "progressive" has really come into its own as a pejorative description for those on the modern day American left. But when these writers and talk show hosts are using the term, they are not merely polishing a new club with which to hit liberals with; rather, they are connecting modern liberalism to the American progressive movement, a reform-oriented political and social movement that started right around the turn of the last century, and, as the traditional narrative goes, ended with the onset of the "roaring twenties."

This is not merely a phenomenon of the right. In a debate leading up to the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton declared that she really was not a liberal, but "considered [herself] an American progressive." Why has there been such an increased interest in progressivism? Where does it come from? And what lessons does the Progressive era have to teach us about modern politics?

At one level, the interest is purely academic. It is far from controversial to claim that the Progressive era represented one of the most monumental eras of reform in American history. It is also far from controversial to claim that the reforms enacted during this era—including, but not limited to, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, the establishment of national parks, the expansion of direct ballot initiatives, recall, and referendum, the direct election of Senators—all play a major role in shaping the modern political and social landscape.

But another school of thought, one that is becoming more dominant in conservative circles, holds that progressivism is not merely a label to attach to modern liberals in hope of obfuscating their principles, but is rather the preeminent intellectual origin of modern liberalism. They further hold that, even as the specific elements of their platform have changed, the same intellectual foundations, conceits, and villains exist in both. Although the intellectual strains of American progressivism contained many idiosyncrasies and disagreements existed amongst its greatest practitioners, what remains consistent is a philosophical program. Built upon the historicist framework of German non-Marxist followers of Hegel but tinged with an American appreciation for democracy and equality, it ultimately provided the intellectual basis for the New Deal and culminated politically with the Great Society. Serious foundational ideas found in progressive literature, like an emphasis on the notion of an inevitable "progress" or the importance of an administratively run bureaucratic state as a response to political or economic uncertainty, coupled with advocacy for the increased "democratization" of society, shape the boundaries of liberal intellectual discourse today.


From a distance, the question of who the progressives were is a rather easy question of the historical record. There existed a very prominent Progressive political party, and a progressive caucus in the both the Republican and Democratic parties. Yet, the question remains less cut-and-dry because the important figures of progressivism, with a few exceptions, were not found in the House of Representatives, but in the halls of academia, particularly at the "new" Germanic-style research institutions: Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Chicago, and in the Ivy League, particularly at Princeton.

Progressives were among the leading intellectuals, thinkers, activists, and politicians of the 1880s through the 1920s. What makes someone a progressive is the basic adherence to several key ideas concerning rights, History, administration, and democracy. Other elements of the progressive agenda—like foreign policy—were far more contentious within the progressive movement, but this basic intellectual framework defined progressivism.

The essence of Progressivism is the rejection of the natural rights and social contract theories underlying the founding of the United States and the Declaration and Constitution. While these were certainly not the first American theorists to reject the concept of the social contract, they were the first to levy a sustained attack against the foundations of the American Constitution and, particularly, the philosophy undergirding it. The use of "nature" by the founders and notions of "inalienable" rights strikes against the heart of the progressive project. Progressives argued that the rapid modernization undertaking the United States at the turn of the century, particularly the great economic and political uncertainty that came with the end of the first great industrial era in American history, required a more dynamic vision of the role of government. They thought that the state should not be constrained by republican measures to prevent too much action, but rather be guided by the best of modern science (natural and social) and capable of acting in whatever ways were necessary.

As reductionist as this may sound, progressivism, in its heart of heart, is the sustained belief in progress. Progress means, essentially, that human events have an easily deducible direction. History has moved beyond being "one damn thing after another," as noted progressive historian Carl Becker once put it, but is now a meaningful expression of direction and distance. History, in the most Hegelian way possible, has a knowable end. Intellectual, political, and social development would all culminate in a singular end, one that after we've reached it would illuminate what choices we need to make now to get there. Paradoxically, progress is both inevitable and within our powers to achieve. Progressives saw only the light of progress as their guide, and the sciences and other modern forms of knowledge attainment as the only tools needed. Progress, both social and political, became the only goal.

It wasn't just politics that took on a Progressive dimension; the Progressive project, as much as anything, aimed to alter the fundamental moral notions of our nation. Progressivism substituted the notion of unchanging rights, natural rights or natural law—all of which meant there were permanent standards of right and wrong—with a new kind of progressive morality, in which the only moral dimensions available became forward or back. Charles Merriam, a leading progressive political scientist, wrote that "the individualistic ideas of the 'natural right' school of political theory…are discredited and repudiated…. The origin of the state is regarded, not as the result of a deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious; and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law." Morality and other transcendent codes of justice become defined by conventions and therefore the state; nothing of any moral power exists beyond the conventional law codified by the state as a product of its time.

Socially or politically traditional ideas and institutions became malevolent (hence the rise of the pejorative reactionary) and the new deliberately and rationally created ideas became intrinsically good. Rights, insofar as they were useful, only existed as creations of the time at which they were talked about; old concepts of natural rights needed to be replaced by more nebulous concepts like "Human Rights" and social rights. As Teddy Roosevelt expressed it, "property rights [one of the banes of progressivism] to the exclusion of human rights, had first mortgage on the Constitution." Meaningful and eternal rights are a major impediment to the progressive project, something that puts progressivism directly in contrast with the principles of our founding.

From this moral framework arose a sustained criticism of our Founding, not necessarily as a malevolent force, but as simply an outdated one. For what it is worth, some progressives would pay some sort of needed social due to the founders, but only as the embodiment of the "progressive ethos" for their time. For the most part, though, progressives approached the Founding as if it was an irrelevant fact of our nation's history. The Constitution, as the manifestation of the Founders' belief in the separation and balancing of powers, was to be circumvented in the name of progress. And certainly, according to these progressive critics, the relevance of the Constitution need not be large because it is simply an 18th century document, and America, as they put it, now faced 20th century problems. The limited, but vibrant, government created by the Founders was fine for the 18th century, but given the massive social and political upheaval following the Civil War, America needed, according to the progressives, a new means of dealing with new problems.

The Founders' belief that the purpose of government is tied to the protection of individual rights against the dual prospects of anarchy and tyranny ran directly contrary to the view the progressives held. Underlying the emphasis on eternal rights is a (Lockean) belief in the permanence of human nature: that certain flaws exist intrinsically in man and the best a political system can hope to do is to mediate them so as not abridge fundamental, natural rights. In doing this, the Founders were primarily concerned about the ways in which the government can tyrannize people, and they thought that even a democratically elected republican government needs to be cognizant of natural rights.

Progressives saw such talk as tied to outmoded ways of thinking. They thought that the Founders' worries about the tyranny of government from a democratic nation, however appropriate they were in their time, no longer applied because we had all accepted the moral proposition tyranny was intrinsically evil. The purpose of government went from a limited one of protecting against abuses of natural rights to a corrective and redemptive one. Accordingly, progressives placed no limits on the functions and powers that a democratic government could perform. Progressive political theorist John Dewey wrote that "[the] state has the responsibility for creating institutions under which individuals can effectively realize the potentialities that are theirs", implying an obligation from government to the people that goes well beyond freedom and safety, but extends to more nebulous roles like fulfillment. Any impediments to a government capable of performing such tasks needed to be eliminated by progressives in order for their political and social reforms to take place. This imperative brought forth their contempt for the political machinery built into the Constitution.

The obstructionist elements of the American Constitution, the elements designed to prevent rapid unilateral change, were the parts most decried by progressives. Theodore Roosevelt, in one of his most progressive moments, wished to drastically alter the Constitution's roadblocks to policy making by radically democratizing both the Courts and the Senate. A series of amendments to the Constitution that he proposed in the 1912 election, and considered the most important elements of his progressive platform, would have essentially eliminated all republican restraints of power in our government.

His first proposed amendment, which was eventually passed, was the direct election of Senators. This was, ostensibly, designed to minimize the corruption in the then-current model under which the state legislature appointed the Senator, but the amendment also served to weaken the powers and interests of any individual state. The direct election of Senators eliminated any say the state and local governments would have, beyond simple petitioning, in regards to the federal government, and allowed for a greater congruency between the opinions of the members of the House and the Senate because they would be elected in essentially similar ways.

The second proposed amendment, a far more radical one, would have created the process of "judicial recall and review", meaning that the people could overturn any decision made by the judiciary if a majority did not like it. This amendment, even more than the first one, would have radically destabilized politics in America in a way that Roosevelt would have liked; Progressive reforms, never more popular than in the 1912 election, would have probably been pushed through over the (token) opposition of the judiciary.

As bad as this amendment seems—and completely making the American judicial system subservient to the whims of a bare majority is an affront to republican principles—it was nothing compared to the crown jewel of the Roosevelt 1912 campaign, an amendment eliminating the need of a supermajority to amend the Constitution. This, Roosevelt thought, was the fulcrum of the great Progressive reforms the country firmly needed. No longer would we be tied down to an outmoded 18th century system of governance, but we would be able to reform the country in the ways done in other nations. Roosevelt lamented that, as it then stood, "the constitution is a dead form, holding back the people's growth, shackling the people's strength, but giving a free hand to malign powers that prey upon the people." Roosevelt wanted to make "the people themselves…the ultimate makers of their Constitution."

Directly democratic reforms weren't all about restructuring the Constitution. Progressive intellectuals, including President Wilson, were adamantly opposed to the two party system. In their view, it fostered divided decision-making and diminished the individual's say in his or her own government. Part of the Progressive project of having the people as the makers of the Constitution was decentralizing the power of political parties to make choices and eliminating their ability to obfuscate about their own positions and others. Things like the primary system, the rise of ballot initiatives, and the recall election were part of this general progressive platform of redistribution power in political parties.

But direct democracy was far from the only aspect of the progressive political project. Their other major goal was the establishment of a technically competent administrative apparatus, designed to realize the political will of the people. The extent to which progressives believed government intervention was necessary—from regulating railroads to managing the environment—required a regulatory system far greater than anything yet seen before in American history. The ideal was a bureaucracy, staffed with devoted professionals, that would be able to make the most rational and, therefore, neutral decisions about managing American life. Progressive faith in bureaucracy rested in their belief in the infallibility of expertise.

This accords with to progressive belief in direct democracy, although in a very different way than just the belief in direct democracy, because Progressives wished to eliminate non-technical decision making from the implementation side of policy, while still maintaining the "will" of the people. Constitutional roadblocks to complete efficiency within government like checks-and-balances limited these experts' ability to mediate the will of the people. Wilson, in his seminal 1880 essay The Study of Administration, writes extensively about the role administrative bureaucracy played in the modernization of Germany. Recognizing the limits that our Constitution places on the development of such an infrastructure, Wilson is adamant about importing the best elements of the Prussian system to America. The ways in which Bismarck effectively combined creating a "serious" welfare state and imposing a "properly guided" regulatory infrastructure greatly appealed to Wilson's own vision for what he wanted to do in the United States. Interestingly enough, Wilson quotes Hegel's Philosophy of Right in justifying the expansive administrative state as something that is the culmination of "the spirit of the time."

It is this idealized Prussian infrastructure, the embodiment of Weberian "legal/rational administration", that Wilson wished to impose on the American political system. What was needed in these administrative bureaucracies, Wilson argued, were people who, like him recognized where history itself was going and were cognizant of all the complexities it implied. Politics was no longer thought to be the proper mode of decision making for such a complex society. Wilson thought that "the steady and unmistakable growth of nationality of sentiment" had eliminated the need to manage against faction, because we had all begun to realize the ultimate ends of government. The science of Administration was to be the ultimate source of authority for regulation, leaving almost unfettered power in the hands of bureaucrats.

Roosevelt, again in the 1912 election, wished to create "a national industrial commission" that had "complete power to regulate and control all the great industrial concerns engaged in interstate business—which practically means all of them in this country." This would essentially be regulation by bureaucratic fiat, not by law; "[a]ny corporation voluntarily coming under the commission should not be prosecuted under the antitrust law as long as it obeys in good faith the orders of the commission." President Wilson tried to establish a similar bureaucracy in 1913, calling it the Federal Trade Commission. Senator Albert Cummins, one of the architects of the FTC felt that it was something that could exist beyond politics, because of "our faith and confidence in administrative tribunals" as a just and neutral adjudicator. Luckily, the FTC that ended up being created had virtually no teeth, and was something of a regulatory laughingstock for the better part of the 20th century. But underlying it was the progressive belief in the science of administration.

A rather important feature of progressivism is this very clear tension between its directly democratic ethos, and its "scientific" approach to governance; American Progressives believed in both the well-managed state, run by men of the best expertise available, and, at the same time, in a completely democratic regime. The political apparatus would be democracy and the administrative apparatus would be expertise. Embedded in this view was the same veiled Hegelian historicism; since history had an end, there must exist in every situation the obviously correct policy choice, which progressives thought of as only knowable through the use of administrative expertise. The will of the people would, if freed from other constraints, find this essentially correct policy because it would be in accordance with their interests. The belief in direct democracy is not unlike Rousseau's belief in the General Will; it is not an arguable account because man, if freed completely from his chains, would be completely aware of the proper political solution, so whatever policy was produced in the most democratic way possible was, by definition, the best. And, if a policy was in accord with the General Will, it was therefore Historically correct; the progressives thus sought to combine Hegel and Rousseau.

The result of this combination is twofold. First, dissent from the Progressive project is simply not feasible, because, like the General Will, it is by definition correct. Accepting progressive epistemological proclamations on progress and knowledge essentially creates a dialectic between Progress, science and the future on the one hand, and tradition, reaction, and restraint on the other hand. Conservatism, in this view, is only useful insofar as it provides an intellectual corrective to the more correct progressives; the idea of excess on the part of progressives was entertained, but not seriously considered, given that they move with history. The other major implication of the Progressive project is the basic tension between their democratic and administrative elements. When the people deviate from the progressive policy on any given issue, say during a referendum, Progressives explain these lapses as the people not recognizing what is best for them, either through corporate, religious, or prejudicial influences. They do so in order to avoid confronting the implications of their belief in democracy. This is not terribly different from Marxist explanations of deviations from the class based dialectic model, a point that is crucial in understanding the relationship between Marxism and progressivism.

Progressives, for all the issues that I have brought up, are fundamentally not Marxists. This is an absolutely essential point to understanding them. They consider themselves an American corrective against Marxist socialism, and champion democratic and liberal reforms. Although they share with the Marxists a Hegelian view of history, the progressives deviate in that they do not see an actualized end to history, let alone a Communist state as that end. Class distinctions, crucial to any Marxist understandings of history, are largely ignored by progressives, who hope to mollify any serious labor discontentment with a generous welfare policy and a robust regulatory prerogative. The means of Progress are the only positives the progressive's recognize as an absolute, so Marxist notions of a "general strike" or the righteousness of the proletariat revolution are not only not in accordance with the progressive vision for America, but, even more so, are fundamentally opposed to it.

I take great issue with some of my friends on the right who group together Progressives with Marxists or proto-fascists. What differentiates the progressives from these groups is their fundamental Americanism, the overarching belief in the righteousness of democracy. Granted, the progressive rejection of the Anglo-Enlightenment is rather similar to that their fascist and Marxist counterparts, and many of the same texts that influenced American progressives also became the intellectual foundations of fascist thought. So it is not unreasonable to see elements of Fascism or Marxism in progressivism, but at the same time, it is even more important to recognize the differences.


For conservatives, it is crucial to fully understand progressivism because it, in so many ways, provides the intellectual building blocks for modern liberalism. What I hoped to focus on in this essay was, in fact, the eternal similarities between progressivism and liberalism. I tried not to cherry pick the most egregious examples of progressive malfeasance (like their support for racial eugenics), but rather to explore the fundamental truths underlying their beliefs. Future pieces on the subject of progressivism can go more in detail about the direct connections to modern liberalism, particularly through the mediation of Franklin Roosevelt. Still, understanding progressive views on administration, democracy, and the inevitability of History, is a major part of fully recognizing, and therefore more successfully combating modern liberalism. It is no accident that many of the most popular liberal domestic policies of the last 50 years or so, things like national healthcare and an agency devoted to environmental protection, were ideas created and first thought through during the Progressive era. Conservatives need to recognize not only what they stand for, but what we, in turn, wish to return to. We must be cognizant of the principles of the American founding rejected by Progressives, and we must really understand both. The fight between progressivism and American constitutionalism is far from over, and conservatives need to know which side we're on and why.