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Progressives Should Read Progressive History—So They Don’t Blow It This Time


Medicare for All. The Green New Deal. Calls to overhaul the Supreme Court and replace the Electoral College. Many activists today are heralding a new Progressive movement—a successor to the vibrant reform coalition that swept both major political parties in the early years of the 20th century.

There’s more than a little truth to this comparison. America’s current reality—marked by rising income inequality, the concentration of political and economic power and changing patterns of work and leisure—bears uncanny similarity to conditions that produced a burst of reform activity 120 years ago, including measures to improve urban health and safety standards, ameliorate labor conditions and introduce more efficiency and transparency in state and local government.

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But if contemporary progressives aspire to drive the same degree of change as the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century, they might take a cue from their ideological forebears.

Many of today’s progressives define their movement by commitment to a specific menu of policies, and those who don’t share this very specific set of goals are easily read out of the progressive movement, typecast as “neoliberals” or “corporate liberals.” This kind of rigidity is something that their progressive forerunners never exhibited. The Progressive Movement of the early 1900s was successful precisely because it was flexible, and incorporated a wide range of views—so much so that the movement defies easy definition.

Indeed, historians have struggled for decades to characterize the “Progressive Movement.” Was it a coalition of middle-class reformers dedicated to good government? A top-down drive by politicians and businessmen to smooth out the sharper edges of industrial capitalism and blunt the appeal of socialism? The political project of urban workingmen and working women who demanded better working and living conditions? A full assault against concentrated economic power? A case could be made for any of these interpretations.

In some ways, the Progressive movement is hard to pin down because it was no movement at all, but rather an ever-shifting coalition of organized groups and individuals who agreed on certain issues and disagreed on others. They worked together and in opposition with equal fluidity and enjoyed strongholds within each of the two major political parties. Bound together by a common self-definition and guided by malleable principles, they entertained a diversity of thought and action. It was precisely this wide range of thought and action that made progressivism so powerful.


America at the turn of 20th Centurywas a wealthy nation distinguished by widespread income inequality and a growing concentration of wealth and political power. Increasingly, it seemed, a small number of companies controlled access to and pricing for the goods and services that people consumed and dictated how much ordinary families took home in pay. Citizens welcomed the conveniences of new technology and a burgeoning consumer economy but fretted over their general loss of personal autonomy.

Visiting in 1900, an English traveler marveled that “life in the United States is a whirl of telephones, telegrams, phonographs, electric bells, motors, lifts, and automatic instruments.” In constant dollars, adjusted for inflation, the country’s gross national product grew from $11 billion in the 1880s to an eye-popping $84 billion by 1919. By the mid-1920s, almost two-thirds of American households were electrified, representing a dramatic break with the 19th century. It meant that the typical non-rural family (electricity still remained rare in the countryside) could replace hours of labor with the satisfying hum of the electric refrigerator or vacuum cleaner. Americans also ate better and cheaper than ever before and had more money left over each month to indulge in mass-produced clothing and new “public amusements,” like professional sporting events, dance halls, amusement parks and nickelodeons. “You just spent your summer canning in 1890,” recalled a housewife from Muncie, Indiana, “but the canned goods you buy today are so good that it isn’t worth your while to do so much.”

But prosperity did not beget equality. In 1890 the wealthiest one percent of Americans claimed 51 percent of the nation’s real estate and property. Two decades later, the Brookings Institution found that 42 percent of households lived on the edge of rough subsistence. The combined income of the top 0.1 percent of families equaled that of the bottom 42 percent. Cyclical unemployment and underemployment were the norm for many working people. In other words, the material conditions associated with poverty had changed, but many people remained poor.

Business consolidation also created new schisms. Between 1895 and 1905 alone, 157 holding companies swallowed up thousands of independent businesses and came into control of 40 percent of the market share in their specific industry verticals. Men who had so recently enjoyed a modicum of autonomy as independent farmers and artisans bristled at the regimented and monotonous life of wage work, whether in mines, factories or offices. Working and living conditions in the nation’s bustling cities grew dangerous in the absence of regulation. Farmers chafed at the outsized influence of banks and railroads that dictated their cost basis and profit margins. People increasingly felt themselves powerless at work—helpless in the face of large, influential interests that controlled the nation’s economic life—and pawns in a political system rife with corruption and generally unresponsive to the needs of everyday Americans.

Little wonder, then, that the first two decades of the 20th century gave rise to a vibrant reform spirit that expressed itself in a wide spectrum of political, economic and social causes—from Settlement Houses, which provided social services to impoverished urban immigrants, and advocacy for public health improvements and municipal reform, to occupational safety regulations (particularly for women and children), the direct election of United States senators, statutes governing the food and drug industries and crackdowns on economic trusts.

In some basic fashion, these various progressive causes reflected a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a determination to restore economic and political power to ordinary Americans. But to call it a “movement” belies the very clear divisions and points of divergence between the broad cast of characters who identified as progressives.

Some of these divisions are obvious. Rural farmers who championed railroad and bank regulation often had little sympathy for urban Americans—particularly new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe whose claims both to citizenship and whiteness seemed suspect. Though farmers principally blamed railroads and intermediaries like grain elevator operators for their troubles—in 1908, a federal commission found that 80 percent of farmers felt they enjoyed no influence over the prices their products commanded—they just as often lashed out at distant cities. In 1900, dairy farmers withheld milk products from Boston until they could achieve price increases; syndicates selling to wholesalers in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago soon applied their own supply boycotts.

William Jennings Bryan, the great populist orator who helped ignite the farmer rebellion of the 1890s and who later anchored progressive forces in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, was a fierce opponent oflarge economic combinations—the hulking monopolies and holding companies that had come to dominate the nation’s economy—and supported astate takeover of railroads, arguing that “public ownership is necessary where competition is impossible.” These views were common among progressives, rural and urban alike, but there remained a sharp cleavage between town and country. Bryan tapped into a deep reserve of rural resentment when he famously thundered, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Progressives were also divided on race and civil rights. Some prominent white progressives like Oswald Garrison Villard and Joel Spingarn—and, in his own halting way, Theodore Roosevelt—joined black progressives in championing civil rights. Others—notably, Woodrow Wilson, the Virginia-born progressive president who segregated the federal workforce, and Rebecca Felton, an outspoken feminist from Georgia who became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate—were extreme proponents of Jim Crow. Felton famously argued that “if it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.”

Self-styled progressives were also at odds over women’s suffrage. Social reformers, particularly many who came of political age in the Settlement House movement, agreed with Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, that women required the vote to fulfill their traditional roles as mothers, wives and guardians of the home. In effect, they didn’t challenge the traditional idea of separate spheres for each gender but used that notion to demand a voice in public affairs. Municipal governments in the early 20th century were notoriously corrupt and inefficient; women, argued Addams and other progressive advocates of equal suffrage, required the vote to ensure the provision of adequate schools, parks, sanitation and building and work codes. Not all progressives agreed. One study of 400 self-identified progressive congressmen who served throughout the era found them almost evenly split on suffrage. Given the central role that women played in progressive politics, the struggle for women’s political rights created a notable and often bitter split in reform circles.

It wasn’t just that progressives—like non-progressive Americans—were divided by region, race and gender. They also differed in how they understood the very meaning of progressivism. For many in the movement—reform mayors like Mark Fagan of Jersey City, Seth Low of New York, Tom Johnson of Cleveland, Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones of Toledo—progressivism was principally about checking the power of large interests and providing better and more honest government to citizens. For Settlement House leaders like Addams and Florence Kelley, it was about empowering poor urban residents by improving the environment in which they lived.

Progressives even disagreed over so fundamental an issue as what representative democracy should look like. While many in the movement concerned themselves with the reinvigoration of America’s political institutions (the direct election of senators, for example—a landmark progressive achievement), other progressive causes demonstrated darker, anti-democratic tendencies.

In American cities, many of which were rife with mismanagement and corruption, progressives’ infatuation with expertise and organization led to several innovations designed to reduce the power of poltical machines and increase the power of individual citizens, including the short ballot, which reduced the number of offices up for election at one time, thereby allowing voters to research their options more thoroughly.

But in 1913 the city of Dayton, Ohio went a step further and introduced the city manager model whereby elected officials delegated administrative authority and responsibilities to a professional manager, who had not been elected. As often as not, city managers pulled back authority from elected officials who represented growing immigrant and working-class populations. The city manager system might have combated a corrupt political machine, but it also took power away from the voting public, generating fissures between working-class voters and middle-class reformers, even as they supported the same health, safety and workplace reforms.

In the same way that middle-class progressives favored managerial expertise over participatory democracy, they also invoked science and standards to lock working-class Americans out of white-collar professions.For many decades, the barrier to practice law or medicine had been low, in keeping with the democratic spirit of Jacksonian America. Yet by 1901, 25 states adopted progressive reforms that required specialized education and licensing for doctors and lawyers.

This process undoubtedly improved standards, but it came at a price. Institutions that trained women and African Americans failed to achieve or quickly lost accreditation, leaving the professional ranks more white, male and elite. In 1912 the American Bar Association expelled three recently admitted members after learning they were black—a “question of keeping pure the Anglo-Saxon race.” When Woodrow Wilson nominated Louis Brandeis, an American-born Jew, to the United States Supreme Court in 1916, ABA president Elihu Root, who served as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, opposed the appointment, along with six of the organization’s former presidents. They reasoned that he lacked the proper character to serve.
One can see shades of these divisions in our current politics. It’s no less difficult today to sustain a diverse coalition that draws from both the ranks of middle-class professionals and working-class strivers. Their interests are not always aligned.


These fractures were on full displayduring the election of 1912, when two “Progressive” candidates faced off against each other, and against the Republican incumbent Howard Taft.Running as the Democratic nominee was Woodrow Wilson, whose closest adviser, Louis Brandeis, was an outspoken opponent of trusts who believed that government should “regulate competition instead of monopoly, for our industrial and our civil freedom go hand in hand.” At the head of the breakaway Bull Moose Party, were Theodore Roosevelt, and his adviser, Herbert Croly, who accepted the enduring reality of economic trusts and championed an equally strong federal government to check their influence.

Americans—back then and now—find the 1912 election confusing, as both candidates also embraced many of the same policies: the abolition of child labor, new protections for workers and unions, a moderate tariff to boost American manufacturing, closer government regulation of the banking sector. Indeed, what makes progressivism so difficult to fathom is that its adherents were as often opposed as aligned, and even when they were aligned, they worked from a different set of principles.

However much they differed in background and disagreed on policy and principle, though, progressives did share a common faith. They tended to believe that systemic problems could be solved through study, scientific method and modern methods of governance and bureaucracy. Economists, sociologists and social workers flooded government commissions and offices, while “muckraking” journalists drew on the work of nonprofit think tanks to surface data that, they believed, would compel rational voters to action.

Progressives also shared a basic commitment to checking the rise of big business with the counterweight of organized producer and consumer groups.

Finally, progressives tended to view social disorder—as manifested by such urban ills as crime, vagrancy, spousal abandonment, drunkenness and unemployment—as the by-product of environment rather than poor morals. This point of view represented a sharp break with earlier thinking that held individuals solely responsible for their lot in life.

In short, if there was no “Progressive Movement,” in the strict sense of the term, we can surely identify strains of a progressive persuasion. And progressives were, for a time, wildly successful. They achieved meaningful workplace and health and safety regulations, reformed the political system largely for the good, championed open space and conservation measures and created a regulatory regime that was at least somewhat more capable of checking the growing concentration of corporate power and wealth.

But they didn’t achieve this with a single, inflexible voting bloc. Being a progressive in the opening years of the 20th century didn’t require strict adherence to a party line or blanket support for a set of specific legislative proposals. Because there was no progressive “movement,” in the singular and definitive meaning of the word, progressivism could draw freely from all sectors of society without demanding even broad consensus on basic questions like the morality of economic concentration or the right of women to vote. It was a malleable and shifting coalition of people who recognized common problems, believed in a rational and fact-based approach to resolving the challenges of modern society and animated public life with an innovative and optimistic spirit.

The same could be said of the New Deal coalition of the 1930s or the conservative coalition of the 1970s and 1980s, both of which drew from diverse wells of support and thought. Living history in real time, it was easy for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s or Ronald Reagan’s acolytes to believe their movements made perfect sense. But in retrospect, both have proven more difficult to describe with precision.

The lesson for today applies to people engaged in politics across the spectrum—from “new” progressives to free-market conservatives, and just about everyone in the middle. Political moments that leave a lasting impression are often more complicated and textured than they seem in the moment. They defy easy definition. They’re made up of a common spirit more than by a legislative laundry list. That’s what makes them so compelling.

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