Sorting out the Progressive movement and its constituent ideologies can be difficult in that the very term “progressive” is burdened with contested meanings. Rather than work along lines agreeable to presently out-of-office politicians hoping to regain power by denouncing long-dead Progressives, we begin with some deep background.
One portent of Progressivism is found in the Liberal Republican movement of the 1870s. Prone to Paris Commune panics, distressed by strikes and labor trouble, such reformers as Charles Francis Adams (descended from John Adams), Francis Amasa Walker (Boston laissez-faire economist and Indian manager), and E. L. Godkin (Anglo-Irish editor of The Nation) concluded that efficient, inexpensive bureaucracy was just the ticket. It could manage questions too important to be left to democratic processes, especially those touching on the lately acquired government-bestowed advantages of big business. (“Efficiency” had a great future before it.) This movement was urban, basically eastern, and closely connected with economic elites (Nancy Cohen, Reconstruction of American Liberalism).
Another tributary into Progressivism—populism—began in opposition to all the above. Populists stated the case for tariff- and debt-ridden farmers in the South and the West. Their key innovation, or deviation from the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian tradition, was the belief that “the powers of government . . . should be expanded,” as their 1892 platform put it. How far this idea actually reached depended on the particular populist, but this new approach brought some of them closer, in method anyway, to the later Progressive movement.
A third source of Progressivism was a university-based intellectual movement whose leading figures included Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, philosopher John Dewey, economist Thorstein Veblen, and historians James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard. What united them was historicism and cultural organicism (Morton White, Social Thought in America). The ferment amounted to “a pragmatic revolt against formalism, abstraction and deductive methodology in the social sciences” (Wallace Mendelson, Capitalism, Democracy, and the Supreme Court). Darwinism, variously read, and scientism were among their weaponry.
A vaguer force was post-millennial Protestant reform, originally based in Greater New England, but now of national scope. Kicked off center-stage by science, many Protestant clergymen engaged social causes in a distinctly Progressive spirit. All these tendencies, plus an ingrained American penchant toward panic, pointed toward a busy future.
These forces (and perhaps others) converged on certain economic, social, and political problems stemming from America’s rapid industrial growth: the Gilded Age’s blatant corruption and subsidies (embodied in the railroads, their origins, and practices), labor strife, urban poverty, economic concentration, and financial manipulation. (Subtext: no stone unturned, no child left alone, no person unregistered, and no physical entity unregulated.) (See my October Freeman article, “The Gilded Age: A Modest Revision.”)
Progressives were fierce critics of federal courts, which they saw as the bulwark of big business. (This was never exactly untrue.) Their foremost concern was how to sustain the new industrial order while conserving American values and institutions. As they saw it, the main alternatives were: 1) restore competition by various means, including antitrust laws, or 2) accept and closely regulate an economy of large corporations. These conflicting visions constituted a serious fault line within Progressivism.
East versus West Approximates Hamilton versus Jefferson
New Republic editor Herbert Croly tried to bridge the Progressives’ divide by setting Hamiltonian means alongside Jeffersonian ends—a “synthesis” that could not survive the slightest clash with real life. Taking “Jeffersonian” as answering roughly to Plan I (restore competition) and “Hamiltonian” as answering to Plan II (accept and regulate big corporations), we can spot the rough geographical outlines of what were (as much of the literature suggests) two quite different forms of Progressivism.
Self-identified Progressives were concentrated in the GOP. Eastern Progressives proposed to regulate big corporate businesses, whose rise they viewed as inevitable. Thus for the eastern wing of the Republican Party “the problem was not how to remedy the evils of the new finance capitalism. [It was] how to manage the discontent it aroused, particularly in the once-docile middle class.” The eastern Progressive icon, Theodore Roosevelt, “wished to see the American people governed by a liberal oligarchy; he did not want them governing themselves.” By contrast, western Progressives tended to see “big business as an artificial menace to self-government, not merely aided but made possible by a whole system of special privilege” (Walter Karp, Politics of War). This means, in effect, that westerners thought some of the damage could be undone. Western Progressivism owed more to populism; it was “more rural and sectional than nationwide” and “represents, in a sense, the roots of modern American isolationism. [It was] less pacifistic and isolationist than it was nationalist,” but “opposed to imperialism or colonialism or militarism.” Such Progressives rejected American imperial initiatives precisely because of their apparent connections to Wall Street and the British Empire (Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform).
Given this political geography, there was considerable overlap between farm spokesmen and these “populist” Progressives. Historian Elizabeth Sanders writes that the farm bloc pursued specific reforms through statutory regulations enacted by Congress and enforceable in the courts, and not through expert commissions and administrative bureaucracies. To that extent, then, they were antibureaucratic. The more developed parts of the Midwest and Pacific coast fell midway between populism and eastern Progressivism, while peripheral western zones and much of the South remained essentially populist.
Further: “[I]t was the periphery that furnished most of the opposition, in both parties, to Wilson’s preparedness efforts, for in this momentous sense . . . the agrarians were not statists: far more than other sections, the periphery opposed war, standing armies, and imperialism” (Sanders, Roots of Reform, italics added). Certainly, these positions ought to count on the antistatist side of the ledger, unless war, militarism, and empire are not causes and instruments of aggravated statism. (President Wilson’s ruthless purge after 1917 of antiwar Democrats has long obscured the antiwar aspects of populism in the South. See Anthony Gaughan, “Woodrow Wilson and the Rise of Militant Interventionism in the South,” Journal of Southern History, November 1999.)
It was not just farmers with whom quasi-Jeffersonian western Progressives identified. Senator William Borah (R., Id.) saw himself as a defender of small business and carried on a two-front war against large corporations and state bureaucracies. A noninterventionist foreign policy completed the package. And somewhat jarringly perhaps, Georgism was the default economic position of many Progressives. This makes sense, however, because Henry George’s reform program, like that of the farm bloc, rejected administrative solutions. (Ransom E. Noble, “Henry George and the Progressive Movement,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, April 1949.)
Creeping American Statism
There are attempts from time to time to father American statism on Progressivism. This will hardly do. First, union-nationalist theorists like John W. Burgess and Orestes Brownson reveled in the vastness of national sovereignty after 1865. In cases like In re Neagle (1890), the U.S. Supreme Court theorized abstrusely on national sovereignty per square foot. At the level of ideas there was quite a lot of statism about. Second, as legal historian William Novak writes, a steadily rising curve of interfering (“statist”) state and federal legislation runs from the 1870s into the 1920s. This upward trend was across-the-board and predated Progressivism. (“The Legal Origins of the Modern American State,” in Austin Sarat et al., Looking Back at Law’s Century.)
Here is one example. After the biggest western land-grabbers crowded small farmers onto marginal lands, especially in California (see my “The American Land Question,” Freeman, July/August 2009), the cry went up for federal engineers to build colossal dams in the arid West to help small farmers become competitive. These projects reinvented ancient hydraulic despotism, coupling it rhetorically with a Jeffersonian end. (Donald Worcester, Rivers of Empire). Here Veblen’s favorite social class, the engineers, did wondrous works and overcame nature itself over many decades. It was impressive—but hardly chargeable to Progressivism.
Progressivism, Law, and State
Eastern, urban Progressives were committed to efficiency, expertise, regulatory bureaucracy, and scientism. Their program was effectively a political phase of corporate liberalism, of which Teddy Roosevelt, an artificial westerner, and Woodrow Wilson, an ex-southerner, offered somewhat different brands. (Wilson’s corporate liberalism did not wear the Progressive label.)
An important point of historical controversy concerns the relation of big business to Progressive legislation. Gabriel Kolko has argued that many key statutes were prepared by big-business lawyers and contained provisions intended to cartelize industries by restricting competition and discouraging new entrants. Sanders counters that the resistance of the farm bloc and organized labor sometimes kept business from getting exactly what it wanted (Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism; Sanders, 179–182).
The related “capture” thesis holds that, whatever the intention of legislators, the businesses to be regulated will eventually dominate the relevant bureaucracy. American socialist William J. Ghent commented that regulatory bodies were “Irresponsible to both the people and the people’s officials” and “peculiarly liable to the influence of the Big Men” (Our Benevolent Feudalism). In private, businessmen themselves agreed with Ghent.
To the extent that eastern Progressives were able, between 1900 and 1916, to control legislative agendas nationally and in the states, they unleashed the reign of bureaucratic tidy-mindedness. In southern states legislatures fine-tuned racial segregation and classification (George M. Frederickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History). In a cross-section of states, legislatures blessed the pseudoscience of eugenics and provided for sterilization of unwanted classes. At the federal level Justice Holmes helped out by finding such laws constitutional. (See Edward Black, War Against the Weak.)
There was also what we might call “departicipation”—a trend that reflected upper- and middle-class WASP panic about the working classes, immigrants, and “unassimilable” races. Instances of departicipation included judicial rules narrowing legal standing, increasing top-down control over juries, and eroding common-law concepts; voter disenfranchisement North and South; city manager regimes with at-large voting in city elections and standing armies of police; and finally, detailed task-management in the workplace, or Taylorism. (On the last, see Kevin A. Carson in the September 2011 Freeman).
In foreign affairs many eastern, corporate-liberal Progressives favored forceful American expansion into overseas markets. If this required empire—and even war to secure the deal—they were up for it.
Progressivism: A Partial Defense
Murray Rothbard famously called World War I the “fulfillment of Progressivism,” a substantially true assertion, if eastern Progressivism is meant. (It was.) One would not wish to defend those Progressives. They gave us the War Industries Board, Prohibition, and much else besides. (Perhaps any war party would have given us some of those.) The war witnessed John Dewey’s endorsement of force as the royal road to progress and Randolph Bourne’s daring escape from Dewey’s instrumentalism and liberal practicality (White, Social Thought in America).
Even western Progressives were a bit mixed. Some pursued bureaucratic solutions at the state level. But on national issues of war and peace, and on the question of empire, western Progressives like Senators Borah and Robert LaFollette (R., Wi.), and U.S. Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R., Mt.) earned their keep. One suspects this is why contemporary conservatives prefer to jam all Progressives into a single category to be dismissed as statist at home and naive abroad—the better to flog their own impossible program of freedom at home and empire abroad.
Progressivism and the New Deal
Progressivism as an outwardly unified (but internally divided) movement effectively ended in the 1920s. American politics limped along, bereft of real ideas. This is normal. Then the Great Depression called forth the New Deal. The ensuing leap into governmental problem-solving wasted the memory of the former days—Novak’s previous 70 years of creeping statism. It would be easy, but inexact, to say that the New Deal continued and consolidated Progressivism—but which one? The first New Deal adopted a rather eastern Progressive program of corporatism and cartelization modeled on World War I legislation. Here was the test of Croly’s Hamilton-Jefferson synthesis, and it drove many relatively Jeffersonian Progressives out of the New Deal. The administration’s later (partial) retreat from corporatism did not bring them back (Otis Graham, Old Progressives and the New Deal).
The argument that equates Progressivism with the New Deal and the New Deal with fascism is also misleading. A little care is needed. Certain New Deal economic policies had definite structural resemblances to those of fascist Italy. The New Deal laid part of the groundwork for a uniquely American fascism, but did not finish the job. More building blocks would be needed. (Anyway, an exceptional people like Americans deserve an exceptional form of fascism—nicer, bigger, better, more efficient, and so on.)
John T. Flynn was one of those Jeffersonian Progressives who turned his back on the New Deal. He also helped launch comparisons between New Deal and fascist economic policy. But more important, he tried to discover what would be required for a completed exercise in American fascism. In As We Go Marching (1944), he developed a set of criteria. Measured by those, America was still only potentially fascist. It might be different in the long run. We didn’t have to take the same branch at every fork in the road. But we might.
Living in the Long Run
Flynn’s checklist for realized fascism was as follows: perpetual public debt, autarchy, socialization of investment, bureaucratic supervision of society, public-works militarism, overseas empire, executive dictatorship, and the institutional changes to make them all work together. Seventy-some years later, we are well along. Flynn was wrong of course about autarchy in the short run. He did not anticipate that one imperial State could become strong enough to force its economic rules on most of the world, while preaching about “free trade.”
Flynn was right, however, about what would hold American fascism together: executive power effectively above the law. (Shelley called monarchy the knot that tied the robber’s bundle.) Long ago, tidy-minded eastern Progressives championed executive power but did not perfect it. Other hands—“liberal” and “conservative”—did that. Today important “conservatives” and Chicago-tinged theorists proclaim executive supremacy a universal blessing. (See, for example, Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, The Executive Unbound.)
American Progressives, Sinners, and Republicans
So here we are, trying to find some shade under the twisted tree of Progressivism. There is a little, and if the tree is twisted, that is partly because so many have made it into various things it was not, while imposing a false unity on it. Some of it was bad; but Progressivism cannot take the blame for every bad thing that came along after it was dead. An awful lot’s happened since then, and there is a lot of blame to go around. One could wish for a happier ending.