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Progressivism in the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Progressivism in the United States is a political philosophy and reform movement. Into the 21st century, it advocates policies that are generally considered social democratic and part of the American Left. It has also expressed itself with right-wing politics, such as New Nationalism and progressive conservatism. It reached its height early in the 20th century. Middle/working class and reformist in nature, it arose as a response to the vast changes brought by modernization, such as the growth of large corporations, pollution, and corruption in American politics. Historian Alonzo Hamby describes American progressivism as a "political movement that addresses ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from modernization of American society. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century."[1]

Progressive economic policies incorporate the socioeconomic principles and views of social democracy and political progressivism. These views are often rooted in the concept of social justice and have the goal of improving the human condition through government regulation, social protections, and the maintenance of public goods.[2] It is based on the idea that capitalist markets left to operate with limited government regulation are inherently unfair, favoring big business, large corporations, and the wealthy. Specific economic policies that are considered progressive include progressive taxes, income redistribution aimed at reducing inequalities of wealth, a comprehensive package of public services, universal health care, resisting involuntary unemployment, public education, social security, minimum wage laws, antitrust laws, legislation protecting labor rights, and the rights of labor unions. While the modern progressive movement may be characterized as largely secular in nature, the historical progressive movement was by comparison to a significant extent rooted in and energized by religion.[3]

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Episode 27: Progressive Era Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse U.S. history, and today we’re gonna talk about Progressives. No Stan Progressives. Yes. You know, like these guys who used to want to bomb the means of production, but also less radical Progressives. Mr. Green, Mr. Green. Are we talking about, like, tumblr progressive where it’s half discussions of misogyny and half high-contrast images of pizza? Because if so, I can get behind that. Me from the past, your anachronism is showing. Your Internet was green letters on a black screen. But no, The Progressive Era was not like tumblr, however I will argue that it did indirectly make tumblr and therefore JLaw gifsets possible, so that’s something. So some of the solutions that progressives came up with to deal with issues of inequality and injustice don’t seem terribly progressive today, and also it kinda overlapped with the gilded age, and progressive implies, like, progress, presumably progress toward freedom and justice, which is hard to argue about an era that involved one of the great restrictions on freedom in American history, prohibition. So maybe we shouldn’t call it the Progressive Era at all. I g--Stan, whatever, roll the intro. Intro So, if the Gilded Age was the period when American industrial capitalism came into its own, and people like Mark Twain began to criticize its associated problems, then the Progressive era was the age in which people actually tried to solve those problems through individual and group action. As the economy changed, Progressives also had to respond to a rapidly changing political system. The population of the U.S. was growing and its economic power was becoming ever more concentrated. And sometimes, Progressives responded to this by opening up political participation and sometimes by trying to restrict the vote. The thing is, broad participatory democracy doesn’t always result in effective government--he said, sounding like the Chinese national Communist Party. And that tension between wanting to have government for, of, and by the people and wanting to have government that’s, like, good at governing kind of defined the Progressive era. And also our era. But progressives were most concerned with the social problems that revolved around industrial capitalist society. And most of these problems weren’t new by 1900, but some of the responses were. Companies and, later, corporations had a problem that had been around at least since the 1880s: they needed to keep costs down and profits high in a competitive market. And one of the best ways to do this was to keep wages low, hours long, and conditions appalling: your basic house-elf situation. Just kidding, house elves didn’t get wages. Also, by the end of the 19th century, people started to feel like these large, monopolistic industrial combinations, the so-called trusts, were exerting too much power over people’s lives. The 1890s saw federal attempts to deal with these trusts, such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but overall, the Federal Government wasn’t where most progressive changes were made. For instance, there was muckraking, a form of journalism in which reporters would find some muck and rake it. Mass circulation magazines realized they could make money by publishing exposés of industrial and political abuse, so they did. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document? I bet it involves muck. The rules here are simple. I guess the author of the Mystery Document. I’m either correct or I get shocked. “Let a man so much as scrape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle-rooms, and all the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one. Of the butchers and floormen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it. ... They would have no nails – they had worn them off pulling hides.” Wow. Well now I am hyper-aware of and grateful for my thumbs. They are just in excellent shape. I am so glad, Stan, that I am not a beef-boner at one of the meat-packing factories written about in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. No shock for me! Oh Stan, I can only imagine how long and hard you’ve worked to get the phrase “beef-boner” into this show. And you finally did it. Congratulations. By the way, just a little bit of trivia: The Jungle was the first book I ever read that made me vomit. So that’s a review. I don’t know if it’s positive, but there you go. Anyway, at the time, readers of The Jungle were more outraged by descriptions of rotten meat than by the treatment of meatpacking workers: The Jungle led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. That’s pretty cool for Upton Sinclair, although my books have also led to some federal legislation, such as the HAOPT, which officially declared Hazel and Augustus the nation’s OTP. So, to be fair, writers had been describing the harshness of industrial capitalism for decades, so muckraking wasn’t really that new, but the use of photography for documentation was. Lewis Hine, for instance, photographed child laborers in factories and mines, bringing Americans face to face with the more than 2 million children under the age of 15 working for wages. And Hine’s photos helped bring about laws that limited child labor. But even more important than the writing and photographs and magazines when it came to improving conditions for workers was Twitter … what’s that? There was no twitter? Still? What is this 1812? Alright, so apparently still without Twitter, workers had to organize into unions to get corporations to reduce hours and raise their pay. Also some employers started to realize on their own that one way to mitigate some of the problems of industrialization was to pay workers better, like in 1914, Henry Ford paid his workers an average of $5 per day, unheard of at the time. . Whereas today I pay Stan and Danica 3x that and still they whine. Ford’s reasoning was that better-paid workers would be better able to afford the Model Ts that they were making. And indeed, Ford’s annual output rose from 34,000 cars to 730,000 between 1910 and 1916, and the price of a Model T dropped from $700 to $316. Still, Henry Ford definitely forgot to be awesome sometimes; he was anti-Semitic, he used spies in his factories, and he named his child Edsel. Also like most employers at the turn of the century, he was virulently anti-union. So, while the AFL was organizing the most privileged industrial workers, another union grew up to advocate for rights for a larger swath of the workforce, especially the immigrants who dominated unskilled labor: The International Workers of the World. They were also known as the Wobblies, and they were founded in 1905 to advocate for “every wage-worker, no matter what his religion, fatherland or trade,” and not, as the name Wobblies suggests, just those fans of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey. The Wobblies were radical socialists; ultimately they wanted to see capitalism and the state disappear in revolution. Now, most progressives didn’t go that far, but some, following the ideas of Henry George, worried that economic progress could produce a dangerous unequal distribution of wealth that could only be cured by … taxes. But, more Progressives were influenced by Simon W. Patten who prophesied that industrialization would bring about a new civilization where everyone would benefit from the abundance and all the leisure time that all these new labor-saving devices could bring. This optimism was partly spurred by the birth of a mass consumption society. I mean, Americans by 1915 could purchase all kinds of new-fangled devices, like washing machines, or vacuum cleaners, automobiles, record players. It’s worth underscoring that all this happened in a couple generations: I mean, in 1850, almost everyone listened to music and washed their clothes in nearly the same way that people did 10,000 years ago. And then BOOM. And for many progressives, this consumer culture, to quote our old friend Eric Foner, “became the foundation for a new understanding of freedom as access to the cornucopia of goods made available by modern capitalism.” And this idea was encouraged by new advertising that connected goods with freedom, using “liberty” as a brand name or affixing the Statue of Liberty to a product. By the way, Crash Course is made exclusively in the United States of America, the greatest nation on earth ever. (Libertage.) That’s a lie, of course, but you’re allowed to lie in advertising. But in spite of this optimism, most progressives were concerned that industrial capitalism, with its exploitation of labor and concentration of wealth, was limiting, rather than increasing freedom, but depending on how you defined “freedom,” of course. Industrialization created what they referred to as “the labor problem” as mechanization diminished opportunities for skilled workers and the supervised routine of the factory floor destroyed autonomy. The scientific workplace management advocated by efficiency expert Frederick W. Taylor required rigid rules and supervision in order to heighten worker productivity. So if you’ve ever had a job with a defined number of bathroom breaks, that’s why. Also “Taylorism” found its way into classrooms; and anyone who’s had to sit in rows for 45 minute periods punctuated by factory-style bells knows that this atmosphere is not particularly conducive to a sense of freedom. Now this is a little bit confusing because while responding to worker exploitation was part of the Progressive movement, so was Taylorism itself because it was an application of research, observation, and expertise in response to the vexing problem of how to increase productivity. And this use of scientific experts is another hallmark of the Progressive era, one that usually found its expression in politics. American Progressives, like their counterparts in the Green Sections of Not-America, sought government solutions to social problems. Germany, which is somewhere over here, pioneered “social legislation” with its minimum wage, unemployment insurance and old age pension laws, but the idea that government action could address the problems and insecurities that characterized the modern industrial world, also became prominent in the United States. And the notion that an activist government could enhance rather than threaten people’s freedom was something new in America. Now, Progressives pushing for social legislation tended to have more success at the state and local level, especially in cities, which established public control over gas and water and raised taxes to pay for transportation and public schools. Whereas federally the biggest success was, like, Prohibition, which, you know, not that successful. But anyway, if all that local collectivist investment sounds like Socialism, it kind of is. I mean, by 1912 the Socialist Party had 150,000 members and had elected scores of local officials like Milwaukee mayor Emil Seidel. Some urban progressives even pushed to get rid of traditional democratic forms altogether. A number of cities were run by commissions of experts or city managers, who would be chosen on the basis of some demonstrated expertise or credential rather than their ability to hand out turkeys at Christmas or find jobs for your nephew’s sister’s cousin. Progressive editor Walter Lippman argued for applying modern scientific expertise to solve social problems in his 1914 book Drift and Mastery, writing that scientifically trained experts “could be trusted more fully than ordinary citizens to solve America’s deep social problems.” This tension between government by experts and increased popular democratic participation is one of the major contradictions of the Progressive era. The 17th amendment allowed for senators to be elected directly by the people rather than by state legislatures, and many states adopted primaries to nominate candidates, again taking power away from political parties and putting it in the hands of voters. And some states, particularly western ones like California adopted aspects of even more direct democracy, the initiative, which allowed voters to put issues on the ballot, and the referendum, which allows them to vote on laws directly. And lest you think that more democracy is always good, I present you with California. But many Progressives wanted actual policy made by experts who knew what was best for the people, not the people themselves. And despite primaries in direct elections of senators it’s hard to argue that the Progressive Era was a good moment for democratic participation, since many Progressives were only in favor of voting insofar as it was done by white, middle class, Protestant voters. Alright. Let’s Go to the Thought Bubble. Progressives limited immigrants’ participation in the political process through literacy tests and laws requiring people to register to vote. Voter registration was supposedly intended to limit fraud and the power of political machines. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar, but it actually just suppressed voting generally. Voting gradually declined from 80% of male Americans voting in the 1890s to the point where today only about 50% of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections. But an even bigger blow to democracy during the Progressive era came with the Jim Crow laws passed by legislatures in southern states, which legally segregated the South. First, there was the deliberate disenfranchisement of African Americans. The 15th amendment made it illegal to deny the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude but said nothing about the ability to read, so many Southern states instituted literacy requirements. Other states added poll taxes, requiring people to pay to vote, which effectively disenfranchised large numbers of African American people, who were disproportionately poor. The Supreme Court didn’t help: In 1896, it made one of its most famous bad decisions, Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that segregation in public accommodations, in Homer Plessy’s case a railroad car, did not violate the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection clause. As long as black railroad cars were equal to white ones, it was A-OK to have duplicate sets of everything. Now, creating two sets of equal quality of everything would get really expensive, so Southern states didn’t actually do it. Black schools, public restrooms, public transportation opportunities--the list goes on and on--would definitely be separate, and definitely not equal. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Now, of course, as we’ve seen Progressive ideas inspired a variety of responses, both for Taylorism and against it, both for government by experts and for direct democracy. Similarly, in the Progressive era, just as the Jim Crow laws were being passed, there were many attempts to improve the lives of African Americans. The towering figure in this movement to “uplift” black southerners was Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became the head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a center for vocational education. And Washington urged southern black people to emphasize skills that could make them successful in the contemporary economy. The idea was that they would earn the respect of white people by demonstrating their usefulness and everyone would come to respect each other through the recognition of mutual dependence while continuing to live in separate social spheres. But Washington’s accommodationist stance was not shared by all African Americans. WEB DuBois advocated for full civil and political rights for black people and helped to found the NAACP, which urged African Americans to fight for their rights through “persistent, manly agitation.” So I wanted to talk about the Progressive Era today not only because it shows up on a lot of tests, but because Progressives tried to tackle many of the issues that we face today, particularly concerning immigration and economic justice, and they used some of the same methods that we use today: organization, journalistic exposure, and political activism. Now, we may use tumblr or tea party forums, but the same concerns motivate us to work together. And just as today, many of their efforts were not successful because of the inherent difficulty in trying to mobilize very different interests in a pluralistic nation. In some ways their platforms would have been better suited to an America that was less diverse and complex. But it was that very diversity and complexity that gave rise and still gives rise to the urge toward progress in the first place. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week there’s a new caption for the libertage. You can suggest captions in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course. If you like it, and if you’re watching the credits you probably do, make sure you’re subscribed. And as we say in my hometown don’t forget to be awesome...That was more dramatic than it sounded. Progressive Era -

Progressive Era

Historians debate the exact contours, but they generally date the Progressive Era in response to the excesses of the Gilded Age from the 1890s to either World War I in 1917 or the onset of the Great Depression in the United States in 1929.[4] Many of the core principles of the progressive movement focused on the need for efficiency in all areas of society, and for greater democratic control over public policy. Purification to eliminate waste and corruption was a powerful element as well as the progressives' support of worker compensation, improved child labor laws, minimum wage legislation, a limited workweek, graduated income tax and allowing women the right to vote.[4] Arthur S. Link and Vincent P. De Santis argue that the majority of progressives wanted to purify politics.[5][6] For some Progressives, purification meant taking the vote away from blacks in the South.[7]

Large corporations and monopolies: trust busting vs. regulation

The Bosses of the Senate, a cartoon by Joseph Keppler depicting corporate interests—from steel, copper, oil, iron, sugar, tin, and coal to paper bags, envelopes and salt—as giant money bags looming powerfully over the tiny, weak U.S. Senators[8]

Most progressives hoped that by regulating large corporations they could liberate human energies from the restrictions imposed by industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, the progressive movement was split over which of the following solutions should be used to regulate corporations. Many progressives argued that industrial monopolies were unnatural economic institutions which suppressed the competition which was necessary for progress and improvement.[9] United States antitrust law prohibits anti-competitive behavior (monopoly) and unfair business practices. Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supported trust-busting. During their presidencies, the otherwise-conservative Taft brought down 90 trusts in four years while Roosevelt took down 44 in seven and a half years in office.[10]

Progressives, such as Benjamin Parke De Witt, argued that, in a modern economy, large corporations and even monopolies were both inevitable and desirable. He argued that with their massive resources and economies of scale, large corporations offered the United States advantages which smaller companies could not offer. However, these large corporations might abuse their great power. The federal government should allow these companies to exist, but otherwise regulate them for the public interest. President Roosevelt generally supported this idea and incorporated it as part of his "New Nationalism".[11]


Many progressives such as Louis Brandeis hoped to make American governments better able to serve the people's needs by making governmental operations and services more efficient and rational. Rather than making legal arguments against ten-hour workdays for women, he used "scientific principles" and data produced by social scientists documenting the high costs of long working hours for both individuals and society.[12] The progressives' quest for efficiency was sometimes at odds with the progressives' quest for democracy. Taking power out of the hands of elected officials and placing that power in the hands of professional administrators reduced the voice of the politicians and in turn reduced the voice of the people. Centralized decision-making by trained experts and reduced power for local wards made government less corrupt but more distant and isolated from the people it served. Progressives who emphasized the need for efficiency typically argued that trained independent experts could make better decisions than the local politicians. In his influential Drift and Mastery (1914) stressing the "scientific spirit" and "discipline of democracy", Walter Lippmann called for a strong central government guided by experts rather than public opinion.[13]

One example of progressive reform was the rise of the city manager system in which paid, professional engineers ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments under guidelines established by elected city councils. Many cities created municipal "reference bureaus" which did expert surveys of government departments looking for waste and inefficiency. After in-depth surveys, local and even state governments were reorganized to reduce the number of officials and to eliminate overlapping areas of authority between departments. City governments were reorganized to reduce the power of local ward bosses and to increase the powers of the city council. Governments at every level began developing budgets to help them plan their expenditures rather than spending money haphazardly as needs arose and revenue became available. Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois showed a "passion for efficiency" as he streamlined state government.[14]

Governmental corruption

Corruption represented a source of waste and inefficiency in the government. William Simon U'Ren in Oregon, Robert M. La Follette in Wisconsin and others worked to clean up state and local governments by passing laws to weaken the power of machine politicians and political bosses. In Wisconsin, La Follette pushed through an open primary system that stripped party bosses of the power to pick party candidates.[15] The Oregon System included a "Corrupt Practices Act", a public referendum and a state-funded voter's pamphlet, among other reforms which were exported to other states in the Northwest and Midwest. Its high point was in 1912, after which they detoured into a disastrous third party status.[16]


Early progressive thinkers such as John Dewey and Lester Ward placed a universal and comprehensive system of education at the top of the progressive agenda, reasoning that if a democracy were to be successful, its leaders, the general public, needed a good education.[17] Progressives worked hard to expand and improve public and private education at all levels. They believed that modernization of society necessitated the compulsory education of all children, even if the parents objected. Progressives turned to educational researchers to evaluate the reform agenda by measuring numerous aspects of education, later leading to standardized testing. Many educational reforms and innovations generated during this period continued to influence debates and initiatives in American education for the remainder of the 20th century. One of the most apparent legacies of the Progressive Era left to American education was the perennial drive to reform schools and curricula, often as the product of energetic grass-roots movements in the city.[18]

Since progressivism was and continues to be "in the eyes of the beholder", progressive education encompasses very diverse and sometimes conflicting directions in educational policy. Such enduring legacies of the Progressive Era continue to interest historians. Progressive Era reformers stressed "object teaching", meeting the needs of particular constituencies within the school district, equal educational opportunity for boys and girls and avoiding corporal punishment.[19]

David Gamson examines the implementation of progressive reforms in three city school districts—Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington and Oakland, California—during 1900–1928. Historians of educational reform during the Progressive Era tend to highlight the fact that many progressive policies and reforms were very different and at times even contradictory. At the school district level, contradictory reform policies were often especially apparent, though there is little evidence of confusion among progressive school leaders in Denver, Seattle and Oakland. District leaders in these cities, including Frank B. Cooper in Seattle and Fred M. Hunter in Oakland, often employed a seemingly contradictory set of reforms. Local progressive educators consciously sought to operate independently of national progressive movements as they preferred reforms that were easy to implement and were encouraged to mix and blend diverse reforms that had been shown to work in other cities.[20]

The reformers emphasized professionalization and bureaucratization. The old system whereby ward politicians selected school employees was dropped in the case of teachers and replaced by a merit system requiring a college-level education in a normal school (teacher's college).[21] The rapid growth in size and complexity the large urban school systems facilitated stabilized employment for women teachers and provided senior teachers greater opportunities to mentor younger teachers. By 1900, most women in Providence, Rhode Island, remained as teachers for at least 17.5 years, indicating teaching had become a significant and desirable career path for women.[22]

Social work

United States federal government World War II era poster against prostitution

Progressives set up training programs to ensure that welfare and charity work would be undertaken by trained professionals rather than warm-hearted amateurs.[23] Jane Addams of Chicago's Hull House typified the leadership of residential, community centers operated by social workers and volunteers and located in inner city slums. The purpose of the settlement houses was to raise the standard of living of urbanites by providing adult education and cultural enrichment programs.[24]


During this era of massive reformation among all social aspects, elimination of prostitution was vital for the progressives, especially the women.[25] The anti-prostitution movement involved three main groups: Christians, Progressive Era feminists, and physicians. Many individuals active in the anti-prostitution movement shared some of the same perspectives from each of these groups. Jane Addams, one of the most notable of early American social workers, wrote a book addressing prostitution. According to her argument in A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil,[26] the reason why women resorted to prostitution was due to the inadequate salaries they received. However, she also mentions the absence of family oversight of female modesty, as young women migrated from rural to urban areas. Although most prostitutes were born in America, the public believed that women were being brought into the United States and later sold into prostitution. The opposition against prostitution could have been a reflection of concerns regarding the influx of immigrants, the growth of cities, the development of industries, and the erosion of established moral standards.[27]

Enactment of child labor laws

A poster highlighting the situation of child labor in the United States in the early 20th century

Child labor laws were designed to prevent the overuse of children in the newly emerging industries. The goal of these laws was to give working class children the opportunity to go to school and mature more institutionally, thereby liberating the potential of humanity and encouraging the advancement of humanity. Factory owners generally did not want this progression because of lost workers. Parents relied on the income of children to keep the family solvent. Progressives enacted state and federal laws against child labor, but these were overturned by the US Supreme Court. A proposed constitutional amendment was opposed by business and Catholics; it passed Congress but was never ratified by enough states. Child labor was finally outlawed by the New Deal in the 1930s.[28][29]

Support for the goals of organized labor

Labor unions grew steadily until 1916, then expanded fast during the war. In 1919, a wave of major strikes alienated the middle class and the strikes were lost which alienated the workers. In the 1920s, the unions were in the doldrums. In 1924, they supported Robert M. La Follette's Progressive Party, but he only carried his base in Wisconsin. The American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers after 1907 began supporting the Democrats, who promised more favorable judges as the Republicans appointed pro-business judges. Theodore Roosevelt and his third party also supported such goals as the eight-hour work day, improved safety and health conditions in factories, workers' compensation laws and minimum wage laws for women.[30]


Most progressives, especially in rural areas, adopted the cause of prohibition.[31] They saw the saloon as political corruption incarnate and bewailed the damage done to women and children. They believed the consumption of alcohol limited mankind's potential for advancement.[32] Progressives achieved success first with state laws then with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1919. The golden day did not dawn as enforcement was lax, especially in the cities where the law had very limited popular support and where notorious criminal gangs such as the Chicago gang of Al Capone made a crime spree based on illegal sales of liquor in speakeasies. The "experiment" (as President Herbert Hoover called it) also cost the federal and local treasuries large sums of taxes. The 18th amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1933.[33]


Some progressives sponsored eugenics as a solution to excessively large or under-performing families, hoping that birth control would enable parents to focus their resources on fewer, better children while others, like Margaret Sanger advocated it.[34] Progressives also advocated for compulsory sterilization of those deemed "unfit".[34] Progressive leaders such as Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann indicated their classical liberal concern over the danger posed to the individual by the practice of eugenics.[35] Progressive politician William Jennings Bryan opposed eugenics on the grounds of his anti-evolution activism.[36] In a paper titled "The Progressives: Racism and Public Law", American legal scholar Herbert Hovenkamp (MA, PhD, JD) wrote:

When examining the Progressives on race, it is critical to distinguish the views that they inherited from those that they developed. The rise of Progressivism coincided with the death of scientific racism, which had been taught in American universities since the early nineteenth century and featured prominently in the scientific debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution. Eugenics, which attempted to use genetics and mathematics to validate many racist claims, was its last gasp. The most notable thing about the Progressives is that they were responsible for bringing scientific racism to an end.[37]

Purifying the electorate

Progressives repeatedly warned that illegal voting was corrupting the political system. They especially identified big-city bosses, working with saloon keepers and precinct workers, as the culprits who stuffed the ballot boxes. The solution to purifying the vote included prohibition (designed to close down the saloons), voter registration requirements (designed to end multiple voting), and literacy tests (designed to minimize the number of ignorant voters).[38]

All of the Southern states used devices to disenfranchise black voters during the Progressive Era.[39][40] Typically, the progressive elements in those states pushed for disenfranchisement, often fighting against the conservatism of the Black Belt whites.[41] A major reason given was that whites routinely purchased black votes to control elections, and it was easier to disenfranchise blacks than to go after powerful white men.[42] In the Northern states, progressives such as Robert M. La Follette and William Simon U'Ren argued that the average citizen should have more control over his government. The Oregon System of "Initiative, Referendum, and Recall" was exported to many states, including Idaho, Washington and Wisconsin.[43] Many progressives such as George M. Forbes, president of Rochester's Board of Education, hoped to make government in the United States more responsive to the direct voice of the American people, arguing:

[W]e are now intensely occupied in forging the tools of democracy, the direct primary, the initiative, the referendum, the recall, the short ballot, commission government. But in our enthusiasm we do not seem to be aware that these tools will be worthless unless they are used by those who are aflame with the sense of brotherhood. ... The idea [of the social centers movement is] to establish in each community an institution having a direct and vital relation to the welfare of the neighborhood, ward, or district, and also to the city as a whole.[44]

Philip J. Ethington seconds this high view of direct democracy, saying that "initiatives, referendums, and recalls, along with direct primaries and the direct election of US Senators, were the core achievements of 'direct democracy' by the Progressive generation during the first two decades of the twentieth century".[45]

Women marching for the right to vote, 1912

Progressives fought for women's suffrage to purify the elections using supposedly purer female voters.[46] Progressives in the South supported the elimination of supposedly corrupt black voters from the election booth. Historian Michael Perman says that in both Texas and Georgia "disfranchisement was the weapon as well as the rallying cry in the fight for reform". In Virginia, "the drive for disfranchisement had been initiated by men who saw themselves as reformers, even progressives".[47]

While the ultimate significance of the progressive movement on today's politics is still up for debate, Alonzo L. Hamby asks:

What were the central themes that emerged from the cacophony [of progressivism]? Democracy or elitism? Social justice or social control? Small entrepreneurship or concentrated capitalism? And what was the impact of American foreign policy? Were the progressives isolationists or interventionists? Imperialists or advocates of national self-determination? And whatever they were, what was their motivation? Moralistic utopianism? Muddled relativistic pragmatism? Hegemonic capitalism? Not surprisingly many battered scholars began to shout 'no mas!' In 1970, Peter Filene declared that the term 'progressivism' had become meaningless.[48]

Municipal administration

The progressives typically concentrated on city and state government, looking for waste and better ways to provide services as the cities grew rapidly. These changes led to a more structured system, power that had been centralized within the legislature would now be more locally focused. The changes were made to the system to effectively make legal processes, market transactions, bureaucratic administration and democracy easier to manage, putting them under the classification of "Municipal Administration". There was also a change in authority for this system as it was believed that the authority that was not properly organized had now given authority to professionals, experts and bureaucrats for these services. These changes led to a more solid type of municipal administration compared to the old system that was underdeveloped and poorly constructed.[49][50][51][52][53]

The progressives mobilized concerned middle class voters as well as newspapers and magazines to identify problems and concentrate reform sentiment on specific problems. Many Protestants focused on the saloon as the power base for corruption as well as violence and family disruption, so they tried to get rid of the entire saloon system through prohibition. Others such as Jane Addams in Chicago promoted settlement houses.[54] Early municipal reformers included Hazen S. Pingree (mayor of Detroit in the 1890s)[55] and Tom L. Johnson in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1901, Johnson won election as mayor of Cleveland on a platform of just taxation, home rule for Ohio cities and a 3-cent streetcar fare.[56] Columbia University President Seth Low was elected mayor of New York City in 1901 on a reform ticket.[57]


During the term of the progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) and influenced by the ideas of philosopher-scientists such as George Perkins Marsh, William John McGee, John Muir, John Wesley Powell and Lester Frank Ward,[58] the largest government-funded conservation-related projects in United States history were undertaken.

National parks and wildlife refuges

On March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt created the first National Bird Preserve, the beginning of the Wildlife Refuge system, on Pelican Island, Florida. In all, by 1909, the Roosevelt administration had created an unprecedented 42 million acres (170,000 km2) of United States National Forests, 53 National Wildlife Refuges and 18 areas of "special interest" such as the Grand Canyon.


In addition, Roosevelt approved the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 which gave subsidies for irrigation in 13 (eventually 20) Western states. Another conservation-oriented bill was the Antiquities Act of 1906 that protected large areas of land by allowing the president to declare areas meriting protection to be national monuments. The Inland Waterways Commission was appointed by Roosevelt on March 14, 1907, to study the river systems of the United States, including the development of water power, flood control and land reclamation.[59]

National politics

In the early 20th century, politicians of the Democratic and Republican parties, Lincoln–Roosevelt League Republicans (in California) and Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party all pursued environmental, political and economic reforms. Chief among these aims was the pursuit of trust busting, the breaking up very large monopolies and support for labor unions, public health programs, decreased corruption in politics and environmental conservation.[60]

The progressive movement enlisted support from both major parties and from minor parties as well. One leader, the Democratic William Jennings Bryan, had won both the Democratic Party and the Populist Party nominations in 1896. At the time, the great majority of other major leaders had been opposed to populism. When Roosevelt left the Republican Party in 1912, he took with him many of the intellectual leaders of progressivism, but very few political leaders.[61] The Republican Party then became notably more committed to business-oriented and efficiency-oriented progressivism, typified by Herbert Hoover and William Howard Taft.[62]


Upton Sinclair's The Jungle exposed Americans to the horrors of the Chicago meatpacking plants.

The foundation of the progressive tendency was indirectly linked to the unique philosophy of pragmatism which was primarily developed by John Dewey and William James.[63][64] Equally significant to progressive-era reform were the crusading journalists known as muckrakers. These journalists publicized to middle class readers economic privilege, political corruption and social injustice. Their articles appeared in McClure's Magazine and other reform periodicals. Some muckrakers focused on corporate abuses. Ida Tarbell exposed the activities of the Standard Oil Company. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens dissected corruption in city government. In Following the Color Line (1908), Ray Stannard Baker criticized race relations. Other muckrakers assailed the Senate, railroad companies, insurance companies and fraud in patent medicine.[65]

Novelists criticized corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In The Jungle (1906), socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with descriptions of Chicago's meatpacking plants and his work led to support for remedial food safety legislation. Leading intellectuals also shaped the progressive mentality. In Dynamic Sociology (1883), Lester Frank Ward laid out the philosophical foundations of the progressive movement and attacked the laissez-faire policies advocated by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.[66] In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attacked the "conspicuous consumption" of the wealthy. Educator John Dewey emphasized a child-centered philosophy of pedagogy known as progressive education which affected schoolrooms for three generations.[67]

In the 21st century

Modern progressivism can be seen as encompassing many notable differences from the historical progressivism of the 19th–20th centuries. Some viewpoints of modern progressivism highlight these perceived differences like those of Princeton economics professor Thomas C. Leonard who viewed historical progressivism in The American Conservative as being "[a]t a glance, ... not much here for 21st-century progressives to claim kinship with. Today's progressives emphasize racial equality and minority rights, decry U.S. imperialism, shun biological ideas in social science, and have little use for piety or proselytizing," Ultimately, both historical progressivism and the modern movement share the notion that the free markets lead to economic inequalities that must be ameliorated in order to best protect the American working class.[68]

Mitigating income inequality

Politician Bernie Sanders (pictured at podium) is widely recognized for contributing to a progressive shift within the Democratic Party since the 2010s.

Income inequality in the United States has been on the rise since 1970.[69] Progressives argue that lower union rates, weak policy, globalization and other drivers have caused the gap in income.[70][71][72] The rise of income inequality has led progressives to draft legislation including, but not limited to, reforming Wall Street, reforming the tax code, reforming campaign finance, closing loopholes and keeping domestic work.[73]

Wall Street reform

Progressives began to demand stronger Wall Street regulation after they perceived deregulation and relaxed enforcement as leading to the financial crisis of 2008. The Occupy Wall Street movement, launched in downtown Manhattan, was one high-profile reaction to the financial shenanigans. Passing the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory act in 2010 provided increased oversight on financial institutions and the creation of new regulatory agencies, but many progressives argue its broad framework allows for financial institutions to continue to take advantage of consumers and the government.[74] Among others, Bernie Sanders has argued for reimplementing Glass-Steagall, which regulated banking more strictly, and for breaking up financial institutions where market-share is concentrated in a select few 'too big to fail' corporations.[75][76]

Health care reform

In 2009, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) outlined five key healthcare principles they intended to pass into law. The CPC mandated a nationwide public option, affordable health insurance, insurance market regulations, an employer insurance provision mandate and comprehensive services for children.[77] In March 2010, Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, generally referred to as Obamacare, which was intended to increase the affordability and efficiency of the United States healthcare system. Although considered a partial success by some progressives, many argued that it did not go far enough in achieving healthcare reform as exemplified with the Democrats' failure in achieving a national public option.[78] In recent decades, single-payer healthcare has become an important goal in healthcare reform for progressives. In the 2016 Democratic Party primaries, progressive presidential candidate Bernie Sanders raised the issue of a single-payer healthcare system, citing his belief that millions of Americans are still paying too much for health insurance and arguing that millions more do not receive the care they need.[79] In November 2016, an effort was made to implement a single-payer healthcare system in the state of Colorado, known as ColoradoCare (Amendment 69). Senator Sanders held rallies in Colorado in support of Amendment 69 leading up to the vote.[80] Despite high-profile support, Amendment 69 failed to pass, with just 21.23% of voting Colorado residents voting in favor and 78.77% against.[81]

Minimum wage

Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage peaked in 1968 at around $9.90 an hour in 2020 dollars.[82] Progressives believe that stagnating wages perpetuate income inequality and that raising the minimum wage is a necessary step to combat inequality.[72] If the minimum wage grew at the rate of productivity growth in the United States, it would be $21.72 an hour, nearly three times as much as the current $7.25 an hour.[83] Popular progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have endorsed a federally mandated wage increase to $15 an hour.[84] The movement has already seen success with its implementation in California with the passing of bill to raise the minimum wage $1 every year until reaching $15 an hour in 2021.[85] New York workers are lobbying for similar legislation as many continue to rally for a minimum wage increase as part of the Fight for $15 movement.[86]

Environmental justice

U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, an advocate of action on climate change and author of the Green New Deal

Modern progressives advocate strong environmental protections and measures to reduce or eliminate pollution. One reason for this is the strong link between economic injustice and adverse environmental conditions as groups that are economically marginalized tend to be disproportionately affected by the harms of pollution and environmental degradation.[87]

Social justice

In the 21st century progressives in the United States are advocating for the implementation of legislation that will promote a more equal society and help reduce the gaps between diverse populations in the American society, including the gaps between populations of different races, gender gaps and socio-economic gaps. Progressives support the promotion of criminal justice reform to rectify systemic injustices, and the eradication of discriminatory practices in areas such as employment and housing.


With the rise in popularity of progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, the term progressive began to carry greater cultural currency, particularly in the 2016 Democratic primaries. While answering a question from CNN moderator Anderson Cooper regarding her willingness to shift positions during an October 2015 debate, Hillary Clinton referred to herself as a "progressive who likes to get things done", drawing the ire of a number of Sanders supporters and other critics from her left.[88] Senator John Fetterman has moderated his foreign and domestic positions that have arisen in late 2023 such as the war in Gaza and the increased illegal immigration on the southern border creating doubts about his progressivism.[89][90] Questions about the precise meaning of the term have persisted within the Democratic Party and without since the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election, with some candidates using it to indicate their affiliation with the left flank of the party.

Progressive parties

Following the first progressive movement of the early 20th century, two later short-lived parties have also identified as progressive.

Progressive Party, 1912

The first political party named the Progressive Party was formed for the 1912 presidential election to elect Theodore Roosevelt.[91] It was formed after Roosevelt lost his bid to become the Republican candidate to William Howard Taft, and became defunct by 1920.

Progressive Party, 1924

In 1924, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. La Follette won the support of labor unions, German Americans, and socialists by his crusade. He carried only Wisconsin, and the party vanished elsewhere.[92] In Wisconsin, it remained a force until the 1940s.

Progressive Party, 1948

A third party was initiated in 1948 by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace as a vehicle for his campaign for president of the United States. He saw the two parties as reactionary and war-mongering, and attracted support from left-wing voters who opposed the Cold War policies that had become a national consensus. Most liberals, New Dealers, and especially the Congress of Industrial Organizations, denounced the party because in their view it was increasingly controlled by Communists. It faded away after winning 2% of the vote in 1948.[93]

Farmer–Labor Parties

See also


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Further reading


  • Buenker, John D., John C. Burnham, and Robert M. Crunden. Progressivism (1986) short overview
  • Buenker, John D. and Joseph Buenker, eds. Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Sharpe Reference, 2005. xxxii + 1256 pp. in three volumes. ISBN 0-7656-8051-3. 900 articles by 200 scholars
  • Buenker, John D., ed. Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era (1988) online
  • Cocks, Catherine, Peter C. Holloran and Alan Lessoff. Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era (2009)
  • Chambers, John Whiteclay II. The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890–1920 (2000), textbook excerpt and text search Archived 2022-12-29 at the Wayback Machine
  • Crunden, Robert M. Ministers of Reform: The Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 1889–1920 (1982) excerpt and text search Archived 2022-12-29 at the Wayback Machine
  • Dawley, Alan. Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution (2003) excerpt and text search Archived 2021-07-11 at the Wayback Machine
  • Diner, Steven J. A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era (1998) excerpt and text search Archived 2022-12-29 at the Wayback Machine
  • Flanagan, Maureen. America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s–1920s (2007).
  • Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Who Were the Progressives? (2002)
  • Gould, Lewis L. America in the Progressive Era, 1890–1914 (2000) excerpt and text search Archived 2022-12-29 at the Wayback Machine
  • Gould, Lewis L. ed., The Progressive Era (1974), essays by scholars
  • Hays, Samuel P. The Response to Industrialism, 1885–1914 (1957), old but influential short survey
  • Hofstadter, Richard The Age of Reform (1954), Pulitzer Prize, but now sadly outdated
  • Jensen, Richard. "Democracy, Republicanism and Efficiency: The Values of American Politics, 1885–1930," in Byron Shafer and Anthony Badger, eds, Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775–2000 (U of Kansas Press, 2001) pp. 149–80; online version Archived 2012-08-05 at
  • Johnston, Robert D. "Re-Democratizing the Progressive Era: The Politics of Progressive Era Political Historiography," Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (2002) 1#1 pp. 68–92
  • Kennedy, David M. ed., Progressivism: The Critical Issues (1971), readings
  • Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain victory: social democracy and progressivism in European and American thought, 1870–1920 1986 online at ACLS e-books
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. "Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1916," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 3. (Dec., 1952), pp. 483–504. JSTOR Archived 2017-11-13 at the Wayback Machine
  • Lears, T. J. Jackson. Rebirth of a Nation: The Remaking of Modern America, 1877-1920 (2009) excerpt and text search Archived 2021-07-11 at the Wayback Machine
  • Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era: 1913–1917 (1954), standard scholarly survey; online
  • Mann, Arthur. ed., The Progressive Era (1975), readings from scholars
  • Lasch, Christopher. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (1991) excerpt and text search Archived 2022-07-12 at the Wayback Machine
  • McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (2003) excerpt and text search Archived 2021-07-11 at the Wayback Machine
  • Mowry, George. The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America, 1900–1912. (1954) general survey of era; online
  • Noggle, Burl. "The Twenties: A New Historiographical Frontier," The Journal of American History, Vol. 53, No. 2. (Sep., 1966), pp. 299–314. in JSTOR
  • Perry, Elisabeth Israels and Karen Manners Smith, eds. The Gilded Age & Progressive Era: A Student Companion (2006)
  • Piott, Steven. American Reformers 1870–1920 (2006). 240 pp. biographies of 12 leaders online review Archived 2022-12-29 at the Wayback Machine
  • Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (2000). stresses links with Europe online edition Archived 2015-05-02 at the Wayback Machine
  • Schutz, Aaron. Social Class, Social Action, and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy. (2010) introduction Archived 2010-06-09 at the Wayback Machine
  • Stromquist, Shelton. Reinventing "the People": The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem and the Origins of Modern Liberalism (2006) excerpt and text search Archived 2022-12-29 at the Wayback Machine
  • Thelen, David P. "Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism," Journal of American History 56 (1969), 323–341 JSTOR Archived 2016-12-21 at the Wayback Machine
  • Wiebe, Robert. The Search For Order, 1877–1920 (1967) highly influential interpretation
  • Young, Jeremy C. The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (2017) excerpt and text search Archived 2021-07-11 at the Wayback Machine

National politics

  • Blum, John Morton The Republican Roosevelt. (1954). Series of essays that examine how TR did politics
  • Brands, H.W. T.R.: The Last Romantic (2019) excerpt
  • Clements, Kendrick A. The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (1992) online
  • Coletta, Paolo. The Presidency of William Howard Taft (1973) online
  • Cooper, John Milton The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. (1983), influential dual biography online
  • Edwards, Barry C. "Putting Hoover on the Map: Was the 31st President a Progressive?." Congress & the Presidency 41#1 (2014) pp 49–83 online Archived 2018-05-07 at the Wayback Machine
  • Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1991) online

External links

This page was last edited on 13 June 2024, at 17:41
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