As progressives contemplate recent setbacks to their ambitious agenda for reforming American government and the economy, it is instructive to consider the even more difficult political context that faced the original progressive movement in the early 20th century. Progressives back then dealt with active opposition from entrenched economic interests and various radical movements arguing for major transformations to society. They developed uniquely American solutions to the crisis of industrial democracy by blending the ideas of philosophical pragmatism, populism, and more communal forms of thinking. It was never easy or without failures, but progressives successfully produced a much stronger and more secure economic and political standing for American workers and families, and shaped politics from the New Deal through to the Obama administration today.
The Progressive Studies Program delved into this issue last night in a Progressive Book Club event in CAP and PBC’s joint authors series, “Moving Forward: Foundations of a New Progressive Era.” The event brought together two leading intellectuals—Jackson Lears and Sidney Milkis—to discuss the intersections of political, intellectual, and cultural change in the original Progressive era.
Professor Milkis, author of Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy, emphasized that progressives during Roosevelt’s time developed a new, interpretive reading of the American Constitution that placed a greater emphasis on the collective good. Progressives believed that the conservative theory of government built exclusively on negative liberty—freedom from interference by others—was not enough to promote genuine individual opportunity in the Gilded Age era of rising inequality, uncontrolled corporate behavior, and scant protections for workers. In addition to negative rights, progressives argued for the idea of positive liberty and the public good as embodied in the promises of “we the people” working toward a “more perfect Union” that promotes the “general welfare.”
Progressives introduced the idea of a “living Constitution,” and this inspired secular and religious thinkers alike, including philosophers such as John Dewey, ministers such as Walter Rauschenbusch, and political leaders such as William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. These leaders challenged the constitutional formalism and laissez-faire doctrines of the era that were blocking social reforms and allowing privileged economic interests to maintain the status quo.
Professor Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, offered a more cautionary note about the excesses of imperialism and notions of moral regeneration, the unresolved issue of race in America, and the difficulties progressives faced in reinterpreting the political ideology of their populist roots. Shaking off past dogma liberated the movement to advocate for new, experimental policies and a stronger managerial state, he said, but the challenge of reconciling individual rights to a strengthened national government and the overreach of empire during World War I eventually signaled the demise of progressivism.
Professors Lears and Milkis both noted that the progressive tradition lived on despite these failings, and these ideas inspired much of Roosevelt’s New Deal two decades later as well as other liberal victories mid-century. Progressivism’s commitment to uplifting those left behind through a politics of public renewal and rebirth remains a powerful resource for troubled times in American politics.