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Progressive Traditions: The Progressive Tradition in American Politics

Part Two of the Progressive Tradition Series

SOURCE: Library of Congress

A parade for suffrage is seen in New York City, October 23, 1915, in which 20,000 women marched. Improvements in American life, such as women's suffrage, would not have happened without the pioneering ideas of early progressives.

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About the Progressive Tradition Series

Accompanying the transformation of America’s public philosophy away from the predominant laissez-faire vision of the late 19th century and toward stronger forms of democratic governance in the 20th century, numerous changes occurred in the issue agendas, constituencies, and policy platforms of the major political parties in the United States as they came to grips with rising progressive sentiment.

Progressive reforms:
A century of accomplishments

  • The eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek
  • Worker’s compensation for on-the-job accidents
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Prohibitions against child labor and workplace exploitations
  • The legal right of people to organize within labor unions and engage in collective bargaining for fair wages and benefits
  • The constitutional right to vote, full legal equality, and the elimination of formal discrimination for women and minorities
  • The graduated income and inheritance tax
  • Protections against contaminated food and medicines
  • Hundreds of millions of acres of protected wilderness areas, waterways, and national parks
  • Antimonopoly and anticompetitive regulations of corporations
  • Direct elections of U.S. senators, direct primary elections of political candidates, and the initiative and referendum process in the states
  • Civil service tests to replace political patronage
  • National supervision of banks and the creation of a flexible national currency
  • Regulation of the securities industry
  • Federal insurance of bank deposits
  • Bans on speculative banking practices
  • Refinancing and foreclosure protections for home and farm owners
  • National infrastructure including electrification, railways, airports, bridges and roads, and the Internet
  • Social Security and Medicare to aid the elderly and Medicaid and CHIP to help low-income families and children
  • Minimum wage laws and income support for the working poor
  • Public education, college loans and grants for students, and the GI Bill

Progressivism has always found expressions both within and outside the major political parties, beginning with the early protest movements of the populists and other third party insurgencies to the transformative candidacies of William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. As Herbert Croly, co-founder of The New Republic, notes, the most distinctive progressive faction—as opposed to the more populist and agrarian one represented by Bryan—was located within the Republican Party and most fiercely advocated by prominent voices such as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. Roosevelt and La Follette both formed outside Progressive Parties to promote the ideas of national reform after failing to transform the Republican Party into a genuinely progressive vehicle.

Meanwhile, the slow conversion of Woodrow Wilson from his southern conservative background into a national progressive president solidified progressivism within the Democratic Party—a legacy that was greatly extended under the long tenure of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s aggressive national actions to repair and transform our society and government in the wake of the Great Depression set the course for the midcentury liberalism of Harry Truman, the New Frontier of John Kennedy, and the great civil rights advances under Lyndon Johnson.

Improvements in American life would not have happened without the pioneering ideas of these early progressives. The shift from conservatism toward progressivism helped to structure our society in far more humane and effective ways and gave real meaning to our founding principles of liberty, equality, and opportunity. Progressives built on this new foundation and expanding levels of support from the American public, successfully amassing a worthy list of policy accomplishments over the last century. These included such landmarks of equality and social justice as the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek; the constitutional right to vote, full legal equality, and the elimination of formal discrimination for women and minorities; and Social Security and Medicare to aid the elderly and Medicaid to help low-income families and children. (See sidebar for an extensive list of key reforms.)

This paper will trace the political lineage of progressivism from the late 1890s to the late 1960s. In doing so, we show how the demand for progressive policies went from outsider protest to dominance of the American political mainstream. Future papers in our Progressive Traditions series will explore more contemporary political expressions of progressivism.

About the Progressive Tradition Series

With the rise of the contemporary progressive movement and the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, there is extensive public interest in better understanding the origins, values, and intellectual strands of progressivism. Who were the original progressive thinkers and activists? Where did their ideas come from and what motivated their beliefs and actions? What were their main goals for society and government? How did their ideas influence or diverge from alternative social doctrines? How do their ideas and beliefs relate to contemporary progressivism?

The new Progressive Tradition Series from the Center for American Progress traces the development of progressivism as a social and political tradition stretching from the late 19th century reform efforts to the current day. The series is designed primarily for educational and leadership development purposes to help students and activists better understand the foundations of progressive thought and its relationship to politics and social movements. Although the Progressive Studies Program has its own views about the relative merit of the various values, ideas, and actors discussed within the progressive tradition, the essays included in the series are descriptive and analytical rather than opinion based. We envision the essays serving as primers for exploring progressivism and liberalism in more depth through core texts—and in contrast to the conservative intellectual tradition and canon. We hope that these papers will promote ongoing discourse about the proper role of the state and individual in society, the relationship between empirical evidence and policymaking, and how progressives today might approach specific issues involving the economy, health care, energy-climate change, education, financial regulation, social and cultural affairs, and international relations and national security.

Part one examines the philosophical and theoretical development of progressivism as a response to the rise of industrial capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Read part one »

Part two examines the politics of national progressivism from the agrarian populists to the Great Society. Read part two »

Part three examines the influence of social movements for equality and economic justice on the development of progressivism. Read part three »

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Download to mobile devices and e-readers from Scribd

About the Progressive Tradition Series

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Liz Bartolomeo (poverty, health care)
202.481.8151 or

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education)
202.478.6331 or

Print: Tanya Arditi (immigration, Progress 2050, race issues, demographics, criminal justice, Legal Progress)
202.741.6258 or

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues,, faith)
202.478.5328 or

Print: Beatriz Lopez (Center for American Progress Action Fund)
202.741.6255 or

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Rafael Medina
202.478.5313 or

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or

Radio: Sally Tucker
202.481.8103 or


This is part of a special series: Progressive Traditions

For more from this series, click here