A government seeking to increase the welfare of the majority cannot be described as overreaching, and officials during the Progressive Era likely had good intentions. However, what may have seemed like a good idea a century ago may also have outlived any usefulness today. Unfortunately, today’s taxpayers are stuck with bills from programs dating back generations that have, in the intervening years, taken on lives of their own.
While lauded by those on the Left, the Progressive movement is not without its critics. The movement was an exclusive phenomenon restricted to the white, Protestant, educated middle class. Most Progressives argued on behalf of female suffrage as a necessary reform to combat the influence of “corrupted” or “ignorant” black voters. It was in many ways a failed movement, as major Progressive achievements were frustrated by the courts, which struck down federal laws regulating child labor, for example. Lacking the resources to fully implement social and political reform, Progressives failed to fully redistribute political power from the hands of lobbyists, political machines, and organized interests (Lumen, 2021).
The expansion of social welfare policies created what historians refer to as the “administrative state.” (Skowronek, 1982). That is, the Progressive Era ushered in the expansion of federal bureaucracy to regulate an increasingly complex industrial economy. Progressives wrestled with how to deal with powerful new corporate enterprises and how democracy could be maintained in the wake of economic concentration, urbanization, and immigration. New government organizations were borne that shifted regulatory authority from the courts and states to the federal government (Balogh, 2015). Experience tells us that once a program is funded or granted authority to become self-funded through fees or fines, it is difficult to disestablish.
Progressivism covered a wide range of policy proposals and actions backed by a correspondingly diverse set of individuals and groups with a variety of motives (Higgs, 2012, 113). The Progressive movement in fact never really existed as a recognizable organization with common goals or a political machinery geared toward achieving them. Progressivism might be better thought of as the popular effort to ensure the survival of democracy through the enlargement of governmental power to control and offset the power of private economic groups over national institutions. Most of the various progressive campaigns were the work of special interest groups staffed and led by businessmen seeking greater political status and economic security. These men despised mismanagement and high taxes and, together with their friends in the legal profession, furnished the leadership of “good government campaigns.” Important components of the national Progressive movement survived and succeeded, even broadening their horizons. Farm groups and a coalition concerned with public regulation of electric power, for example, laid the groundwork for significant new programs in the 1930’s and beyond (Link, 1959).
The Progressive movement was not progressive and cannot be best described as a movement. Despite all the rhetoric surrounding “the people” versus “the interests,” the Progressive movement was a top-down plot to weaken democracy, reduce immigration, stamp out pluralism, institutionalize racism, repress popular amusements, tame radicalism, spread bureaucracy, and protect capitalism (Gendzel, 2006). Modern-day proponents should perhaps re-examine history before seeking to emulate their idols and further carry the Progressive mantle onward.
Balogh, Brian. The Associational State: American Governance in The Twentieth Century. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press (2015).
Gendzel, Glen. Review of Did the Progressive Movement Have a “Class Problem”?, by Shelton Stromquist. Reviews in American History 34, no. 4 (2006): 499–508. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30031513.
Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of the American Government. The Independent Institute (2012).
Link, Arthur S. What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920’s?” The American Historical Review 64, no. 4 (1959): 833–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/1905118.
Skowronek, Stephen. Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920, (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press (1982).
The Limits of Progressivism. The Progressive Era: 1890–1917. Lumen Candela (2021). https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ushistory/chapter/the-limits-of-progressivism/.
Willrich, Michael. “A Case of the Courts: Law and Political Development in the Progressive Era,” in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History, ed. Julian Zelizer, Meg Jacobs, and William Novak, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 198–199.
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