Progressives are people who strive to make government and society better—more democratic, more inclusive, and fairer. Toward this end, progressives engage in a broad range of activities aimed at reforming economic, social, and political institutions and processes. The term progressive encompasses a diverse and difficult–to-characterize variety of groups and ideologies. In general, progressives are activists who thrived during two periods in American history: The first progressive period ran from the 1890s to the 1920s; the second ongoing progressive period began in the 1960s.
America’s first period of progressivism, known as the Progressive Era, came at the height of industrialization and urbanization in the United States. Although the goals and the types of reforms that progressives sought during this period differed, perhaps nothing characterizes the Progressive Era better than the impulse to reform. At the time, the United States was characterized by the increasing dominance of large corporations and political party machines, which progressives perceived as a threat to the American ideals of democracy and individual freedom. Corporate dominance inhibited the capacities of the vast majority of Americans to achieve social mobility, and urban-based political party machines were seen as corrupting the democratic process.
In response, progressives challenged laissez-faire ideology by arguing that good government could help solve problems. Progressives promoted, often successfully, a long list of reform legislation at all levels of government, including regulation of railroads, public utilities, and banks; laws protecting women and child laborers; and the passage of workers’ compensation and minimum-wage legislation. Progressives also worked for a progressive income tax; relief for the poor; a host of electoral reforms, including the direct election of senators, direct primaries, referendums, and recalls; voting rights for women; nonpartisan election systems; civil service; and commissionmanager and council-manager forms of local government. Such reforms aimed at strengthening popular sovereignty and produced significant and lasting results, even if some reforms did not lead to intended outcomes.
Progressivism had its roots in the populist movement of the late nineteenth century, as well as the struggles for equality for women and better living conditions for workers. Similar to the response of radical agrarian and working-class groups during the Gilded Age, progressives targeted many of the same problems wrought by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration: the spread of poverty, rapid financial and industrial concentration, and the oligarchic character of the political parties.
As the power of corporations expanded and social strife spread, middle-class social workers established settlement houses and other programs to ameliorate human degradation in city slums. Muckrakers, or investigative journalists, illuminated the corruption of corporate influence in politics and society. Religious groups promoted a social gospel that raised concerns about poverty, corruption, and the concentration of economic power and called on the moral conscience of the nation. Labor unions and workers organized to improve wages and working conditions, and to make business more responsible through regulation. Women organized against child labor, in support of a minimum wage and a maximum number of working hours, and in favor of temperance. Even businessmen joined progressives in attacking political machines and promoting reform regimes. Thus, progressivism included professionals who undermined the foundations of laissez-faire ideology and promoted an ideal of public interest.
Yet progressivism was an uneasy coalition and not a cohesive movement. Progressivism during this period actually encompassed numerous movements for reform on the local, state, and national levels. These movements were diverse and sometimes even mutually antagonistic. Some progressives, such as socialists, sought fundamental change and structural reform to achieve social justice. Other progressives, such as middle-class professionals, strove for social order and more modest reform. Similarly, Protestant patrician reformers differed in their goals, approach, and sensibilities from Catholic, immigrant, and urban liberal progressives. There were also overtly reactionary groups involved in Progressive Era reform efforts, including eugenicists and antiblack and anti-immigrant groups. Thus, the Progressive Era was an ideologically fluid period where particular groups focused on different issues, and shifting coalitions competed to reshape American society. Despite their varying agendas, shared ideals of antimonopolism, efficiency, and social justice propelled and sustained the diverse progressive reform coalitions.
For example, new types of professionals—members of an emerging middle class, and members of religious organizations and business groups—pressed for reforms that focused in particular on urban America. These progressives strove to undermine big-city political machines, which had in many cities retained the loyalty of immigrant working-class voters. Middle-class reformers regarded political machines as inefficient and corrupt, and they attacked the use of government resources as patron-age—whether in the form of jobs for loyal party workers and supporters, or the distribution of municipal franchises, licenses, and contracts to favored businesses, sometimes in exchange for graft. Protestants attacked the tolerance of urban politicians for gambling, prostitution, and liquor, vices that offended middle-class sensibilities. The faith of progressives in scientific organizational principals led them to propose independent governmental institutions staffed by nonpartisan experts.
Labor and radical socialist groups attacked political machines for other reasons, such as the practices of allowing business groups to dominate economic policymaking and using police forces to break strikes. These socialist progressives fought to rein in corporate power and broaden government authority to improve education, expand social and municipal services, and advance social justice.
More often, however, progressive reform outcomes represented the interests of middle- and upper-class Americans. Middle-class reformers undermined working-class political power by backing the creation of independent commissions and boards that eliminated important powers from city councils and aldermen (city council members). These reformers also advocated the election of officials from neighborhood-based wards and the establishing of at-large schemes of political representation. Middle- and upper-class progressives also revised city charters and promoted new forms of government that shifted power to higher levels that they could more easily influence. Such reforms included implementing a commission form of government and a city-manager system. Some reform efforts during this period also reflected middle-class bigotry. Anti-immigrant groups, for example, were responsible for drastically reducing the flow of newcomers that could enter the United States and restricting the proportion of non–Western European immigrants allowed to enter. Advocates of eugenics employed pseudo-scientific methods in their reform efforts.
Despite the antibusiness stance of most progressives, they rarely questioned the basic structure of capitalist principals as vigorously as working and radical groups did. On the contrary, when the expansion of the public interest implied extending democracy to social as well as economic life, many progressives were ambivalent. Worker-and socialistled movements, however, pushed the progressive critique further.
Politically, progressives allied themselves with particular factions of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Some progressive activists also mounted independent and third-party challenges. At the national level, progressives rallied behind Teddy Roosevelt (1858–1919) in 1912 as he ran for a second full term as president, this time as an independent under the Progressive Party (“Bull Moose”) banner. During his campaign, Roosevelt championed greater regulation of capitalism. In 1924 Robert M. La Follette Sr. (1855–1925), a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, ran for president as the Progressive Party candidate. La Follette, whose politics were more left wing, called for public ownership of the railroads during his campaign. Overall, progressives were more successful at the state and local levels, where they succeeded in electing members of the U.S. Congress, including Moses P. Kinkaid of Nebraska and Hiram W. Johnson of California, as well as scores of state legislators, and city officials.
The Progressive Era left an enduring legacy. Progressives promoted an ethos for harnessing government power to promote the public interest, which laid the foundation for the active participation of government in solving social problems that would emerge during the 1930s and 1940s in the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945). Many of the changes to law and government structures born during the Progressive Era remain in force at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Like their historical counterparts, the progressives who emerged during and after the 1960s criticize the concentration of economic and political power and engage in a broad range of activities aimed at making the economy more democratic and government more representative, responsive, and accountable. To achieve these goals, progressives fight against inequality and for social justice, and seek to foster ways ordinary citizens can more directly participate in decision making and self rule at all levels.
Contemporary progressives are associated with the social movements of 1960s, including the civil rights, Black Power, antiwar, youth, and countercultural movements, as well as later movements centered on women’s rights, labor, the environment, immigrant and human rights, gay and lesbian rights, antiglobalization and global justice, and peace. Contemporary progressives often try to form connections among the various struggles, an orientation embodied in a popular slogan: “think globally, act locally.”
Many progressives embrace left-wing or radical ideologies, including Marxism and anarchism. Many contemporary American radicals prefer the term progressive because it is safer and more palatable than socialist and communist. Contemporary progressives contend that a better future is possible, and they strive to create a radically egalitarian, community-controlled world that meets human needs through environmentally sustainable development. They target multinational corporations and international institutions, such as Wal-Mart and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and they engage in a variety of tactics to achieve their goals, from lobbying and nonviolent civil disobedience to militant protest and outright rebellion. Their efforts often incorporate new communications technology, and they have developed innovative strategies and political savvy.
In many ways, these contemporary progressive organizations model a progressivist vision in that they are comprised of many participants with few leaders. In addition, progressive coalitions embody groups that have not always seen eye to eye, including labor union members, immigrants, civil rights leaders, anti-sweatshop activists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, socialists and anarchists, and middle-class professionals. Progressives have spearheaded campaigns to achieve living-wage laws, advance public health, provide affordable housing, and protect the public sector and space. Contemporary progressives cross borders and continents, and are made up of participants from both the developing and developed worlds. They criticize the prevailing philosophy that governments should make way for the free market’s invisible hand, arguing that free trade is not always fair trade. In short, progressives attempt to think—and more importantly, act—beyond present-day predicaments, and they strive for a stronger democracy with greater citizen involvement in problem solving. Only then, they believe, will real equality and social justice be achieved.
Politically, American progressives have formed or allied themselves with various third political parties, including the Green Party, the Reform Party, and the Labor Party. These groups have supported such independent-minded candidates as Ralph Nader, Bernard Sanders, Paul Wellstone, Barbara Boxer, and Dennis Kucinich.
SEE ALSO Gilded Age; Populism; Progressive Movement
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