Progressive Era Politics
Summary & Analysis
By 1900, America's industrial production had surpassed that of Britain, Germany, and France combined. A spate of corporate mergers from 1897 onward left the economy in the hands of a dwindling number of business conglomerates, which seemed to be growing ever wealthier and larger. In the first decade of the twentieth century, national economic output increased by 85%.19 A quarter-century after the end of Reconstruction, it seemed that North and South had finally reunited in the interests of patriotism, white supremacy, and business opportunity. Meanwhile, blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese were increasingly excluded from the growing opportunities for wealth and freedom. Recent European immigrants went to work on the nation's railroads and in its great factories and mills. They were told to do their jobs without complaint or they would be easily replaced.
The rapid growth and consolidation of industry produced a number of fissures in American life. Workers rose up to strike against the overwhelming power of their employers, demanding better wages and working conditions and disrupting national production and transportation industries. Farmers clamored for the government to redress their grievances, banding together in a Populist movement to demand reforms in America's economy and society. They made history and enacted a few reforms. Yet the Populists were ultimately defeated because of disunity caused by racism within their ranks, a disparate and unorganized membership, and because the Democratic Party appropriated their platform in the 1896 election. On their heels came the Progressives, who tended to be more urban-based, from the rising ranks of new white-collar professionals who earned middle-class livings. The Progressives trusted in their own superior education and in the reliability of their fellow "experts" to find solutions to the ills that plagued their troubled and chaotic world.
Progressives waged battles over issues like government regulation of the economy and democratic reform of the electoral process. Some of them worked for female suffrage, others for temperance, and still others for immigration restriction, government inspection of foods and drugs, the abolition of pornography and prostitution, or the improvement of wages and working conditions (especially for women and children). Some Progressives supported all of these reforms, while others cast their lot with one or two causes. Their very contention that government involvement was necessary to ensure American liberties and values was itself a fairly new and important concept. Until the Populist and Progressive movements, the federal government had often intervened in the economy—but usually on behalf of business, not to regulate it. Progressives prioritized the good of society as a whole above dogmatic assertions of individual freedom, frequently sparring with traditionalist jurists and political conservatives who subscribed to an older laissez-faire ideology rooted in the idea that individual rights could best be protected by sharply restricting the powers of government.
By 1912, Progressives demonstrated their power and influence through the widespread adoption of their principles by both political parties and in the creation of a third party—the Progressive Party—that claimed to embody the movement itself. Progressive social-democratic reforms instituted important changes in American political life and ameliorated some of the worst abuses in the industrial workplace.
Yet Progressives also endured setbacks that originated both within and without the movement. Progressive legislative reforms often failed to bring about their desired effects, or were simply invalidated by the judiciary. Progressives never really decided whether to view the business community, in the age of monopoly, as a socio-economic villain to defeat or victim to defend; the result was an oft-confused and contradictory set of policies. And the movement was plagued with internal contradictions that undermined its very effectiveness; racism, a patronizing approach toward immigrant ethnicities, and a willingness to subvert cherished democratic norms for the sake of stomping out "radicalism" all became troubling aspects of Progressivism's legacy.
Thus, Progressivism was a paradoxical mixture of success and failure, humanism and discrimination. Progressives inaugurated a modern liberal philosophy that demanded an activist, robust federal government in place of the old laissez-faire political system. Changing times demanded a changing role for the state, they argued, and such claims would reverberate again and again through the twentieth century, from the New Deal of the 1930s to the Great Society of the 1960s. Conservatives, in turn, developed their own modern philosophy in opposition to the big-government movements inaugurated by the Progressives, advocating less government intervention and lower taxes and spending. By inaugurating the modern framework of debate over political economy, Progressives ensured their lasting influence, even if their own epoch did not survive the First World War.