A Short History of the Progressive Movement

My reason for this post is simple: Nick Land an apprentice of the self-styled Sith Lord, Mencius Moldbug professes a new political creed: NeoReactionism. Moldbug describes this new political faith in negative terms: “A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian.  It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist.  It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism.” (here) In a nine part open letter to his straw man mythology of progressivism (start here) one is not so much berated with non-factual evidence, as with a skewed sense of what it truly means to be a progressive. So I thought it only appropriate to provide an actual short history of the Progressive Movement. The neoreactionary is no so much fearful of progressivism as he is of social justice, reformism, and regulation. These were and are the core values of the progressive ethical stance now as they were then. At the heart of this was the protection of the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the abandoned and sick of the world (i.e., pretty much the same things that a man named Jesus Christ believed a couple thousand years back). And, even an atheist could affirm such wisdom, then as now, with or without the God. It was the right thing to do. To link ourselves to the poor, the weak, the oppressed and seek for them and ourselves the right to social justice and the space to live and share in the good life is at the heart of the Progressive Movement.

Luke 4:16-19:  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In final years of the nineteenth century a reform movement emerged that became what we now call “Progressivism”, which flourished from about 1900 to 1920, and faded away by the early 1920s, although many of its ideas and pragmatic ideology would flourish and inform our political and socio-cultural thought to this day. In U.S. national politics, its greatest achievements occurred between 1910 and 1917. In state and local politics and in private reform efforts—churches, settlement houses, campaigns to fight diseases, for example—Progressive changes began appearing in the 1890s and continued into the 1920s. In these social-justice efforts, legions of activist women, despite lacking the suffrage, were enormously effective. Most prominent in national politics were the “big four”: William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, and Woodrow Wilson. Mayors Tom Johnson and Sam “Golden Rule” Jones in Ohio led change in their cities, as did governors Hiram Johnson of California and James Vardaman of Mississippi. Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and the rest of the crusaders (known as “muckrakers”) spearheaded what would later be called investigative journalism. Progressive educators ranged from university presidents to philosophers to sociologists. In philanthropy, Chicago’s Julius Rosenwald supported Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, while the Rockefeller Foundation poured millions into education and health in the South. The Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch, the Episcopalian W. D. P. Bliss, and the Catholic John A. Ryan led their churches toward social justice, and by 1910 every major Protestant denomination espoused what was called the Social Gospel. A major progressive-era innovation, the settlement house, combated poverty, ignorance, disease, and injustice in many cities, led outstandingly by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago, Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley in New York, and Mary Workman in Los Angeles.1

Most Progressives felt that the late nineteenth century had produced unwelcome, un-American imbalances in their society. They felt that a new plutocracy of millionaires, monopolistic and out-of-control corporations had emerged in their midst, sparking conflict and often violent confrontations between workers and capitalists, and complicit or even tacit complicity on the part of government in favor of the rich and powerful. It was in the Cities where the concentrated effects of these social ills seemed to produce the most damage: poverty, prostitution, disease, drunkenness, despair—not that the countryside, especially in the South, was free of such things. But cities, especially large ones became the center of the Progressive fight against such power and privilege.

It was during these early years of the new century that people began asking hard questions as Nugent relates: What could or should be done about all this? How could governments be made more responsive to “the people?” How could economic life be made fair again? How could American society remain faithful to its long-held core values, yet cope with new forces?

It was during this time of investigative reporting that people began reflecting on American values, and on the direction of its core system of ethical and political visions. Many believed that government should be used to regulate economic problems, ameliorate social ills, and reconcile change with tradition. Such willingness to use governments broke with the anti-regulatory attitude of the “Gilded Age” that preceded the Progressive era. With the rise of corporations and monopolies and the enforced antagonisms that such systems brewed many began to see the benefit of a regulatory entity to correct and judicially punish such practices. As Nugent states it: “Because Progressivism manifested itself in everything from railroad regulation to woman suffrage to immigration control to realist art and literature to the first real mass media and paved roads, the movement’s core theme has been hard to pin down. “Reform” itself was that theme, vague as the term was and is. But much of the Progressive spirit lay in that very openness to change, that conviction that “something needs to be done.” (Kindle Locations 254-257).

One of the favored sons of the Progressive Era was William Jennings Bryan. As Michael Kazin remarks: “Bryan was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans from the working and middle classes. . . . He did more than any other man—between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson—to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants (Kindle Locations 635-639).” That he was also a Populist idealist who seemed to have what has now been termed an anti-intellectual streak in his character is a truism. He was an avid anti-Darwinist and was  asked by William Bell Riley to represent the World Christian Fundamentals Association as counsel at the trial. During the trial, Bryan took the stand and was questioned by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow about his views on the Bible. (wiki)

It was Harry Truman who against certain critics of Bryan said that “If it wasn’t for old Bill Bryan, there wouldn’t be any liberalism at all in the country now. Bryan kept liberalism alive, he kept it going.” In 1900, Truman, aged 16, was a page at the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City. He heard Bryan speak to the delegates and was deeply impressed. In his biography of Truman, historian David McCullough wrote that in 1900 Truman and his father “declared themselves thorough ‘Bryan men’… Bryan remained an idol for Harry, as the voice of the common man”. Tom L. Johnson, the famed progressive mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, referred to Bryan’s campaign in 1896 as “the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes”. In a 1934 speech dedicating a memorial to Bryan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “I think that we would choose the word ‘sincerity’ as fitting him [Bryan] most of all…it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today. We…can well agree that he fought the good fight; that he finished the course; and that he kept the faith.” (here)

One could spend a few posts on all the other Progressives that strewn the stage of that era, but ultimately they all agreed on a core set of values and an ethical stance, which at its center lay a specifically American development of Liberalism and populism that sought social justice above all else, and specifically with reference to the obstacles posed to social justice by large corporations.  Though Progressives strongly supported civil liberties, the “progress” in Progressivism is thought to lie, most fundamentally, with ensuring, as the American pledge to the flag puts it, “justice for all”. It was this core value of ‘social justice for all’ that gave the progressives their central insight and still informs much of the Democratic Parties inner circle of values. I don’t think anyone would defend every aspect of the Progressive Movement, which was full of compromise, dysfunction, bigotry, racism, and every other issue and problem, it’s not about each and every individual of that era that made it a movement, and I want try to defend those that deserve derision, but it was about the core values that came out of it and helped shape our ethical realism to this day. If the Progressive Movement was a mixture of populism and anti-establishment (against the Brahmanism of the Eastern Establishment), it was as well formulated by the people themselves and for them not the plutocracy that ruled during the Gilded Age Era of Robber Barons. We still need some of those core values: social justice, regulation, and reform. If this is what it means to be the opposite of a neo-reactionary, then by god I’m a Progressive and proud of it. I’ll fight for the poor and oppressed of the world till the day I die. And my enemy will always be those plutocrats that build their palatial worlds to the detriment of everyone else.

I’ll take up the theme of social justice, regulation, and reform in a future post.

1. Nugent, Walter. Progressivism:A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).

4 thoughts on “A Short History of the Progressive Movement

  1. Quite the dramatic split among that “big four” over the issue of US entry into the Great War.

    James Vardaman was quite an interesting character- a true white supremacist pro-poor white progressive who spoke very strongly in favor of lynchings on the campaign trail but suppressed them when he became governor. He was also one of the “six willful men” in the US Senate who voted against US entry into the war. Also a strong philo-Semite who denounced Henry Ford.


    • Yea, I agree, the era of progressivism was replete with a lot of populist mentality: they needed the Southern and Western vote and had to placate them to get it. Strange bedfellows in the midst of that struggle. But I’m sure one can find both sides of the gamut throughout U.S. history… nothing new in that. Our history is not pretty, but it’s there and aspects of good went along with the bad. Just as now… I’m not defending the bad aspects of individuals, obviously some of these people were downright bigots and politically corrupt and on the take, etc. I think that’s why I included them in the sense that this whole struggle was not some romantic crap show, but built out of a lot of compromise and with their hands dirty in so many areas to get the job done. If one is ever to get something done one has to work with even one’s opponents to accomplish the task, unless you affirm some ultimate purge of the others: and, then one enters the ranks of all totalitarian states, dictating every aspect of things from some command center. Democracy on the other hand is give and take, getting one’s hands dirty, reaching across the isle and grabbing one’s enemies hands and leading them toward an agreement of collaboration that benefits both sides of the issue. Reform is not pretty, social justice is a long slow road, not some speeded up revolution, but the painful realization that we’re all in this boat together, and even if we despise our enemy we must learn to live with him closer than we’d like. Dark thought that be: it’s what makes democracy great… at least in my opinion, as compared to the alternatives.


  2. I look forward to learning your views when you accelerate Progressivism into its present/future potentials. I note on rereading the Accelerationist Manifesto that Williams and Srnicek dismiss Progressivism, along with more radical Left programs, as passe:

    “Thirty years of neoliberalism have rendered most left-leaning political parties bereft of radical thought, hollowed out, and without a popular mandate. At best they have responded to our present crises with calls for a return to a Keynesian economics, in spite of the evidence that the very conditions which enabled post-war social democracy to occur no longer exist.”

    Briefly, I think they’re wrong, but we can get back to that later. Have you seen Duncan Law’s defense of a revitalized leftist incrementalism expanding within existing democratic structures? I think it’s good. http://duncanlaw.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/marxism-and-social-democracy/


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