Much ink has been spilled over whether the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a pivot point in the development of American political life. It is a debate on multiple levels. On one, it is over whether the federal government’s new undertakings were really major interventions in the economy and society that cleared the path for the New Deal. Historians and political scientists have argued over whether the new regulatory agencies, laws, and political institutions of the period transformed American government. On another level, scholars have examined the philosophical ideas of the period and disputed the degree to which they challenged prior political thought in America. On yet another level, there is a normative aspect, with scholars either praising or blaming the results of the Progressive Era.
Bradley C. S. Watson’s ambitious and rich new book, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea, is an intervention into the debate on the level of ideas. Watson, a political theorist at Saint Vincent College, examines the historical scholarship regarding the political thought of the Progressive Era. He claims that Progressive thought represented a “radical” challenge to the Constitution and the Founders’ views, and that historians have downplayed and obscured the challenge due to their sympathies with Progressive ideas. Watson seeks to set the record straight. In doing so, he advances a hard-hitting critique of the American historical profession.
The Progressive Turn in American Politics and Historiography
Watson begins by detailing the main themes of Progressive thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in order to show the extent to which they conflict with the Founders’ views. In his portrait, the Progressives’ critique of the United States was wide in scope, deep in principle, and coherent in outline. It looked with a jaundiced eye on property rights, individualism, laissez-faire economics, limited government, separation of powers, and a fixed constitution, as impediments to progress. The foundational principles of Progressive thought, Watson argues, derive from a heady mixture of social Darwinism, pragmatism, and the Social Gospel. In particular, the Progressives favored an evolutionary conception of history, as opposed to the natural rights doctrine of the Founders. They also endorsed a more centralized national government—run by a powerful executive branch staffed by experts trained in social sciences—which could adapt to industrialization and urbanization. Such a model opposed the kind of limited government that the Founders advocated: a government constrained by the separation of powers and decentralized by federalism.
Watson also makes an important contribution in his analysis of the religious thought of the period, especially that of Walter Rauschenbusch and Father John A. Ryan. He shows how they smuggled many of the key Progressive themes into their religious writing, transforming Christian discourse in the country. The result was a millennarian ethos.
Watson then turns to a reading of the American historians who interpreted Progressive thought in the middle and later twentieth century. He documents how they described Progressivism favorably and tended to “defang Progressive ideas and arguments.” In the historians’ telling, Progressivism was either a moderate and limited response to economic necessities, reconcilable with the Constitution; or insufficiently hostile to big business and corporate power; or not even a coherent intellectual movement at all.
To make this case, Watson interprets the historiography of Progressivism from the 1940s through the 1970s. He has apparently read every historian that ever wrote anything about the Progressive Era. He explores the work of Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Henry Steele Commanger, Eric Goldman, Arthur Link, Louis Hartz, Samuel P. Hays, Daniel Boorstin, George Mowry, Russell B. Nye, William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, as well as many less well-known scholars such as Daniel Aaron, David W. Noble, Arthur Mann, David Potter, Henry F. May, and Robert H. Wiebe. Throughout his meta-analysis of the historiography, Watson advances his own criticisms—few of which will endear him to the historical profession.
In Watson’s telling, the professionalization of the historians’ “guild” caused its members to inherit or adopt certain false assumptions that led them to minimize and obscure the radicalism of Progressivism and the degree to which it was in tension with the constitutional order. These included: “the utility of statism, the chimerical status of natural rights in the face of Darwinism and pragmatic criticisms, and the anachronistic nature of a constitution rooted in political thinking that could not be squared with modern developments.” Consequently, the historians were pro-Progressivism “from the get-go,” which led them to denigrate the “natural rights regime” and obscure the ways in which their core concepts were incompatible with it.
Returning to the Founders
According to Watson, a better interpretation of the Progressives’ political thought finally begins to take shape in the 1980s. Its main proponents are affiliates of the “Claremont School,” but also include Eldon Eisenach, Sidney Milkis, Alonzo Hamby, and Wilson Carey McWilliams, among others. The “revisionist” interpretation holds that Progressivism was a coherent intellectual movement; that it was “radical” and even “revolutionary” rather than moderate or even conservative; that its premises and conclusions were deeply at odds with the Founders’ political thought and the Constitution; and that Progressivism’s influence continues through modern Liberalism. The result is to set up something of a battle royale between the Founders and the Progressives, with the latter having won without much of a fight.
Although Watson does not explicitly argue the case, it is clear that he finds the Founders’ thought more compelling than the Progressives’ doctrines. The ideas of natural rights, constitutionalism, limited government, a fallen human nature, and so on, are superior to the ideas of historical progress, expansive government, faith in social science, and a malleable human self. The Progressives are the harbingers of a bloated, intrusive, and overly ambitious federal government that has lost the trust of the American people. Insofar as Progressivism marks a “fundamental rupture with the roots of American order,” the nation has been in decline since Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.
Watson thereby implies that a return to the Founders’ thought and the Constitution would be salutary. A more limited and decentralized government, grounded in natural rights, and imbued with skepticism about experts and social science, is his preferred model. It would be a regime with low taxes and spending, strong families and voluntary organizations, private rather than public services, and social spending targeting the least well-off. Underpinning it would be the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, understood to be true, universal, and invariant with time and place. Only such a foundational principle can keep government limited, combat the historicism and relativism of contemporary progressives and liberals, and resist their incessant demands that government right all wrongs.
Are Progressives Really to Blame for Changing America?
However, reading Watson (and granting that his interpretation of Progressive thought is more compelling than the historians’), one still wonders just how much of the blame for changing America’s political institutions should be laid at the Progressives’ door. To adjudicate this issue, one would have to move from the level of philosophic ideas down to the nitty-gritty of American politics. Watson charges the Progressives with making the most drastic institutional changes in our history; but a case might be made that the creation of political parties, which many of the Founders opposed, or the introduction of the primary system for presidential elections, have constituted more fundamental transformations of our political system than the rise of the administrative state.
Furthermore, how much government growth should we trace to the Progressives’ ideas? Some of it, surely. But consider that some policy models for the New Deal came not from Progressive intellectuals but from Tammany Hall, the Democratic party machine of New York City. Tammany’s theory of governance, if one could call it that, was simply to help its friends and punish its enemies. Tammany began pushing for “Progressive” policies—such as minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws, workman’s compensation, and business regulations—under the leadership of “Silent” Charlie Murphy (1902–1924).
It may be that big government is rooted in popular demand, and that one should therefore consider it in that light. Indeed, all rich democracies in the world increased social spending and market regulation in the twentieth century. For all the high-minded theory, did the Progressives, in part, just try to do what was, in fact, popular? Would the American people today accept a return to the Founders and the original Constitution if that meant eliminating popular programs as unconstitutional? Perhaps the American people are wrong about what is good for them, but they appear to endorse much of the modern welfare state.
Watson’s masterful treatment of Progressive thought does not, of course, answer many of these questions, but it forces his readers to begin to consider them. His book therefore points scholars in new and productive directions. While Watson’s book is by a scholar, about scholars, and for scholars, he writes with vigor and verve. That will make it of great appeal to anyone trying to take the true measure of the legacy of Progressive political thought in our nation’s history.