What Is a Progressive?

When is the last time you heard a liberal describe himself as a “liberal”? It’s probably been a long time. These days, those on the left are more likely to call themselves “progressives.”

Writing in The New York Times, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs said there have been two progressive eras — one in the early 20th century and the second under Franklin Roosevelt. He called on modern liberals to usher in a third era.

But what exactly is “progressivism”? To many people, the term “Progressive Era” evokes fond caricatures of Teddy Roosevelt and such reforms as safe food, the elimination of child labor and the eight-hour work day. Yet real progressivism was far more sinister.

Oh liberty can man resign thee,
Once having felt thy gen’rous flame?
Can dungeons, bolts, and bar confine the?
Or whips thy noble spirit tame?

Here is how Jonah Goldberg describes the World War I presidency of Woodrow Wilson:

The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn’t in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world’s first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten, spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous “poison” into the American bloodstream; [and] newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government[?]

It gets worse. According to Goldberg:

[N]early a hundred thousand government propaganda agents were sent out among the people to whip up support for the regime and its war; college professors imposed loyalty oaths on their colleagues; nearly a quarter-million goons were given legal authority to intimidate and beat “slackers” and dissenters; and leading artists and writers dedicated their crafts to proselytizing for the government.

At the time of the Wilson presidency, progressives did not view the exercise of state power and the violation of individual rights as a war-time exception to be set aside in times of peace. To the contrary, Herbert Croly (founding editor of the New Republic), John Dewey (father of progressive education), Walter Lippmann (perhaps the century’s most influential political writer), Richard Ely (founder of the American Economic Association) and many others saw war as an opportunity to rid the country of classical liberalism and the doctrine of laissez faire.

Wilson, our first Ph.D. in the White House, made clear his complete rejection of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and classical liberalism in his books and other writings. As Ronald Pestritto notes, liberty in Wilson’s view was “not found in freedom from state actions but instead in one’s obedience to the laws of the state.”

The primary domestic objective of progressives was to create in peacetime what Wilson had accomplished during war. They were able to do so a little more than a decade later. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy under Wilson, and when he led Democrats back to the White House in 1932 he brought with him an army of intellectuals and bureaucrats who shared the Progressive-Era vision. Indeed, most of the “alphabet soup” of agencies set up during the Great Depression were continuations of various boards and committees set up during World War I.

At that time it was commonplace for intellectuals on the left to be enamored of Lenin’s communist regime in Russia. And almost everyone who was enamored of Lenin was also an admirer of Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy. For example, General Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, who ran Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA) kept a picture of Mussolini hanging on his wall. The admiration was often mutual. Some writers for publications in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy wrote of their fascination with Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Goldberg explains:

The reason so many progressives were intrigued by both Mussolini’s and Lenin’s “experiments” is simple: they saw their reflection in the European looking glass. Philosophically, organizationally, and politically the progressives were as close to authentic, homegrown fascists as any movement America has ever produced. [They were] militaristic, fanatically nationalist, imperialist, racist, deeply involved in the promotion of Darwinian eugenics, [and] enamored of the Bismarckian welfare state.

The progressives saw the state as properly involved in almost every aspect of social life. Herbert Croly envisioned a government that would even regulate who could marry and procreate. In this respect, he reflected the almost universal belief of progressives in eugenics. These days, there is a tendency to think that interest in racial purity began and ended in Hitler’s Germany. In fact, virtually all intellectuals on the left in the early 20th century believed in state involvement in promoting a better gene pool. These included H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (founders of Fabian Socialism), Harold Laski (the most respected British political scientist of the 20th century) and John Maynard Keynes (the most famous economist of the 20th century). Pro-eugenics articles routinely appeared in the left-wing New Statesman, the Manchester Guardian and in the United States in the New Republic.

One of the ugliest stains on American public policy during the 20th century was the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II by the Roosevelt Administration. Another stain is the resegregation of the White House under Wilson. Bruce Bartlett argues that these acts were consistent with the personal racial views of the presidents and that the Democratic party has a long history of racial bias it would like to forget.

The worst excesses on the right in the 20th century are usually associated with Senator Joe McCarthy; the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), including pressuring Hollywood actors to reveal their political activities and name the identities of their colleagues; and domestic surveillance of political enemies.

Yet all of these activities have roots in the Progressive Era as well. Joe McCarthy started his political life as a Democrat (and later switched to be a Republican) in Wisconsin — the most pro-progressive state in the union. As Goldberg observes, “Red baiting, witch hunts, censorship and the like were a tradition in good standing among Wisconsin progressives and populists.” The HUAC was founded by another progressive Democrat, Samuel Dickstein, to investigate German sympathizers. During the “Brown scare” of the 1940s, radio journalist Walter Winchell read the names of isolationists on the radio, calling them “Americans we can do without.”

Civilian surveillance under American presidents in the modern era (for example under Republicans Richard Nixon and George W. Bush and under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) are extensions of what went on earlier in the century. However, modern surveillance does not begin to compare in magnitude to what went on during the Wilson and Roosevelt presidencies.

Bottom line: the next time you hear someone call himself a “progressive,” ask him if he knows the historical meaning of that term.


Comments (22)

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  1. Rusty says:

    Nice job.

  2. Devon Herrick says:

    The term Progressive has largely replaced the term Liberal as no politician would want to be branded a Liberal. The term Liberal is a pejorative suggesting someone who is naive and, simple-minded or not very realistic in their outlook. On the other hand, Progressive evokes warm feelings of progress – moving forward the betterment of mankind. But I fail to see how it can necessarily be considered progress to chip away at the individual endeavors and freedoms Americans have enjoyed over the past 230 years. Well-meaning individuals who embrace the welfare state often fail to understand the implications. Granted, it’s a humanitarian notion that some people will not do as well on their own initiative and need taken care of. But paternalism requires a ceding of rights and liberties that progressives should not be willing to forfeit so easily.

  3. David Lenihan says:

    Brilliant…post and attached “Casablanca” clip.

  4. ralph at MediBid says:

    Interestingly enough, up until about 15 years ago or so, the conservative party in canada called themselves the “Progressive Conservatives”

  5. Anne Alice says:

    Thanks for the history lesson! Who knew?

  6. Buster says:

    The labels we apply to ourselves and others can have powerful meanings that we often don’t comprehend. The term Conservative can evoke thoughts of being stuck in the past and failing to improve or change with the times; whereas Progressive implies just the opposite. However, Progressives are in favor of backsliding to an era when an authoritarian rulers made decisions for the masses. The ultimate result of this arrangement was that the wellbeing of the ruling elites was more important than the wellbeing of average citizens, who were expected to submit to the authority of the benevolent state for the good of society.

  7. Brian says:

    Things like safe food, the elimination of child labor and the eight-hour work day were good and overdue at the time of the Progressive Era. Unfortunately, much of the same logic used to argue against things like unsafe food and working conditions is being being twisted so as to justify the state micromanaging and intruding into the lives of individuals and the operations of businesses.

  8. Studebaker says:

    Civilian surveillance under American presidents in the modern era (for example under Republicans Richard Nixon and George W. Bush and under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) are extensions of what went on earlier in the century. However, modern surveillance does not begin to compare in magnitude to what went on during the Wilson and Roosevelt presidencies.

    I’m not sure if the above statement is really accurate. The NSA has something like 40,000 people gleaning through electronic satellite transmissions. Our phones can easily be monitored remotely and our email might as well be an open party line. Phone records, Google searchers and Internet activity is archived for a couple of years. Security cameras are so numerous in many places as to evoke feelings of living in an Orwellian State. Our financial records leave a paper trail and cash transactions over $10,000 triggers a report to the Treasury. There may be fewer government agents on the ground physically following people around and spying on their activities. But it is so much easier to monitor people’s activities today than in Wilson’s era such that the police state of the Wilson era is an outdated model that makes a direct comparison difficult at best.

  9. Robert A. Hall says:

    Terrific, important column. The urge to tell others how to live their lives, “for their own good” of course, is a totalitarian impulse that runs deep in the liberal/progressive/leftist/statist psyche. Both Hitler working to “purify” the race and the folks who want to ban incandescent light bulbs, salt, trans-fats, plastic bags and circumcision of boy babies are working from the same mindset, though far apart on the evil scale. It’s an “I know better than you and thus will coerce you to do what is right” philosophy. I will link to this from my Old Jarhead blog as a “must read.”

    Robert A. Hall
    Des Plaines IL
    Author: The Coming Collapse of the American Republic
    (All royalties go to a charity to help wounded veterans)

  10. Eric says:

    “Both Hitler working to “purify” the race and the folks who want to ban incandescent light bulbs, salt, trans-fats, plastic bags and circumcision of boy babies are working from the same mindset, though far apart on the evil scale.”

    I’m going to invoke Godwin’s Law on this one.

  11. Kent Lyon says:

    Eugenics was the signature project of the Progressives. A Eugenics Records office was established at Cold Spring Harbor lab (ironic that the discoverer of DNA headed this lab until he made some overtly racist statements about 5 years ago and retired) and stock-piled records on Americans across the country. Forced sterilization laws were passed in all states of the Union. High school textbooks taught Eugenics, not Evolution. The notorious Scopes Trial (the Monkey Trial), in which Clarence Darrow is portrayed as eviscerating William Jennings Bryan, was not about teaching Evolution, but a bastardized version of Evolution promulgated by Francis Galton, e.t., Eugenics. High school textbooks talked about the desirability of eliminating the “unfit”, but averred that propriety dictated that they couldn’t just be exterminated (a propriety not shared by Hitler, who copied American Eugenics laws to advance his Final Solution), but they could be sterilized. No wonder the good fold of Appalachia, who knew of whom the intellectual elite spoke when they referred to the “Unfit”, didn’t want their children taught “Evolution” (cum “Eugenics”). Part of the “fitness” assessment included IQ testing (Stanford-Binet). Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., gave a ringing endorsement of Eugenics in his majority opinion in Buck v. Bell (the question before the Supreme Court was only regarding adequate due process provided by the State of Virginia, to allow Carrie Buck’s forced sterilization–in point of fact, Carrie Buck was a normal young women of average intelligence, but her mother and grandmother had been institutionalized, she had been statutorially raped by a foster brother in the foster home where she was living, had gotten pregnanct, and given birth, and to cover the circumstance her foster family referred her as “unfit” for forced sterilization–so she did not even receive appropriate due process that would have found her “fit”, not an “imbecile”). Holmes could not restrain himself to simply opine on the issue of adequate due process, and proclaimed in the final sentence of his opinion: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Sterilize her.” More obscene words have never been written by a jurist in America.
    The Eugenics agenda went underground, and the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor lab was quietly closed, in the Spring of 1945 as Hitler’s death camps were being liberated, and the end-game of Eugenics became clear.
    I am told that a recent Medicare conclave discussed covering only palliative care for stroke patients. Obama’s comment about giving grandma a pain pill instead of a pacemaker was a veiled reference to Euthanasia. Obamacare is attempting to foist abortion coverage on the taxpayer. The Federal government has issued orders allowing destruction of normal human embryos for stem cell research, essentially, harvesting cells from viable human organisms for “parts”. It would appear that Eugenics is alive and well in America, and as obscene as ever, glossed over as “science” and “progress”.
    My profession (Medicine) has pretty much lost its collective conscience (if it ever had one).

  12. Brian says:

    Robert, those are solid points……for the most part. I will agree with you that a wide variety of bans proposed by today’s progressives are rooted in that mindset of “I need to control/coerce you” and “I know how the world should be and I will enforce that vision on you”.

    With that being said, there are *some* micro-issues where progressives are on the side of liberty. Child labor laws are one. And while some early progressives were prohibitionists, today’s progressives favor legalizing medical cannabis.

    Another would be circumcision bans, which you are terribly wrong on, sir. The practice of circumcision is rather disturbing and backwards, and is rooted in religious orthodoxy that should be fanatical by today’s standards. Some environmental laws, while constricting of liberty in the immediate future for a few people, have long-term implications for ensuring that resources and clean environments are available for others to use. That impacts liberty in the long-term. I’m not sure where most progressives (from all eras) stood on compulsory military service, but I’d like to know.

    Overall, the issue areas where progressives are on the side of liberty are few and far between. Social justice is the area where their ideology is the most twisted.

  13. Stan Ingman says:


    What is sinister is the new conservativism ! Newt recently in a youtube called OB etal (and us liberals or what I call myself somedays a conservative liberal) …. “secular socialist”. The new evil empire .. much like the McCarthyism of the 50s.
    As a liberal I am for less intervention in bed room, lower ecological footprint, community involvement , takes a village to support children, families , and elders, strong local communities , solid central state and federal government with rules that control capitalism, etc.

    Recently in Switzerland , with more secularism and less religious involvement , I noticed a society with more ethical behavior , more systems operating on the honor system( trains and trams) . I will write an essay perhaps to argue this point. So, the fears you worry about may not be something to worry about. ?

    Newt etal needs to create some moral crisis to beat the administration . It is hard to see one program that conservatives have created that is helpful for the citizens. They created for the most part the WallStreetBanking mess in the Bush era, you may recall. Democrats becauses of money in politics may not be significantly different I may add.


  14. Dave B says:

    Progressivism was indeed a reaction against classical liberalism. Progressives have been hostile to individualism in most forms while welcoming the experiments with strains of socialism, communism, fascism, and national socialism.

    Rexford Tugwell is a well known progressive economist who deemed the war “an industrial engineer’s utopia” and was part of FDR’s “Brain Trust” who were the designers of the New Deal. He loved war because it allowed for a “great experiment in control of production, control of price, and control of consumption.” After the first world war, he said that “We were on the verge of having an international industrial machine,”He was happy about the second war for it allowed the government to take greater control of society. He later said that “Democracy was the problem, and Fascism was “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.”

    Much more on that here.

    Additional reading for those interested.

    I’ll plug my own blog first, which covers progressive eugenics, race suicide, scientific racism, and imperialism.

    Eugenics: Progressivism’s Ultimate Social Engineering

    Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era.
    Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 19, Number 4 —Fall 2005—Pages 207–22

    Excluding Unfit Workers: Social Control versus Social Justice in the Age of Economic Reform”, part of the “Show Me The Money: Making Markets in Forbidden Exchange” symposium in Law and Contemporary Problems 72: 177-207.

    Mistaking Eugenics for Social Darwinism: Why Eugenics is Missing from the History of American Economics.” History of Political Economy, Vol. 37 supplement: 200-233.

  15. JIM GUIRARD says:

    As a practical matter, the term “Progressive” has simply become the communoid-Left’s seductive codeword for Socialism — a politico-economic system in which the Government tends to own and control the people and their economy, rather than the other way around.

    As a constant reminder, we should add the Orwellian term “ProgSoc” — Progressive-Socialist — to our lexicon, and should include also the “Fascist-Left” label as a reminder that both Hitler and Mussolini were not only “fascists” but single-party Socialists, as well.

    The problem with such God-state Socialism (whether it calls itself Left or Right)is that it is so contrary to human nature as to require a dictatorship — often posing as a “people’s democracy” or as a limitless purveyor of so-called “social justice” — to be kept in place.

    The result is usually Communo-Fascist tyranny, unless there is still an opportunity to vote the “ProgSocs” out of office before they can achieve their ultimate goals — of “fairness” and “balance” and “justice” and “equality” and “redistribution” and, last but not least, “egalitarian poverty” and repression.

    JIM GUIRARD — TrueSpeak.org

  16. Robert Moffit says:


    This is truly an insightful piece. The major contribution of progressivism was not merely populist initiatives like restrictions on child labor or popular election of Senators, it was the bold championship of the concept of the administrative state. It was embodied in the dominant trends in political science in the first decade of the 2oth century, particularly in the work of Frank Goodnow, Charles Merriam, and especially Professor Wilson of Princeton University. With the current President “channeling” Theodore Roosevelt in Wisconsin, it’s no surprise that the big battle is once again over the scope of bureaucratic power and how we are to be governed.


  17. wanda j. jones says:

    John and Friends: Congratulations on raising this very valuable topic, especially in the area of eugenics. And a special thanks to Kent Lyon, who has both experience and wisdom about this topic. I appreciate this valuable history.

    Now, get ready for a new wave of eugenics that is actually visible. The Human Genome/DNA watershed event in 2000 has already led to embryo selection to avoid giving birth to a child with a known, single gene disease; insertion of missing genes into an embryo to off-set a condition primed to be expressed after birth; gender selection; and now research into the re-grown of telemeres at the end of chromosomes to extend length of life. Combine that with research into genetic predispositions for common conditions, such as Alzheimers, various cancers, neuro-muscular diseases, and you have a potent tool for mate selection and discrimination. Having one’s DNA tested is becoming common enough to anticipate having to make it available on employment, as it is even now a component of a soldier’s health record.

    Predispositions to various forms of mental illness can also be detected in the DNA. That’s why Freudian and Jungian psychology is just about out of business.

    In 300 years, we can potentially have a disease-free genome, after first voluntary, then urged, then enforced genome selection at the fertilization stage.
    (Have you read about the FDA going after a young man who is giving away his sperm? (He is not a “licensed clinic.”) The whole in-vitro fertilization field is a eugenic field of clover.

    But combine the genetic improvement aims having to do with the body with the new advances in brain science, and you have a truly nightmarish scenario of the state’s intrusion into the most fundamental operation of a human’s life. Detecting criminals, for example, can be helped by testing brain function with an “fMRI” as the brain will show heightened activity when the suspect is asked about a crime, except that if he is a sociopath, he may not feel guilt, so his brain would remain calm. This kind of testing is now in use in our courts.

    I live in a town with progressives without a sense of limits; one supervisor has tried to regulate the toys McDonalds offers for happy meals, forbid use of plastic bags and make customers pay for paper bags, and other micro uses of his regulatory powers. The city’s residents think he is a clown, so gratefully supported his taking a job as Sheriff. What can we expect there?
    I’m thinking–testing school children before they enter to determine who can learn and who cannot, to save the state’s precious education budget.

    Should we test politicians for, gasp, veracity?

    Wanda J. Jones, MPH
    New Century Healthcare Institute
    San Francisco

  18. Gary 1206 says:

    That’s great but most of the goals you aspire to: “lower ecological footprint, community involvement , takes a village to support children, families , and elders, strong local communities , solid central state and federal government with rules that control capitalism, etc.” involve government coercion…forcing people to change their ways…you kno, for their own good. What is it with you peolpe and a never ending desire to control others?
    It’s as if you and you alone know what’s good for us.

  19. Vivian Darkbloom says:

    “However, modern surveillance does not begin to compare in magnitude to what went on during the Wilson and Roosevelt presidencies”.

    I suppose there is much greater awareness of the amount of surveillance that occurred during the Wilson and Roosevelt presidencies today than there was then. By the same token, the whole idea of surveillance is that you are not supposed to know you are being watched or listened to. So, how would you know the extent of “modern surveillance”‘ there really is?

  20. Chris123 says:

    A bit disappointed you leaned so heavily on Goldberg’s interpretations of progressive history. It should be quite apparent to all that he is trying to further his modern-day agenda via his interpretation of history.

    In my business he wouldn’t be considered a credible source.

  21. frank timmins says:

    Wanda Jones. Interesting thoughts. Thanks

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