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In U.S. history, the term progressivism refers to a broadly-based reform movement that reached its height early in the 20th century, generally considered to be left wing in nature. The initial progressive movement arose as a response to the vast changes brought by the Industrial Revolution. Contemporary progressives continue to embrace concepts such as environmentalism and social justice. Social progressivism, which states that governmental practices ought to be adjusted as society evolves, forms the ideological basis for many American progressives. Alonzo L. Hamby defines progressivism as the "political movement that addresses ideas, impulses, and issues stemming from modernization of American society. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, it established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century."

Tenets of early United States progressivism

Many of the principles that were laid out by early progressives continue to be the hallmarks of contemporary progressive politics. While the precise criteria for what constitutes progressivism varies, below is a list of the most common tenets.


Progressives such as William U'Ren and Robert La Follette argued that the average person should have more control over their government. The Oregon System of "Initiative, Referendum, and Recall" was exported to many states, including Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin. Many progressives, such as George M. Forbes—president of Rochester'smarker Board of Education—hoped to make government in the U.S. more responsive to the direct voice of the American people when he said:

"[W]e are now intensely occupied in forging the tools of democracy, the direct primary, the initiative, the referendum, the recall, the short ballot, commission government.
But in our enthusiasm we do not seem to be aware that these tools will be worthless unless they are used by those who are aflame with the sense of brotherhood...The idea [of the social centers movement is] to establish in each community an institution having a direct and vital relation to the welfare of the neighborhood, ward, or district, and also to the city as a whole"

Philip J. Ethington seconds this high view of direct democracy saying
"initiatives, referendums, and recalls, along with direct primaries and the direct election of US Senators, were the core achievements of 'direct democracy' by the Progressive generation during the first two decades of the twentieth century."

Progressives also fought for the secret ballot and women's suffrage.

While the ultimate significance of the progressive movement on today's politics is still up for debate, Alonzo L. Hamby asks:

"What were the central themes that emerged from the cacophony [of progressivism]?
Democracy or elitism?
Social justice or social control?
Small entrepreneurship or concentrated capitalism?
And what was the impact of American foreign policy?
Were the progressives isolationists or interventionists?
Imperialists or advocates of national self-determination?
And whatever they were, what was their motivation?
Moralistic uptopianism?
Muddled relativistic pragmatism?
Hegemonic capitalism?
Not surprisingly many battered scholars began to shout 'no mas!'
In 1970, Peter Filene tried declared that the term 'progressivism' had become meaningless".

Municipal Administration

During the Progressive Era the United States had gone through many changes. There were many changes introduced into municipal administration during the Progressive Era in the 1880s and 1890's. These changes led to a more structured system, power that the centralized within the legislature would now be more locally focused. Articles have shown that the changes were made to the system to effectively make legal processes, market transactions, bureaucratic administration, and democracy easier to manage, thus putting them under the classification of ‘Municipal Administration’. There was also a change in authority for this system; it was believed that the authority that was not properly organized had now given authority to professionals, experts, and bureaucrats for these services. These changes led to a more solid type of municipal administration compared to the old system that was underdeveloped and poorly constructed.


Many progressives such as Louis Brandeis hoped to make American governments better able to serve the people's needs by making governmental operations and services more efficient and rational. Rather than making legal arguments against ten hour workdays for women, he used "scientific principles" and "data produced by social scientists documenting the high costs of long working hours for both individuals and society." :

Professional administrators
Brandeis and others argued that governments would function better if they were placed under the direction of trained, professional administrators . One example of progressive reform was the rise of the city manager system, in which paid, professional administrators ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments under guidelines established by elected city councils.
Centralization of decision-making process
Many progressives sought to make government more rational through centralized decision-making . Governments were reorganized to reduce the number of officials and to eliminate overlapping areas of authority between departments. City governments were reorganized to reduce the power of local wards within the city and to increase the powers of the city council. Governments at every level began developing budgets to help them plan their expenditures (rather than spending money haphazardly as needs arose and revenue became available). The drive for centralization was often associated with the rise of professional administrators.
Movements to eliminate governmental corruption
Corruption represented a source of waste and inefficiency in government. William U'Ren, LaFolette, and others worked to clean up state and local governments by passing laws to weaken the power of machine politicians and political bosses. The Oregon System, which included a "Corrupt Practices Act", a public referendum, and a state-funded voter's pamphlet among other reforms was exported to other states in the northwest and midwest. In the cities, this movement was expressed as an effort to restructure the ward system. Power was transferred from political bosses to professional administrators, and decisions of the legislature became subject to the public referendum in many states.
There were also movements led during the Progressive Era that would also have changes on the Social Efficiency of education for each state. Many believe that these changes that followed the movements of the 1900s were to make education a more focused part of life for students. Such ideas used were the integration of family life in the child’s life and how the use of family interaction was an important factor for a child’s education. Other types of integration that articles have said to be effective were the use social centers; these centers provides a safe area for children to interact with each other while supervision is present and kept under control. The use of social centers were also used for other means then the interaction of children; they would also be used to counteract class division and ethnic issues within neighborhoods.

The progressives' quest for efficiency was sometimes at odds with the progressives' quest for democracy. Taking power out of the hands of elected officials and placing that power in the hands of professional administrators reduced the voice of the people in government. Centralized decision-making and reduced power for local wards made government more distant and isolated from the people it served . Progressives who emphasized the need for efficiency sometimes argued that an elite class of administrators knew better what the people needed than did the people themselves .

Regulation of large corporations and monopolies

Many progressives hoped that by regulating large corporations they could liberate human energies from the restrictions imposed by industrial capitalism. Yet the progressive movement was split over which of the following solutions should be used to regulate corporations:

Pro labor progressives such as Samuel Gompers argued that industrial monopolies were unnatural economic institutions which suppressed the competition which was necessary for progress and improvement . The federal government should intervene by breaking up monopolies into smaller companies, thereby restoring competition. The government should then withdraw and allow marketplace forces once again to regulate the economy. President Woodrow Wilson supported this idea.
Progressives such as Benjamin Parke De Witt argued that in a modern economy, large corporations and even monopolies were both inevitable and desirable . With their massive resources and economies of scale, large corporations offered the U.S. advantages which smaller companies could not offer. Yet, these large corporations might abuse their great power. The federal government should allow these companies to exist but regulate them for the public interest. President Theodore Roosevelt generally supported this idea.

Social justice

Many progressives such have supported both private and governmental action to help people in need (social justice). Reforms have included:

Development of professional social workers
The idea that welfare and charity work should be undertaken by professionals who are trained to do the job.
The building of Settlement Houses
These were residential, community centers operated by social workers and volunteers and located in inner city slums. The purpose of the settlement houses was to raise the standard of living of urbanites by providing schools, day care centers, and cultural enrichment programs.
The enactment of child labor laws
Child labor laws were designed to prevent the overworking of children in the newly emerging industries. The goal of these laws was to give working-class children the opportunity to go to school and to mature more naturally, thereby liberating the potential of humanity and encouraging the advancement of humanity
Support for the goals of organized labor
Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt often supported such goals as the eight-hour work day, improved safety and health conditions in factories, workers compensation laws, minimum wage laws, and unionization.
Prohibition laws
Susan B. Anthony was one of the many progressives who adopted the cause of prohibition. They claimed the consumption of alcohol limited mankind's potential for advancement. Progressives achieved success in this area with the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. However, this was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1933.


During the term of the progressive President Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909), the largest government-funded conservation-related projects in U.S. history were undertaken:

National parks and wildlife refuges
On March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt created the first National Bird Preserve, (the beginning of the Wildlife Refuge system), on Pelican Island, Floridamarker. In all, by 1909, the Roosevelt administration had created an unprecedented 42 million acres (170,000 km²) of national forest, 53 national wildlife refuges and 18 areas of "special interest", including the Grand Canyonmarker.

In addition, Roosevelt approved the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which gave subsidies for irrigation in sixteen western states.

Another conservation-oriented bill was the Antiquities Act of 1906 that protected large areas of land. The Inland Waterways Commission was established in 1907 to control the United States' streams and waterways.

Political progressivism and cultural progressivism

In the early 20th century, politicians of the Democratic and Republican parties, Bull-Moose Republicans, and the United States Progressive Party began to pursue social, environmental, political, and economic reforms. Chief among these aims was the pursuit of trustbusting (breaking up very large monopolies), support for labor unions, public health programs, decreased corruption in politics, and environmental conservation .

Progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century was largely a bipartisan effort led by William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Robert La Follette . One leader, Bryan, had been linked to the Populist movement of the 1890s, while the other major leaders were opposed to Populism. When Roosevelt left the Republican party in 1912, he took with him many of the intellectual leaders of progressivism, but very few political leaders . The Republican party then became notably more committed to business-oriented and efficiency oriented progressivism, typified by Taft and Herbert Hoover. Political progressivism was also represented in the candidacies of economic philosopher Henry George and the Single Tax movement, President Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull-Moose Party, and the Cleveland mayoral administration of Tom L. Johnson .

The foundation of the progressive tendency was rooted in the uniquely American philosophy of pragmatism, which was primarily developed by John Dewey . However, two of Dewey's most prominent students, Mortimer J. Adler and Brand Blanshard, both rejected the moral relativism inherent in Pragmatism; and Blanshard set out a devastating critique of Pragmatism in his two-volume study "The Nature of Thought" . Adler and Blanshard provided a similar alternative view (moral absolutism grounded in Aristotelian views) far more consonant with the moral agenda of Progressivism .

Another intellectual strand in Progressivism has been populism, which can range from the political left to the political right . Populism has often manifested itself as a distrust of concentrations of power in the hands of politicians, corporations, families, and special interest groups, generating calls for reform .

Equally significant to progressive-era reform were the crusading journalists, known as muckrakers. These journalists revealed to middle class readers the evils of economic privilege, political corruption, and social injustice . Their articles appeared in McClure's Magazine and other reform periodicals. Some muckrakers focused on corporate abuses. Ida Tarbell, for instance, exposed the activities of the Standard Oil Company. In The Shame of the Cities (1904), Lincoln Steffens dissected corruption in city government. In Following the Color Line (1908), Ray Stannard Baker criticized race relations. Other muckrakers assailed the U.S. Senate, railroad practices, insurance companies, and fraud in patent medicine.

Novelists, too, revealed corporate injustices. Theodore Dreiser drew harsh portraits of a type of ruthless businessman in The Financier (1912) and The Titan (1914). In The Jungle (1906) Socialist Upton Sinclair repelled readers with descriptions of Chicago’s meatpacking plants, and his work led to support for remedial food safety legislation. Leading intellectuals also shaped the progressive mentality. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen attacked the “conspicuous consumption” of the wealthy. Educator John Dewey emphasized a child-centered philosophy of pedagogy, known as progressive education, which affected schoolrooms for three generations.

The evolution of progressivism

Following the first progressive movement of the early 20th century, there would be three more distinct swells in the popularity of progressive thought.

Second progressive movement

The second progressive movement got underway in 1924. This time the key leadership role was fulfilled by Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette. La Follette campaigned for such things as direct elections in primaries, fairer taxation, conservation of natural resources, control of lobbyists, and banking reform. He vigorously opposed both oligarchy -- government by a tiny elite—and plutocracy (government of, by, and for the wealthy).

Third progressive movement

The third progressive movement was initiated in 1947 by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who ran for president in 1948, attracting support from voters who were disillusioned by the Cold War policies of Democrat Harry S. Truman. Many progressives were uncomfortable with Wallace's religiosity, but were nonetheless admirers of his call for a sort of global "New Deal" and his advocacy of better relations with the Soviet Unionmarker.

Contemporary progressivism

The fourth and current liberal Progressive movement grew out of social activism movements, Naderite and populist left political movements in conjunction with the civil rights, GLBT (Gay rights), women's or feminist, and environmental movements of the 1960s-1980s. This exists as a cluster of political, activist, and media organizations ranging in outlook from centrism (eg. Reform Party of the United States of America) to left-liberalism to social democracy (like the Green Party) and sometimes even democratic socialism (like the Socialist Party USA).

Modern American progressivism includes political figures such as Barack Obama who calls himself a progressive, as do Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, Debbie Stabenow, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, Cynthia McKinney, John Edwards, Sherrod Brown, Kathleen Sebelius, David McReynolds, Ralph Nader, Howard Dean, Peter Camejo, Al Gore, and the late Paul Wellstone. Also in this category are many leaders in the women's movement, cosmopolitanism, the labor movement, the American civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the immigrant rights movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement. Other well-known progressives include Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, George Lakoff, Michael Lerner, and Urvashi Vaid.

Significant publications include The Progressive magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Broadcasting outlets include Air America Radio, the Pacifica Radio network, Democracy Now!, and certain community radio stations. Notable media voices include Cenk Uygur, Alexander Cockburn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Juan Gonzalez, Amy Goodman, Thom Hartmann, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower, the late Molly Ivins, Ron Reagan, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, Stephanie Miller, Mike Malloy, Keith Olbermann, Greg Palast, Randi Rhodes, Betsy Rosenberg, Ed Schultz, David Sirota, and The Young Turks .

Modern issues for progressives can include : electoral reform (including instant runoff voting, proportional representation and fusion candidates), environmental conservation, pollution control and environmentalism, same-sex marriage, universal health care, abolition of the death penalty, affordable housing, a viable Social Security System, renewable energy, smart growth urban development, a living wage and pro-union policies, among many others.

Examples of the broad range of progressive texts include: New Age Politics by Mark Satin; Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J. Dionne, Jr.; Community Building: Renewing Spirit & Learning in Business edited by Kazimierz Gozdz; Ecopolitics: Building a Green Society by Daniel Coleman; and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The main current national progressive parties are the Democratic Party and the Green Party of the United States. The Democratic Party has major-party status in all fifty States, while there are state Green Parties or affiliates with the national Green Party in most states. The most successful non-major state-level progressive party is the Vermont Progressive Party. However, progressives often shy away from parties and align within more community-oriented activist groups, coalitions and networks, such as the Maine People's Alliance and Northeast Action.

See also


  1. Alonzo L. Harriby, "Progressivism: A Century of Change and Rebirth," in Progressivism and the New Democracy," ed. Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 40 also notes that "a plethora of scholarship in the last half of the 1950s left the old consensus [about progressives] in shreds while producing a plethora of alternative views that defy rational synthesis."
  2. See the Wisconsin Historical Society's early documents from La Follette's campaign at Turning Points In Wisconsin History - La Follette campaign literature, 2. To the People of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Historical Society Digital Collection where the literature argued that, "La Follette has ever sought to give the people greater power over their affairs. He has favored and now favors the direct election of senators...">
  3. Quoted in Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur, "Progressivism and the New Democracy," (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999) 19-20
  4. Philip J. Ethington, "The Metropolis and Multicultural Ethics: Direct Democracy versus Deliberative Democracy in the Progressive Era," in Progressivism and the New Democracy, ed. Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur (Amherst: Massachusetts University Press, 1999), 193
  5. Quoted in Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur, "Progressivism and the New Democracy," (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999) 42
  6. Tropea, Joseph L. "Rational Capitalism and Municipal Government: The Progressive Era." Social Science History (1989): 137-158
  7. The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century (Evanston: McDougall Littell, 2006), 308
  8. Stevens JR., Edward W., "Social Centers, Politics, and Social Efficiency in the Progressive Era." History of Education Quarterly (1972): 16-33
  9. The American federationist, Samuel Gompers, John McBride, William Green, AFL-CIO., American Federation of Labor
  10. The American federationist, Samuel Gompers, John McBride, William Green, AFL-CIO., American Federation of Labor
  11. A Brief Overview of Progressive Education
  12. United States History - MSN Encarta
  13. A Brief history of American Progressivism

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