What Is Progressivism?


The rebirth of progressivism in the United States in the early 21st century calls for an inquiry into the subject of progressive politics. We have to ask, those of us who adopt the mantle of progressivism today: what are we talking about when we speak of ourselves as progressives? Americans of the early 21st century have no experience of an organized “progressive party” and it cannot escape our notice that progressives not only do not have a party of their own; they have no central organization[1]

The Twentieth century has been identified by historians as the “Progressive Era.” Howard Reiter says of the rise of progressivism that “in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the first time in American history, a movement based on a broad agenda of political reform arose to dominate the political discourse.” This movement, he relates, “inspired the growth of the regulatory state, the doubling of the size of the electorate” and “many reforms that were aimed at weakening the grip of machine politics.”[2]

The origins of the movement and the causes of its coalescence are somewhat murky, though its roots go back to the 1880s and what was seen as an increasing need for social justice.[3] The term “progressive” only came into vogue in 1910 and was, said Woodrow Wilson in 1911, a “new term.” Identification of progressivism as a movement dates from 1912.[4]

Is progressivism a movement? It certainly seemed so to progressives of the early 20th century, and they wrote about it as such.[5] But it cannot be denied, as Robyn Muncy points out, “progressivism was not a single movement but a collection of coalitions agitating for changes that often seemed to contradict each other.”[6]

In the 1970s, “Peter Filene attacked the whole notion of a coherent progressive movement as a semantic and conceptual muddle, and declared it dead and buried,” and Rodgers tells us that “By the mid 1970s, many undergraduates were being warned at the outset that they would find the Progressive era confusing.’ ‘The concept of progressivism turns out to be curiously elusive,’ they were cautioned.”[7]

This led, Rodgers says, to a” pluralistic reading of progressive politics.” Historians of this school asserted that the “progressive movement” was not, “in the strict sense of the term, a ‘movement’ at all.” It was pointed out that historically identified progressives “shared no common party or organization. They were rent by deep disagreements over anti-trust policy, women’s suffrage, direct democracy, and any number of other specific issues.”[8]

When viewed historically, progressivism seems nebulous enough then that it is not a surprise when Reiter points out that “it is almost impossible to find a significant party leader who has not been considered progressive by at least one historian.”[9] Indeed, recently, extreme Right-wing pundit Glenn Beck made the following statement: “George W. Bush was a progressive. He was a Republican. John McCain is a bigger progressive. He was a Republican.” Yes, apparently you can be far enough to the right for this to seem true.

Where in the Political Landscape?

Are progressives idealists? Is it a case of dreaming after possibilities that cannot exist in the real world or a belief that these goals can be achieved? If an ideology is a set of principles which form the basis of a political theory (that theory here being the betterment of society) can such a thing as progressive ideology be said to exist?

The historical experience of progressive politics in America shows progressivism to stand outside the two-party paradigm. Progressivism is identical with neither liberalism nor conservatism; it has been said to be too pragmatic a concept to wed itself to “any one ideology.”[10] John Halpin, senior advisor on the staff of the Center for American Progress, asserts: “Progressivism is an orientation towards politics. It’s not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept… that accepts the world as dynamic.”[11]

Rodgers also takes note of this ideological aspect, observing that “The deeper problem stems from the attempt to capture the progressives within a static ideological frame.” Progressivism is not a coherent ideology.[12] And progress is not static. While progressives may see themselves as idealists, they have traditionally been, as John E. Miller says of the Wisconsin progressives, “practical idealists.”[13]

The question of, in historical terms, who defines the progressive base, is problematic. There is first of all a tendency to see the American political landscape in black and white terms, divided between liberals and conservatives. The situation is, of course, far more complex than this. Support for the above-cited positions might come from anywhere.

Progressivism and Liberalism – Partners?

Wherever it has previously found a home on the American political landscape, progressivism has, more recently, come to be closely associated with liberalism, itself an increasingly problematic term. How much of this perception is subjective, based on the center-right bias of the media (and this media is owned and controlled by the ultra-wealthy who are the natural enemy of progressivism) and how much is real and objective, given the GOP’s absolute rejection of anything smelling of pragmatism, let alone progressivism’s central progressive tenet – social justice, is open to debate.

FSAmother2This is dangerous territory, as Rodgers reminds us: “Social justice”…a powerful Rooseveltian slogan in 1912 which, in the absence of anyone willing to defend “social injustice,” worked its magic in large part through its half-buried innuendoes and its expansive indistinctness.[14] That objection, however, becomes less meaningful now that there is a group willing to defend social injustice – the Republican Party.

Faulkner offers the traditional liberal view of the Progressive Era: “To many thoughtful men in the opening years of the twentieth century it seemed that America in making her fortune was in peril of losing her soul.”[15] Charles and Mary Beard believed that “America in the Gilded Age was being plundered by rich capitalists who, through their hold over the economy and corrupt control of the government, exploited farmers and urban workers.” Progressivism was then, a “revolutionary” change, one which “the Beards compared favorably to the French Revolution.”[16]

This is a scenario which resonates with liberals today – the rich capitalists being the purse strings of the GOP, again engaging in exploitation by denying an honest wage to workers while endorsing extensive tax breaks for themselves. It is easy enough to draw parallels: for the Founding Fathers, the villains were the monarchs and hereditary distinctions.

Again, progressives in America are seeing a need for revolution and for the same reasons. The Obama revolution has faltered, the call for change soured, and progressive disgust with the status quo in Washington is manifesting itself in myriad ways on the leftward spectrum of the American political landscape. If Filene found progressivism dead in the 70s, it is certainly alive today.

progressivism_mugFor conservatives, on the other hand, the combating of social ills and injustices has become “social engineering.” Progressivism has ceased to exist in the GOP because progressivism’s core tenets have been ruthlessly expunged in the interest of ideological purity. Anything that forces change is an evil to be avoided. What they forget – or deliberately ignore – is that social justice was of prime concern to the Founding Fathers’ egalitarian: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Democratic party has a bigger tent; it is home to a wide range of viewpoints, especially with regards some of the central issues of the first decade of the new millennium – war, taxes, role and size of government, and social justice, especially as regards gay/lesbian rights, immigration, feminism (historically women’s suffrage is a major progressive cause),[17] healthcare reform, and reproductive rights. It is therefore more likely that Democrats – or disillusioned former moderate Republicans – will migrate to any new progressive movement. [18]


One thing is clear: While some stances have changed, the central message of progressivism – social reform – has not. The status quo, the position supported by conservatism both historically and today,[19] seems all out of sorts with progressivism, leaving progressivism the property of liberals frustrated with the compromise and outright obstruction of change. The GOP represents inertia; the Democratic Party compromise to the point of accomplishing nothing. Social change if it is to take place is in the hands of the progressively-minded.

Whether or not a new progressive party will take shape, drawing progressives away from their current alignment, remains to be seen. As Thelen points out, “The basic riddle in progressivism is not what drove groups apart, but what made them seek common cause.”[20] What is clear is that at this point in history, progressivism has more in common with liberalism than with conservatism, and that progressive liberals are increasingly disenchanted not only by eight years of the Bush administration but by the fading promise of Obama’s progressive platform. One thing every progressive needs to remain aware of is that our movement is no more pristine than any other political movement; progressivism has had its share of cult of personality, self-interest, manipulation of facts and graft. To what extent our work will shape or be shaped by the historical platforms and language of progressivism remains to be seen.

Editor’s Note: Please follow Hrafnkell Haraldson on Twitter, and read this author’s archive on News Junkie Post.

[1] Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (1982), 113-132.

[2] Howard L. Reiter, “The Bases of Progressivism within the Major Parties: Evidence from the National Conventions,”

Social Science History 22 (1998), 83-116.

[3] David P. Thelen, “Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism,” The Journal of American History 56 (1969), 323-341.

[4] Rodgers (1982), 127 n1.

[5] See Benjamin Parke De Witt, The Progressive Movement: A Non-Partisan Comprehensive Discussion of Current Tendencies in American Politics (Macmillan, 1915). Digitized version at Amazon.com

[6] Robyn Muncy, “Women in the Progressive Era,” National Park Service http://www.nps.gov/nr//travel/pwwmh/prog.htm

[7] Rodgers (1982), 113, .citing Peter G. Filene, “An Obituary for ‘The Progressive Movement’,” American Quarterly 22 (1970): 20-34.

[8] Rodgers (1982), 114.

[9] Reiter (1998), 84.

[10] Garib (2005).

[11] What is Progressivism? Andrew Garib, July 25, 2005.

[12] Rodgers (1982), 123.

[13] Miller, (2004), 17.

[14] Rodgers (1982), 122.

[15] Anderson (1973), 427, citing Faulkner, The Quest for Social Justice, 81.

[16] Anderson (1973), 428, citing Charles A. and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (2 vols., New York, 1927). 2:543.

[17] On women’s suffrage, Reiter (1998), 94.

[18] Miller (2004), 24. By contrast, when the Wisconsin Progressive Party finally called it quits in 1946, most of its leaders went back to the Republican Party.

[19] William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford, 1993), 144.

[20] Thelen (1969), 341.


6 Responses to What Is Progressivism?

  1. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Major Tom
    January 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Very good article. I wish you delved a bit more into the specific issues championed by modern Progressives and compared them to the issues championed in the past, as political jugglers like Beck and Limbaugh often try to say that modern Progressives believe in Euthanasia, and Social Darwinism, which is completely false… But informative, none-the-less.

    • Vote -1 Vote +1Hrafnkell Haraldsson
      January 21, 2010 at 9:16 am

      I would love to have gone deeper into that and deeper into the historical background as well, but space was a limiting factor. I do plan further articles on the subject and I hope those issues can be addressed then.

  2. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1S
    January 15, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Unfettered markets (the foundation of fiscal conservatism) often do not lead to social justice. There has been little intellectual challenge to the refutation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: individuals and firms, in the pursuit of their self-interest.

    Things to read before arguing with a libertarian:

    This war between progressives and conservatives dates back to the beginning: Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist. The role of the government have always been debated. Despite what Glenn Beck may say, our founding fathers aren’t exactly the ideal people to look up to.

  3. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Ole Ole Olson
    January 15, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    The author writes: “For conservatives, on the other hand, the combating of social ills and injustices has become “social engineering.”

    Bingo. Conservatives have this irrational belief that if things are just left to their own, somehow everything will magically work itself out. However, in reality this leads to slavery. Safeguards and safety nets need to be in place to force corporations to do the right thing, and the progressives seem to be the only ones on this quest at the moment. At least Teddy Roosevelt made a good stab at it a century ago. We need someone with his determination again.

  4. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Stephen Dufrechou
    January 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Something philosopher Alain Badiou recently said comes to mind, here: Badiou noted that we cannot attack current capitalism directly; this is because capitalism is now reality, itself; it is the very air that we breathe….

    Capitalism is civilization, itself, now. We are thus left only with the ability to organize, to spread awareness via thoughtful dissent and critical theory. Only when the current order begins to disintegrate, here and there, can we take that work and mobilize it into real action. Thus, Badiou’s answer is to continue to critique–to understand the present forms of domination–and to wait for the openings in those “forms”, through which we can contingently force-through an alternative political agenda.

    If we accept these coordinates as fact, the question in terms of “progressivism” becomes this:

    If progressiveim is curretly the banner of Left-leaning thinkers, then how are “progressives” working WITHIN the political framework that Badiou forwards?

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