Progressivism Past and Present

Progressivism: unity, efficiency, bureaucratic equality, dependency

By Carl L. Bankston III

President Obama’s recent invocation of the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt at Osawatomie, Kansas was an effort to link his own legislative program to the Roosevelt heritage. Roosevelt was a popular, if somewhat divisive, figure in his own day and the passage of time tends to give the major leaders of our nation a monumental stature.  But Roosevelt’s relevance to present-day policy questions lies in the fact that many of the issues of a century ago are still with us and, for good or ill, we are the heirs of the responses of that era. I suggest that the core of “Progressivism,” a movement associated with Roosevelt, lay in expanding the role of government in an increasingly complex society.

There were two major trends in Progressivism at the beginning of the twentieth century. What might be termed “regulatory Progressivism” perceived society as ideally composed of autonomous individuals engaged in competitive market activities.  Regulatory Progressivism saw the role of government as either limiting the size and influence of business corporations through strategic regulation or using regulations to channel private activities into directions seen as fostering public well-being. What we can call “corporatist Progressivism” tended to see public and private corporate collectives as new essential structures in American society. The corporatist Progressives believed in close cooperation between big business and an emerging big government, with government controlling and directing or even absorbing large-scale business activities.  In the 1912 Presidential election, these two streams of Progressivism flowed into political campaigns as Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom and Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.

The New Nationalist Progressivism cast government as the ultimate coordinating unit in a regulated, incorporated society. The New Freedom Progressivism sought to limit the power of economic corporations in order to maintain the ability of individuals to shape their own lives. Early Wilsonian Progressivism, then, tended to imagine that a state of competition among individuals could be sustained by political restraint of anti-competitive forces, and that government could nudge society and the economy in desired directions. One of the difficulties with this approach is that regulation in action tends to lead to control. President Wilson, winner of the 1912 election, presided over a vast extension of corporate government following the entry of the United States into World War I.  His administration enacted a military draft much more far-reaching than the compulsory military service of the Civil War.  Wilson’s war administration also became a more active participant in the American economy than any previous federal government had been, and it created close collaboration between big business and big government.

While Wilson’s version of political Progressivism entailed an individualist reaction in theory, one can also find a general tendency toward institutional control and coordination running across both lines of Progressive thought.  How did individuals fit into the pattern of growing corporatism and institutionalization?  In accordance with the idea of reform as making institutions more responsive to individuals, one trend was to support the equality of all individuals in their relationship to government, especially the federal government. In a centralized state, each citizen would, in theory, have exactly the same relationship to government, which would maintain equality among all. This represented a emerging type of bureaucratic equality, defined by membership and participation in the institution of the state. A second trend, though, moved toward institutionalization as hierarchical efficiency. Each person would have a distinct place and set of duties in the corporate polity, as in corporate business.

Former President Roosevelt, Wilson’s most serious rival in the three-way election of 1912, embodied the explicitly statist, corporatist strand of Progressivism.  Herbert Croly, a devoted adherent of Theodore Roosevelt, wrote the bible of strong government, corporatist Progressivism. Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1912) recognized the institutionalization of American society and made an argument for an institutional response. Croly maintained that in the pre-Civil War period, the United States offered a chance to start anew by crossing the Atlantic and to create an independent and abundant life through access to the vast forests and lands of the frontier.  The promise of liberty and self-sufficiency held out by the earlier nation was becoming a thing of the past, though.  By Croly’s time, the frontier had been settled.  Even more importantly, large, highly specialized organizations now dominated the economic, social, and political character of the nation.

The nationalist vision of equality proposed by Croly was markedly different from the competitive equality of self-made men. Citizens were equal, from Croly’s perspective, because each one had the same relationship to the corporate state. This rising bureaucratic version of equality appears even more clearly in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, which extended the logic of this strand of Progressive ideals into a hoped-for future, in which membership in a centralized corporate polity results in both the perfect equality of citizens and a completely efficient organization of society. Bellamy, of course, wrote before Theodore Roosevelt ascended to power and before Herbert Croly’s intellectual formulation of Rooseveltian Progressivism.  Still, it makes sense to read Bellamy’s fantasy as carrying the national corporatist thinking that Roosevelt and Croly would take up to an ultimate conclusion. The hero of the novel falls into hypnosis induced sleep in the late nineteenth century and wakes up in the year 2000. Dr. Leete, the protagonist’s guide to the wonderful world of the future  in Looking Backward explains the benevolent evolution of the “Great Trust” as having come about through the absorption of all business and social activities by a single corporation, identical with the state.

Bellamy offered a much more extreme version of the bureaucratic re-shaping of America than the Croly’s description of Progressivism ever would. Still, precisely because it is an extreme version, it gives us a clear example of corporate Progressivism’s goal of a completely coordinated and organized society. Dramatically different from earlier American political visions, it entailed each person’s participation in a large-scale, unitary state and each person’s dependence on the state.


The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.  He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Bankston’s full bio, here.  He blogs at Can These Bones Live?