When Glenn Beck wants to look serious he dons oversized horn-rimmed glasses and begins to lecture about Progressivism. In his telling, Progressives have contributed significantly to our latter-day political problems. He finds their ideology—combining massive bureaucracy with a command economy and certain forms of social engineering identified with eugenics—at the heart of today’s big-government liberalism. His litany of real or alleged Progressives includes Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, Franklin Roosevelt, and occasionally Franklin’s cousin Teddy. Early feminist and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger also sometimes appears among this unsavory group.
Beck could list many more. Self-described Progressives included President Wilson’s son-in-law and secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo; the Wisconsin antiwar senator Robert La Follette; California governor and longtime senator (from 1917 to 1945) Hiram Johnson; Idaho senator William Borah; historian Charles Beard; sociologist Harry Elmer Barnes; and Republican president Herbert Hoover. In fact, there were so many prominent Progressives in the early 20th century that Beck would have to devote several of his talkathons to the topic to give us some idea of the broad range of personalities and positions within the movement.
The radio host’s history is not altogether wrong. Originally identified with the reform wings of both national parties before World War I, Progressivism attracted many luminaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover, and Wilson. Those who adhered to this vaguely defined tendency typically favored the expansion of public administration as an alternative to party patronage, periodic use of referenda for determining the popular will, and public education as a source of national solidarity. Progressives generally preferred a highly centralized government run by professional bureaucrats, and they naïvely believed that the methods of the hard sciences could be applied to governing.
Indeed, Progressives thought that government should be the “science of administration.” This was an idea that Woodrow Wilson promoted as a professor and president at Princeton, as governor of the Garden State, and finally as the 28th president of the United States. Scientific administration demanded some significant changes in political practice. Progressive judges like Louis Brandeis and those who came after him used the courts to increase the powers of organized labor and extend federal authority at the expense of the states. Hiram Johnson, as California governor from 1911-1917, worked to expand the civil service; he also favored women’s suffrage because he hoped the fair sex would rally to his notion of an impartial public administration.
Certainly there are features of Progressivism that anyone concerned about centralized power has every right to criticize. But there are problems with how Beck frames his critique. There were different types of Progressives who stressed diverse themes, not all of which can be subsumed under the rubric of “big government.” The connection between Progressivism and modern liberalism is weak. And in truth, Fox News personalities like Beck support many federal programs vastly more intrustive than any the Progressives dared contemplate.
There are many several sides to Progressivism that Beck fails to acknolwedge. Progressives like Robert La Follette were more interested in popular referenda than they were in centralized public administration. Others like Senator Borah came out of a rural populist tradition and never overcame their distrust of the national government. Although McAdoo designed the Federal Reserve System at Wilson’s behest, he was a zealous hard-money man and fought to maintain the gold standard until it was abolished under Franklin Roosevelt. McAdoo was at most an unwitting agent for bringing about inflated paper money.
In foreign policy there was an unbridgeable divide in the Progressive camp between liberal internationalists and isolationists. Most of the opposition that FDR encountered to Lend-Lease and other policies leading to America’s entry into World War II came from his fellow Progressives in both parties. Antiwar Republicans in 1917 and again in 1939-1941 included Progressives such as La Follette, Borah, and FDR’s neighbor in upstate New York, Hamilton Fish. Hiram Johnson not only opposed American entry into both European wars but had the distinction of being the only U.S. Senator to vote against America’s joining the League of Nations and the United Nations. Although a self-described “Lincoln-TR Republican,” Johnson protested entangling foreign alliances and carrying an overly big stick into the international arena.
Pro-war Progressives came to be known as liberal internationalists and are the ancestors of today’s neoconservatives, not a few of whom have taken to calling themsleves “Hard Wilsonians.” Some of the original internationalists broke ranks, however. Though a pro-war Progressive in 1917 and lifelong admirer of President Wilson, Herbert Hoover changed his foreign policy stance in the 1930s and became a critic of American military involvement in Europe. Nevertheless, even as president, Hoover considered himself to stand firmly in the Progressive tradition of strong public administration.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by Fox News, Progressivism had effects in more than one ideological direction. By today’s standards its cultural orientation might seem quite conservative and was certainly pro-family. Even left-wing Progressives like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins would have emphatically opposed anti-discrimination legislation aimed at encouraging women to enter the workforce. Progressives in the interwar years favored government support for a single-family wage, one that would allow men to provide for their families “in dignity” while wives stayed home and tended to their children.
In Central Europe, Progressives’ notions about consulting the people in critical political decisions became their primary legacy. Interwar European jurists, including many on the Right, appealed to the idea of holding frequent referenda as an alternative to party-run politics. Conservative authoritarian leaders in the Baltic States admired and quoted American Progressives not as socialists but as nationalist populists.
In the postwar U.S., meanwhile, liberals such as historian Richard Hofstadter went after some Progressives for what was seen as their right-wing suspicion of administered democracy. Hofstadter attributed this populist streak to an atavistic dislike for rational control from the top, and he saw this as a blemish on the their left-wing credentials.
Progressive commitments to centralized administration and to popular referenda at the state level obviously pulled in opposite directions. The apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that, like the Populists of the late 19th century, Progressives were above all against governments being run by parties and machine politicians. Expert public administrators and popular referenda were both means of circumventing the corruption and deal-making associated with party politics.
California’s Governor Johnson supported a law to let voters register in more than one party. Its obvious purpose was to weaken the solidarity and power of the national parties. But the parties proved adaptable: they harnessed Progressivism by claiming to represent it. Republicans and Democrats alike went after the votes of the group that the Progressives had championed, public-sector employees, and the Progressives ultimately ended up reinforcing our two-party duopoly.