05 October 2005

Am I Really a Progressive?

A story at Street Prophets, a religion and politics oriented site where I haven't registered and quite frankly am not very comfortable, discusses the progressive movement of the late 1880s and early 1900s, the original one. I do not wholeheartedly embrace its agenda, although it did do some good things.

In the latter part of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, the Progressive Movement was born as an urban counterpart to Populism. Although the two movements shared some characteristics, there were also important differences. For one, "Progressivism" found its support among small businessmen, professionals, and successful middle-class urban dwellers, in contrast to the disgruntled farmers who fueled the Populist movement. The "Progressive Movement" was difficult to define. It is more accurately thought of as an umbrella label, under which a variety of reform groups and liberally-minded individuals gathered.

Indeed, Progressives themselves were never a unified group seeking a single objective or a single set of objectives. They had many different, even contradictory goals, including:

End to "white slavery" (prostitution and the sweat shops)


"Americanization" of immigrants

Immigration restriction legislation

Anti-trust legislation

Rate regulation of private utilities

Full government ownership of private utilities

Women's suffrage

End to child labor

Destruction of urban political machines, i.e. the well known Tamany machine.

Prohibition was a disaster. The anti-prostitution movement probably did more harm than good. Limiting immigration and trying to rush the Americanization of immigrants was a bad idea. A century later, anti-trust legislation has proven relatively impotent at dealing with the problems it was designed to prevent. I'm all for public utilities being either rate regulated or publicly owned. Women's sufferage was good as was ending child labor and regulating the workplace to prevent sweat shops.

But, I also disagree with a great many steps that the progressive movement took to destroy political machines and have some doubts about whether destroying them, as opposed to merely reforming them, was the right move.

The effort to destroy political machines brought us such institutions as the partisan secretary of state and state treasurer, elected judges, and the initiative and referrendum movement. All of these developments, and a general division of governmental power among many impotent minor elected officials, were fundamentally bad ideas that have harmed to quality of governance in the United States.

Obviously, in an age when one of the main gatherings for progressives in Denver is "Drinking Liberally", the prohibition agenda is gone, and being a progressive now doesn't necessarily mean now what it did then. But, to carry the label progressive is to associate oneself with that earlier movement, and that is not something that I am terribly comfortable doing.

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