King’s Survey: The Progress Party

In which we ponder the shape of change


Theodore Roosevelt on the stump, 1912


Jonquil, I have a question for you.

—Okay. What?

Do you believe in progress?


Yes, progress.

—What kind of progress?

Progress in a general sense: do you think that the conditions of everyday life tend to improve over time?

—I guess so.

You guess so.

—Yeah. More or less. Things gradually get better. I mean, there’s no more slavery, right?

—Racism hasn’t gone away.

—No. But it’s not as bad.

—Just a different form.

—Yeah, different form.

Does racism not change, simply change its shape?

—I’m not sure.

—I think so.

Well, I’m not sure there’s a right answer to that question. As you noted, Jonquil, my question was very general. Brianna, quite legitimately, focused it through a racial lens. What might we say about things like the state of material life in the United States. Would it be possible to say they’ve improved for pretty much everyone?

—I don’t see how you can’t say that. I mean, even the poorest people have stuff like cell phones and computers.

—People live longer.

—Yeah, but we still have to contend with Justin Bieber.

—Oh stop, Jonah.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that life has gotten better. That even the poorest people enjoy a higher standard of living, even as we’ll also stipulate that plenty of challenges remain, among them entirely new forms of exploitation. If we agree on that, why do you think that’s happened? Is it just a matter of a kind of social evolution? Or is it the result of active intervention?

—Well, a lot of laws have been passed.

That’s true. As Jonquil noted, we no longer have slavery. There are any number of others we could cite, ranging from laws against child labor to the much-celebrated Anti-Justin Bieber Act of 2017.

—I wish.

—Yeah, but I’m not sure that stuff can be seen as a matter of laws. I mean, a lot of laws happen because there are incentives, like financial incentives, that make them happen. And technology doesn’t happen because laws get passed.

Well, then, how does it, Adam?

—You get inventors who come up with new ideas.

Yeah, but how do those ideas happen? Where do they happen?

—I dunno. In laboratories, I guess.

And how are those laboratories paid for?

—By companies.

Yes, in some cases. But a great many of them come out of universities. And where does that money come from?

—The government!

Right, Sadie. Which is another way of saying by law, because budgets have to get passed by legislatures. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which created the state university system. State universities have long been hothouses of innovation, which they were designed to be. Of course, Adam, you’re right the private sector is also important. Maybe more important than ever these days. Again, I don’t think there’s any straight answer to the question.

—Now there’s a surprise.

—So why are we talking about this, then?

Here’s why: because the question about the existence and nature of progress is a historical perennial, and in a way, the story of American politicsand the story of British politics, from which American politics derive, even nowis defined by it. On one side, you have those who believe the world only gets better when you take active steps to improve it, which takes long, hard work. On the other are those who say that the world doesn’t improve, it only changes, and that those who think they can control the process are fooling themselves and subjecting everyone else to their arrogant pride.

—Okay. I get that. But why are we talking about this now, then?

Because we’ve reached a point in our journey together where this debate came into notably clear focus, in large measure because that first camp did a notably good charge of taking control of the political debate. We call this moment in our history the Progressive Era.

—Right. From the reading.

Yes. Since you’ve apparently done your homework, Kylie, why don’t you tell us what the Progressive Era was all about?

—Um, progress?

—Hey Kylie, I’m really impressed.

Yes, that’s a start. But I think you can add more.

—Well, yeah. It was this period, around 1900, when a lot of laws got passed.

Right. What kind of laws? Anyone can jump in.

—There were a lot of them. Stuff about big business.

—Yeah. And health. And kids.

—And environmentalism. Theodore Roosevelt.

All correct. A lot of these reform efforts date back to the 1890s, and were common at the city and state level. Then, at the turn of the century, they began to gather momentum.

—That’s because of Theodore Roosevelt.

Not entirely, Jonah. Certainly he was important. But a lot was happening long before he became president. And the fact that he became president was an accident.

—You mean because the other president …

William McKinley.

—Yeah, McKinley. He got shot.

Well yes, that was an accident. But Roosevelt became president because he was vice president, and he was vice president because the Republican Party tried to find a way they could muzzle him with job that was considered irrelevant at the time (the party chief at the time, Mark Hanna, warned them not to do this, and Roosevelt had never managed to stay quiet in any job he ever held).

—Were Progressives Democrats?

Yes. and Republicans, too. It was a movement that crossed party lines.

—So where was all this push for change coming from?

Exactly what I was going to ask you all, Yin. Why do you think it happened then? I realize this is a tough question, but give it a try.

—Well, it didn’t come out of nowhere, did it? I mean, we talked about the Populists. They wanted change, too. That was in the 1890s, right?

Yes, that’s true, and a good observation on your part, Sadie. The difference is that the Populists were basically farming people, and mostly came from the South and West. The Progressives were part of a new middle class, people who basically held office jobs (as opposed to farms or factories). And it was a national movement. Populists had some powerful ideas, like using primaries to elect senators, or and more regulation of railroads. Progressives made many of those ideas happen, along with some of their own. They were very effective at getting things done. And they did a lot: they regulated monopolies, created the first national income tax, created national parks, improved health and safety standards, and much, much more.

—Why was that? Why were they so good at getting things done?

A bunch of reasons. The first is that they felt very strongly that changes needed to be made. That’s important, but not sufficient. The second is that Progressives knew how to work the institutional ropes. They were products of the system—they worked in government, in schools, in charitable organizations of various kinds (many of them were women). A third is that they combined moral fervor with expertise; it was an age when science had new prestige and new practical applications. Finally, many of their opponents—radicals on the left, plutocratic businessmen on the right—lacked sufficient popular support to promote their own agendas as effectively. We’ve talked a lot about how industrial capitalism was like a wind that blew across the national landscape, and that some people liked it, and some people didn’t but everybody felt it. The Progressives felt they could do something about it—that they could make things better—and they acted on that belief.

Did they make things better?

So, kids, what’s the best answer to that question.

—It’s “You tell me, kids.”

—It depends?

Depends on what?

—Depends who you ask.


—Are you saying that if you were a Progressive you liked what happened, and if you weren’t you didn’t?

Not quite. There were some people who weren’t necessarily Progressives who nevertheless benefited. For example, if you were a woman who had an alcoholic husband who beat you, laws restricting drinking helped, as did the creation of shelters or settlement houses where you could go for help.

—Were the Progressives the ones who made Prohibition happen in the 1920s?

They were.

—Well, that wasn’t a very good idea.

Yes, it seems everyone agrees on that. (Funny how this is the one thing every adolescent seems to know about this period of U.S. history.) It also shows the less attractive side of the Progressives: they were widely perceived as busybodies who liked to regulate other peoples’ behavior.

—Yeah, I could see how that would get on my nerves.

Does that mean, then, Em, that you’re inclined to see the Progressives less as a set of people who improved things than a set of people who seized control—control was a big Progressive concept—and tried to bend the world the way they wanted it? That there’s no real progress, merely shifts in power?

—I dunno. I mean, it sounds like a lot of what they did was common sense. But there’s only so much improvement I can handle. Just ask my parents.

I understand. That’s why in our next class, we’re going to have a little Progressive simulation. We’ll see how you react.

Next: An exercise in amelioration




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