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Freedom, Equality, the Common Good: The Progressive Intellectual Tradition
Here is a helpful brief description of what the terms 'liberal' and 'progressive' mean in terms of the history of politics in the U.S.

By John Halpin

John Halpin wrote this with Conor P. Williams, Ruy Teixeira, and Marta Cook.

What is Progressivism?

The National Progressive Convention in Chicago is seen on August 6, 1912. As a philosophical tradition, progressivism in its most complete form developed as a “new liberalism” for a new century—updating the American liberal tradition from its Jeffersonian, small-government, republican roots best suited for the agrarian economy of the nation’s founding era to a more democratic and modern liberalism capable of checking rising corporate power.
Progressivism at its core is grounded in the idea of progress, moving beyond the status quo to more equal and just social conditions consistent with original American democratic principles such as freedom, equality, and the common good. Progressivism as an intellectual movement emerged between 1890 and 1920 as a response to the multitude of problems associated with the industrialization of the U.S. economy, frequent economic depressions, political corruption, rising poverty, low wages, poor working conditions, tenement living, child labor, lack of collective bargaining power, unsafe consumer products, and the misuse of natural resources.

The original Progressive Era is known primarily for two major developments in American politics:
  • One, political reforms crafted to break up the power of privileged interests, such as expanded suffrage, direct primaries, direct election of senators, and the initiative and referendum process.
  • Two, economic reforms structured to counterbalance the excessive power of business and to fight inequality measures such as the graduated income and inheritance taxes, the right to organize and other labor protections, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, old age and disability provisions, food and drug safety laws, and conservation measures.
As a philosophical tradition, progressivism in its most complete form developed as a new liberalism for a new century, updating the American liberal tradition from its Jeffersonian, small-government, republican roots best suited for the agrarian economy of the nation's founding era to a more democratic and modern liberalism capable of checking rising corporate power. The original progressives argued that changes in the economy's organization required a more complete understanding of human freedom, equality, and opportunity that Jefferson championed so persuasively. Progressives believed that formal legal freedom alone, the negative protections against government intrusions on personal liberty, were not enough to provide the effective freedom necessary for citizens to fulfill their human potential in an age of rising inequality, paltry wages, and labor abuses. Changed conditions demanded a changed defense of human liberty.

Writing at the height of the New Deal reform era, John Dewey explained the progressive view of liberty as a continuation of historic movements for human liberation:

Liberty in the concrete signifies release from the impact of particular oppressive forces; emancipation from something once taken as a normal part of human life but now experienced as bondage. At one time, liberty signified liberation from chattel slavery; at another time, release of a class from serfdom. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it meant liberation from despotic dynastic rule. A century later it meant release of industrialists from inherited legal customs that hampered the rise of new forces of production. Today it signifies liberation from material insecurity and from the coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from the participation in the vast cultural resources that are at hand.

Progressives argued that rigid adherence to past versions of limited government had to be discarded in order to promote genuine liberty and opportunity for people at a time of concentrated economic power. Progressives challenged excessive individualism in social thought and politics, promoted an alternative to laissez-faire economics, and replaced constitutional formalism with a more responsive legal order that expanded American democracy and superseded the economic status quo with a stronger national framework of regulations and social reforms.

Progressives sought above all to give real meaning to the promise of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, "We the people," working together to build a more perfect union, promote the general welfare, and expand prosperity to all citizens. Drawing on the American nationalist tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, progressives posited that stronger government action was necessary to advance the common good, regulate business interests, promote national economic growth, protect workers and families displaced by modern capitalism, and promote true economic and social opportunity for all people.

In the famous formulation of progressive thought often associated with the progressive theorist Herbert Croly, this meant using Hamiltonian means (national action) to achieve Jeffersonian ends (liberty, equality, and opportunity). Progressives' overall goal was to replace a rigid economic philosophy, one that had morphed from its egalitarian roots into a legalistic defense of economic power and privilege, with a more democratic political order that allowed people to flourish individually within a larger national community.

Progressivism has always been part of a broader global movement to build a more humane, just, and economically stable international community based on full opportunity and selfdetermination for all citizens. Progressives on both sides of the Atlantic learned from one another in their attempts to build more responsive and democratic governments. But as a distinctly American response to the nation's economic conditions and its political tradition, progressivism steered a middle way between the radical ideas of socialism prevalent in some parts of Europe and the unbending hands-off approach of conservatives ascendant in the United States.

In terms of its political values, progressivism throughout the years stressed a range of ideals that remain important today:
  • Freedom, in its fullest sense, including negative freedom from undue coercion by government or society and the effective freedom of every person to lead a fulfilling and economically secure life
  • The common good, broadly meaning a commitment in government and society to placing public needs and the concerns of the least well-off above narrow self-interest or the demands of the privileged
  • Pragmatism, both in its philosophical form of evaluating ideas based on their real world consequences rather than abstract ideals, and in more practical terms as an approach to problem solving grounded in science, empirical evidence, and policy experimentation
  • Equality, as first put forth by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and updated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
  • Social justice, the proper arrangement of law, society, and the economy to ensure that all people have the formal and informal capacity to shape their own lives and realize their dreams
  • Democracy, the full participation of citizens in the major decisions and debates that affect their lives
  • Cooperation and interdependence, particularly as these ideas relate to global affairs, an overall humanitarian vision, and the importance of shared social and economic knowledge.
This paper explores these progressive values and traditions in more detail by looking at the historical context that gave rise to progressivism, the conservative traditions it challenged, and its affirmative values, ideas, and goals.

The Progressive Tradition in American Politics

A parade for suffrage is seen in New York City, October 23, 1915, in which 20,000 women marched. Improvements in American life, such as women's suffrage, would not have happened without the pioneering ideas of early progressives.
Accompanying the transformation of America's public philosophy away from the predominant laissez-faire vision of the late 19th century and toward stronger forms of democratic governance in the 20th century, numerous changes occurred in the issue agendas, constituencies, and policy platforms of the major political parties in the United States as they came to grips with rising progressive sentiment.

Progressivism has always found expressions both within and outside the major political parties, beginning with the early protest movements of the populists and other third party insurgencies to the transformative candidacies of William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. As Herbert Croly, co-founder of The New Republic, notes, the most distinctive progressive faction, as opposed to the more populist and agrarian one represented by Bryan, was located within the Republican Party and most fiercely advocated by prominent voices such as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. Roosevelt and La Follette both formed outside Progressive Parties to promote the ideas of national reform after failing to transform the Republican Party into a genuinely progressive vehicle.

Meanwhile, the slow conversion of Woodrow Wilson from his southern conservative background into a national progressive president solidified progressivism within the Democratic Party¡ªa legacy that was greatly extended under the long tenure of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt's aggressive national actions to repair and transform our society and government in the wake of the Great Depression set the course for the midcentury liberalism of Harry Truman, the New Frontier of John Kennedy, and the great civil rights advances under Lyndon Johnson.

Improvements in American life would not have happened without the pioneering ideas of these early progressives. The shift from conservatism toward progressivism helped to structure our society in far more humane and effective ways and gave real meaning to our founding principles of liberty, equality, and opportunity. Progressives built on this new foundation and expanding levels of support from the American public, successfully amassing a worthy list of policy accomplishments over the last century. These included such landmarks of equality and social justice as the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek; the constitutional right to vote, full legal equality, and the elimination of formal discrimination for women and minorities; and Social Security and Medicare to aid the elderly and Medicaid to help low-income families and children. (See sidebar for an extensive list of key reforms.)

Social Movements and Progressivism

Students from North Carolina A&T College stage a sit-down strike after being refused service at a luncheon counter in February 1960. The seeds of the great civil rights triumphs of the 20th century came from within progressivism itself.


A rich history of social movements shaped progressive thought throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Historian Sidney Milkis characterizes the accomplishments of the original Progressive Era as “momentous reconstructions of politics,” a description that equally applies to the numerous social movements that aimed to better align America’s political and social order with its ideals of liberty, equality, and opportunity for all.

Progressivism as a reform tradition has always focused its moral energy against societal injustice, corruption, and inequality. Progressivism was built on a vibrant grassroots foundation, from the Social Gospel and labor movements to women’s suffrage and civil rights to environmentalism, antiwar activism, and gay rights. The activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed. They challenged government to eliminate its own legal injustices and also harnessed the force of government as a vital tool for advancing human freedom and establishing the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Progressive reforms: A century of accomplishments
  • The eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek
  • Worker's compensation for on-the-job accidents
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Prohibitions against child labor and workplace exploitations
  • The legal right of people to organize within labor unions and engage in collective bargaining for fair wages and benefits
  • The constitutional right to vote, full legal equality, and the elimination of formal discrimination for women and minorities
  • The graduated income and inheritance tax
  • Protections against contaminated food and medicines
  • Hundreds of millions of acres of protected wilderness areas, waterways, and national parks
  • Antimonopoly and anticompetitive regulations of corporations
  • Direct elections of U.S. senators, direct primary elections of political candidates, and the initiative and referendum process in the states
  • Civil service tests to replace political patronage
  • National supervision of banks and the creation of a flexible national currency
  • Regulation of the securities industry
  • Federal insurance of bank deposits
  • Bans on speculative banking practices
  • Refinancing and foreclosure protections for home and farm owners
  • National infrastructure including electrification, railways, airports, bridges and roads, and the Internet
  • Social Security and Medicare to aid the elderly and Medicaid and CHIP to help low-income families and children
  • Minimum wage laws and income support for the working poor
  • Public education, college loans and grants for students, and the GI Bill
Central to all progressive social movements is the belief that the people do not have to wait for change from the top down—that people themselves can be catalysts for change from the bottom up. Many social movement activists came from middle- or working-class backgrounds and possessed the courage and skill to organize others, risking great personal sacrifice and danger. Nonviolent themselves, many of these activists faced ridicule, violence, and other hardships in their efforts to push their fellow citizens toward more enlightened positions in line with the country’s stated values.

Mainstream political parties often ignored social movement activists who engaged in public education and took to the streets to demand justice and political equality. Through direct action campaigns and political organizing they asked other Americans to join their cause as a matter of conscience and duty to their fellow human beings. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable net- work of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agita- tor” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
The relationship between political progressivism—as expressed in the platforms and actions of political parties and leaders—and social movements has not always been harmonious or cooperative. Social movements, by definition, arise from a committed minority of citizens working together to shape larger public consciousness about particular injustices in addition to working for concrete political change. Social movements have invariably advanced moral and political causes surrounding gender, racial, and class equality with much greater force and consistency than those in mainstream politics. The ideas of social movements, such as expanded suffrage and civil rights protections, often become uncontested parts of mainstream politics after prolonged struggles. In other cases, social movements band together to create new political institutions to challenge the partisan status quo from the outside as seen with the early farmers’ alliances who formed the People’s Party and social reformers and dissident Republicans of the early 1900s who formed the Progressive Party.

Progressive leaders themselves learned from the principled activism of social movements. Many mainstream progressive political leaders in the past were reactionary on issues of race and gender. At the same time, the seeds of the great civil rights triumphs of the 20th century came from within progressivism itself. An interracial coalition of progressives joined together to create the NAACP and many leading progressives emerged from the fight for abolition and women’s suffrage. The collective efforts of these movements eventually helped to turn progressivism itself into a stronger vehicle for human equality, social tolerance, and political rights for all people.

Progressive social movements are divided into two main categories for the purposes of this essay: movements for equality and individual rights, and movements for economic justice. This division presents two questions: What, if anything, ties these movements together, and how do they fit within the larger intellectual and political tradition of progressivism?
  • First, each of the movements developed in response to a grave injustice in American life that directly or indirectly affected a significant segment of society—for example, the formal inequality of women, African Americans, immigrants, and gays and lesbians led to various movements for civil rights; the poor working conditions and poverty-level subsistence of wage earners led to the rise of the labor movement.
  • Second, each of these social movements worked as independent checks on mainstream progressive politics and functioned as internal factions within the progressive tradition itself.
  • Third, in terms of shared values, many of these movements were grounded in the moral and philosophical inspiration of the early American tradition—particularly the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and other civic republican and democratic ideals—as well as longstanding religious principles expressed in Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths.
  • Fourth, each of these movements in one way or another advanced the values of progressivism described in the opening essay: freedom in its fullest sense; a commitment to the common good; pragmatic reform; human equality; social justice; democracy; and cooperation and interdependence. Although sometimes radical for their times, the movements described here lie clearly within the reform tradition of American politics and many, if not all, of their original goals have been integrated into mainstream American society and government over time.
The relationship between social movements and progressivism is ultimately one of shared learning and activism in pursuit of common values. These brief summaries are not meant to be exhaustive accounts of all the major players or all the landmark events of the various movements, but rather to provide an illustrative sampling of a rich tradition that continues to shape progressivism today.

This paper is one of a great series at the Center for American Progress.




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Date Added: 4/15/2010 Date Revised: 4/15/2010

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