By Tommy Richards, Ph.d

What does progressivism mean in the Trump era? Countless local and national organizations– Indivisible Chester County among them – are now dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda by embracing progressive causes and calling for progressive elected officials. As a term, progressivism has been fashionable for several years now, even before the rise of Trump. For example, in one of their primary debates in early 2016, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton argued over who was the more progressive candidate – and, implicitly, what exactly it meant to be progressive. Yet, with Trump’s election and with Congress and the Supreme Court (again) firmly in the hands of conservatives, the term has become even more popular as resistance to Trump’s agenda has assumed a new urgency.

With so much weight given to progressivism, it is useful to define what exactly progressives mean by the label. Certainly, schools of thought or “isms”have been consistently redefined throughout history. What once was meant by liberalism (“classical liberalism”) is more akin to libertarianism today, while conservatism is perhaps undergoing a broad redefinition because of Trump – after all, there really is nothing conservative about electing as president an ill-informed, blustering megalomaniac with no care for American democratic norms, as many Never Trump conservatives have argued. So as definitions change, we should attempt to define progressivism as it exists in 2017. In doing so, we should understand the context of the term, meaning its use in American history and whether this history has lessons for progressives today.

Let us start with this: why not liberal causes and liberal candidates to resist Trump? Certainly, most progressives are also liberals and many liberals are progressives; the terms are not opposed to one another. It is tempting to think that “progressive” simply means a liberal who is found farther to the left on the political spectrum (and probably some progressives would argue this), but this definition clouds the true importance of the progressive label and inadvertently closes off progressivism to those who do not espouse an ideology of the far left. The difference between liberal and progressive is not in the what, but in the how. Liberalism subscribes to a set of values, while progressivism provides a call to action to achieve those values. It is in the word: progressivism is a belief in progress and progress requires action. Thus, in the Trump era, many of us who have always identified as liberal and have given scant attention to progressivism, now embrace the progressive moniker. To resist Trump, action is needed not simply a set of values. To resist Trump, something must be done.

The progressive belief in action is rooted in American history. Action defined the Progressive Era, which spanned the first two decades of the twentieth century. It was during these two decades when progressivism reached its apogee, as three presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson), Congress, countless state governments, and – most importantly – millions of Americans took up the cause of progressivism. Progressivism was a big tent and embraced countless reforms (some of which seemed to contradict one another), but the purpose of these reforms all stemmed from one belief: the unbridled capitalism and its embrace of the doctrine of laissez-faire during the late nineteenth century had created a United States that provided prosperity to and only cared about the needs of corporate interests. During what we now call the Gilded Age (roughly 1877 to 1900), everyday Americans found their opportunities choked off and their incomes stagnant as the wealth of the elite skyrocketed, while their government remained unresponsive to their needs. Sound familiar?

To combat what progressives saw as a betrayal of the promise of the United States, they believed two fundamental things. First, the population of the United States was not simply a sum of individuals, but an organic whole. Therefore efforts at reforming and improving American society were both valid and just. Progressives envisioned that the reforms they implemented would make American society better and thereby also transform the lives of every individual for the good. Second, while individuals and groups could do work on the ground to improve society, only the federal government was large and powerful enough to combat enormous corporations, as it had a right to do under the U.S. Constitution’s Interstate Commerce clause. Teddy Roosevelt elaborated on this latter point in 1908, remarking that contrary to its critics, the federal government was not engaging in “centralization”, a term that correlates with what conservatives today call “big government.” To Roosevelt, rather, federal regulation “represents merely the acknowledgment of the patent fact that centralization has already come to business. If this irresponsible outside business power is to be controlled in the interest of the general public it can only be controlled in one way: by giving adequate power of control to the one sovereignty capable of exercising such power – the National Government.” In doing so, the federal government would be responsible to the needs of the American people, and not those of corporations.

These two core beliefs spawned a remarkable series of reforms during the first two decades that provided for women’s suffrage, the direct election of senators, the emergence of primary elections, the preservation of national lands, federal oversight over the purity of food and drugs, the implementation of an income tax, and a federal crackdown on monopolies and other corporate practices that hurt American workers and consumers. Certainly, progressivism had its failings and blind spots: prohibition and other attempts at moral improvement were heavy-handed and misguided; the American economy was reformed, but never fully restructured, and income redistribution remained modest. But most damning of all, progressives never tackled racism or segregation and most of their successes bypassed African Americans. Woodrow Wilson, whose presidency represented the height of the Progressive Era, was an arch-segregationist and the racist “science” of eugenics achieved its apogee during these decades. Yet these very real failures should not diminish the larger overall achievement of the original progressives. After decades during which the federal government ignored the hardships of everyday Americans, politicians once again found they needed to become responsive to their voters. During the Progressive Era, the majority of Americans wanted reforms and in many cases politicians listened – and delivered.

Despite its successes, the Progressive Era died a swift death at the end of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, due to both international and domestic factors. Internationally, the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 sapped the momentum from Wilson’s progressive domestic policies, while the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 made aspects of progressivism appear to be socialist – and therefore dangerous. Domestically, the intrusiveness of some progressive policies – for example, prohibition and attempts at “moral reform” – grated on many Americans who may have desired to curb big business, but simply wanted to be left alone as individuals. Ultimately, the election of conservative Warren G. Harding in 1920 rang the death knell of the Progressive Era, as he promised a “return to normalcy.” Although reform continued at modest levels on the ground, the federal government no longer would play a part in regulating the American economy or American society – at least until FDR’s New Deal in 1932.

If we are looking for a manifesto for progressivism in the Age of Trump, then the two tenets at the heart of the original movement – that American society is more than the sum of individual interests and that the government has a responsibility to its citizens to curb the excesses of capitalism – are a good place to start. More broadly, as a historical moment, the Progressive Era offers several lessons for our modern progressive movement both in its successes and its failures. The first lesson reveals one of the major reasons progressives achieved so many victories a century ago- their movement was a big tent embracing women and men, immigrants and the native born, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, and urban and rural inhabitants. This urban-rural alliance, in particular, may appear surprising, particularly in 2017 when electoral maps looks like seas of rural red surrounding tiny enclaves urban blue. Yet agrarians were crucial to the Progressive Era, for they felt the effects of growing inequality and economic consolidation as much as urban Americans and, as historian Walter Nugent notes in his Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction, in many cases it was their votes that made progressive causes emerge in law. Three of the four most influential progressive politicians – Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and Robert La Follette – came from rural areas and embraced rural interests; only Manhattanite Teddy Roosevelt diverged from this pattern.

On the importance of rural Americans in the Progressive Era, today’s Chester County progressives should take heed. We live in a county that is as much exurb and rural as urban and suburban. To be successful, we cannot ignore the concerns of rural Americans, casting them off as hopeless, reactionary Trump voters. In fact, Trump’s rise came partially due to his disdain for typical GOP causes and his embrace of at least some progressive measures. He promised health care for all and claimed he would not touch Medicare. Even more importantly, he claimed that big business and Wall Street were too influential in politics and politicians werebeholden to these moneyed interests instead of to the American people. As a businessman who had manipulated politicians in the past, Trump claimed that only he knew how to fix the corrupt system and make the government responsive again to the people. Of course, as in most things, Trump was lying, although whether intentionally out of deviousness or unintentionally out of ignorance is difficult to parse. Yet, notwithstanding his lies, it should matter to modern progressives that a large segment of the GOP voter embraced these issues. Today, a sizeable majority of Americans – including rural Americans – want more health care not less, want to raise taxes on the rich not lower them, want to overturn Citizens United rather than enshrine it and want to raise the minimum wage not end it. Like the progressives of old, we must seize on these issues to reach people in areas of Chester County and the nation at large that are not typically defined as progressive. For modern progressivism to triumph, it once again must become a big tent.

While we can learn from how progressivism succeeded in the early 20th century, the second lesson stems from how it collapsed, at least in one aspect. One facet of the Progressive Era that historians of all political bents have criticized was its intrusive moralism. It was this moralism that many voters turned against in 1920 when they elected Warren Harding and his “return to normalcy.” Many Americans had become fed up with the meddling of bureaucratic “experts” and the moral crusades of reformers who argued that they invariably knew what was best for other people. In many cases, this resentment possessed a class element: many of the middle-class reformers of the Progressive Era disdained the working-class Americans even as they sought to uplift them and they had little use for input from members of the working class themselves. Feeling it was both heavy-handed and disparaging of their personal experiences, much of the working class turned against progressivism. Modern progressives must not fall into the same traps. Certainly, we must vigorously combat the sad and dangerous anti-intellectualism that Trump and some of his supporters embody, but we must avoid moral platitudes and liberal egotism when doing so. We will not persuade fence sitters by our own self-satisfaction, but by reasoned argument and tenacious outreach. Neither smugness nor arrogance will defeat Trumpism in 2018 and 2020.

The third and final lesson we can learn from the Progressive Era is probably the most important. Although progressives met steadfast resistance from powerful economic and political interests, ultimately their actions mattered. But it took time. Americans espoused various aspects of progressivism in the 1880s and 1890s, when the excesses of the Gilded Age were at their height, but during these decades they encountered defeat after defeat. The 1896 election of William McKinley, a man who embraced unbridled capitalism and big business, seemed to offer a stunning rebuke to the thousands of Americans who felt the country had left them behind. Nevertheless (to paraphrase Mitch McConnell) progressives persisted and ultimately this persistence brought about meaningful change. By the first decade of the 1900s, the weight of numbers finally mattered. Progressive Americans converted their friends and neighbors to their cause, leading to an overwhelming tide of support, which in turn led to the election of progressive politicians throughout the country. Other politicians who had not been progressives responded to their constituents and now unabashedly embraced progressive causes, Teddy Roosevelt most prominently. Like progressives of old, our progressive movement must also persist. We will continue to bear losses over the next four years, both via Trump and his allies’ policies in federal and state governments and also on the electoral battlefield, but continued action will eventually yield profound results. American democracy may be flawed, but it remains a democracy and eventually the majority of American people who oppose the malicious tide of Trumpism will triumph.

The Progressive Era may have been over in 1920, but progressivism was not. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society both built upon aspects of the Progressive Era, although neither platform sought to be as transformative as the progressives in the early twentieth century, particularly as these programs pertained to the daily lives of individuals. In recent years, the Affordable Care Act is also a progressive measure – indeed, the quest to pass universal health insurance in the United States began during the Progressive Era. All of these moments, from the Progressive Era to the passage of the ACA, have bettered the lives of millions of Americans, but they all have encountered tremendous backlash among portions of American society. In many ways, progress followed by backlash has been the story of U.S. (and perhaps global) history: for every two steps we take forward, we take one step back. At present, Donald Trump and his cronies are trying to make us take that step back. We can’t let it happen.

Further reading:

A description of the Progressive Era can be found in American Yawp, the collaborative online American History textbook:

For a more detailed analysis, see Walter Nugent, Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), and Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

About the author:

Tommy Richards possesses a Ph.D. in history from Temple University, teaches at several local universities, and lives in Chester County.

Edited by JoEllen McBride, Ph.d.