Were grassroots activists or federal policymakers more influential in the implementation of progressive reform?

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Grassroots activists and federal policymakers play very different roles in society when it comes to overseeing the implementation of progressive reform. Grassroots activists are often splintered into different groups. These organizations mobilize their networks to promote awareness around particular issues like pollution, workers' rights or civil liberties. The job of the lawmaker is to interpret the interests of various stakeholders in society across a wide range of concerns.

Let's consider the example of the Civil Rights movement. Civil rights activists participated in mass displays of civil disobedience in order to protest their unfair treatment under harsh segregation laws in the Jim Crow South. Eventually, their efforts paid off, and policymakers who were once hesitant to accept their demands passed the Voting Rights Act. This policy secured African Americans the right to vote and outlawed mechanisms like the poll tax, which suppressed the vote. The job of the grassroots activists here was to raise awareness around an issue and provoke a public discussion that might lead to change. The job of the federal policymaker was to interpret these interests into law and implement concrete mechanisms to protect the rights of the oppressed.

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The answer to this question depends on what progressive reforms one is referring to. Progressivism was above all an urban movement, and many of its reforms were a consequence of people who worked at the local level, establishing settlement houses, engaging in social work, promoting political reform in city governments, and pushing for revisions in city housing ordinances, to name a few reforms. But many of the most enduring Progressive reforms were implemented at the federal level. Federal laws and amendments established safety standards for food and drugs, instituted a federal income tax, promoted management of monetary policy through the Federal Reserve, and, infamously, implemented Prohibition, long a goal of many urban reformers, at the national level. So Progressive reformers worked at the local, state, and federal level to reform society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. A prominent example of this reform impulse was Theodore Roosevelt, whose zeal for reform dated in part to his service as New York City's police commissioner in the late 1800s. He would carry this commitment for Progressive reform into the office of New York governor and then the Presidency itself.

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