In What Ways Did Progressivism Include Both Democratic And Anti-democratic Impulses?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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We tend to think of the Progressives as a group that was interested in making the United States more democratic, but this is not uniformly true.  It is more accurate to say that most Progressives were mainly interested in increasing the amount of democracy available to middle class, native whites and were less interested in increasing democracy for the poor, for immigrants, and for non-whites.

In some ways, the Progressives were truly democratic in their impulses.  This is seen most clearly in the fact that the supported giving the vote to women.  It can also be seen in their push for things like secret ballots and direct democracy measures such as the initiative and the recall.  Finally, we can see their democratic impulses in the fact that they passed the 17th Amendment, which allowed people to vote directly for their US senators.

But many Progressives had anti-democratic impulses as well.  They typically felt that middle class, native-born, white Americans were superior to other sorts of people and should have the most power.  Because of this, they enacted policies that worked to limit the political power of other groups.  They also passed legislation to try to control the behavior of other groups.  One example of this is Prohibition.  The Progressives wanted to prohibit alcohol largely because they felt that it corrupted the poor and immigrants.  It would seem more democratic to allow the poor and the immigrants to decide for themselves if alcohol was a good thing, but the Progressives were more paternalistic and felt that they knew what was best.  A second example is the creation of things like at-large city elections.  The Progressives did not like having poor and immigrant areas of the city electing representatives of their own.  They felt that these people were not really educated enough to vote and they felt that their representatives tended to support political machines, which Progressives did not like.  Therefore, they implemented at-large city elections so that the middle class, native-born vote could cancel out the poor and immigrant vote.

Thus, the Progressives’ impulses were both democratic and anti-democratic.  It can be argued that they wanted more democracy for the “right” kind of people and less democracy for the “wrong” kind of people.