The Progressive Era

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In what ways did Progressivism include both democratic and anti-democratic impulses?

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In one respect, Progressive leaders were in favor of increasing democracy. The Progressive movement led to the direct election of senators and suffrage for women. These amendments directly increased democracy. Progressives also backed referendums and initiatives which placed issues on the ballots so that they could be handled directly by voters. Furthermore, Progressives believed in secret ballots.

In another respect, Progressive leaders were against some forms of democracy. Progressive leaders were nativist in their goal of temperance, since the goal of some temperance leaders was to make the United States undesirable for further immigration from Southern Europe. One of the ideas of promoting birth control at the turn of the century was so that Southern European Catholic and Jewish immigrants did not outproduce the Anglo-Saxon majority already in the United States. This strain of nativism used wrongly-held beliefs that European immigrants would damage American Protestant ideals. Progressives were often paternalistic in their view of uneducated working classes, as they considered reforms as necessary in order to protect the people from themselves.

In one respect, Progressives increased the amount of democracy in the country. The idea behind the direct election of senators lay with the notion that state legislatures were prone to corruption. In another respect, Progressives seemed to favor educated, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants as the people best suited to govern the United States. This racist attitude was an undercurrent in the movement, especially where temperance was involved.

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I would say that, taken in aggregate, the Progressives sought to make government more responsive to its citizens. While that aim was democratic at its core, the means by which the Progressives sought to achieve those ends were not necessarily so. For example, consider President Theodore Roosevelt. In his presidency, he dramatically increased the power and authority of the executive branch. One can also point towards Progressive approaches towards civic and municipal government, such as commission government and city managers. These placed more value on efficiency and problem-solving capability over a purely democratic approach to government.

Even so, there were a great many Progressive Reforms that radically increased democracy in the United States. For example, many Progressives supported the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the vote to women, as well as the Seventeenth Amendment, which ensured the direct election of Senators. In addition, one can point towards ideas which radically expanded citizens' access to government: the initiative, recall and referendum, which allowed voters to directly affect the governing process. In addition, progressives supported the use of secret ballots as well as the adaptation of primary elections.

All this being said, not all of the Progressive ideals were noble. Indeed, there is a long history of nativism and racism running across the Progressive era, not to mention its interest in eugenics. This shows a deeply unpleasant side to the Progressive Era, one well worth keeping in mind.

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Progressivism included democratic elements in that the movement attempted to restore a measure of fairness and competition, particularly by breaking up monopolies that were thought to have an unfair stranglehold on the economy. Progressives were concerned that too few people had too much power, and they wanted to break up the power of conglomerates in order to make the market more open for others. This was a democratic impulse. In addition, Progressives wanted to root out corruption in local politics, particularly in urban areas, to make the political process more democratic.

On the other hand, some Progressives were nativist, meaning that they were anti-immigrant. They were not necessarily in favor of immigrants gaining the right to vote. Temperance, the movement to outlaw the consumption of alcohol, was also a strain of Progressivism that showed its nativist tendencies, as Progressives believed (wrongly) that Catholics were more prone to drinking. Overall, Progressives (with some exceptions) were white Protestants who felt that they were culturally superior to other ethnic, religious, and racial groups and felt that they had the moral duty to educate others to emulate their ways. These were the anti-democratic impulses of Progressivism.

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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.

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