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The Progressive Era was not what you think it was

A warning about labels

Liberals have taken a bashing over the last fifty years — earned in many instances — both from their left and most assuredly, although less honestly, from their right.  Radicals to the left of liberals have suffered a kind of guilt-by-association because of the persistence of dualistic thinking and the constant classification of people by a media that places everyone on a constricted political spectrum from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”

Liberals were once revered in the United States, notably for the spectacular legislative victories of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (Roosevelt began using the term “liberal” to describe the ideology of the New Deal) and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Unfortunately liberals failed to live up to their own successes. They allowed the continuation of white supremacy in the South, initiated a domestic hunt for Communists, and launched a foreign policy based on virulent anti-Communism, most notably in Vietnam.

From the left, Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), representing disaffected young people, asked in 1965,

“What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose?  What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South?”

His successor as SDS president, Carl Oglesby, pointed his finger at exactly that system: “corporate liberalism … an unholy alliance of business and the state that was enriching to elites but destructive to working-class Americans and the world’s poor.”

From the right, Reagan and his successors initiated a program villainizing liberals and the very word liberal itself. In a debate with Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, the Republican’s George H. W. Bush hurled the word “liberal” at a flustered Dukakis. Dukakis was left sputtering inanities about name-calling “Let’s stop labeling each other….”.

Mission accomplished. “Liberal” became an insult. The insult gathered steam through the Clinton and Obama administrations when each president adopted conservative programs prompting The Nation’s William Greider to declare Obama’s fiscal austerity policies “the last groaning spasms of New Deal liberalism.”

Democrats have now retired “liberal” and embraced “progressive” in its stead.

In an attempt to reinvigorate liberalism’s origin story, the Center for American Progress (a Democratic think tank) issued a series of papers under the misapprehension that “progressivism” was another form of liberalism. The papers claimed that progressivism updated “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.”

To the arch-liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of other sections to restrain the power of the business community.” Quite the contrary. As Gabriel Kolko made clear in his exhaustively researched, brilliant revisionist study of the era, The Triumph of Conservatism,

“ . . . the period from approximately 1900 until the United States’ intervention in the war, labeled the “progressive” era by virtually all historians, was really an era of conservatism. . .There were any number of options involving government and economics abstractly available to national political leaders during the period 1900-1916, and in virtually every case they chose those solutions to problems advocated by the representatives of concerned business and financial interests. . . In brief, conservative solutions to the emerging problems of an industrial society were almost uniformly applied.”

Capitalists, searching for a way to blunt more democratic movements in individual states, turned to the national government in “an effort to preserve the basic social and economic relations . . . an effort that was frequently consciously as well as functionally conservative.”

Kolko began his dismantling of the hegemonic historical narrative with his Harvard doctoral dissertation studying railroad regulation.  In his painstaking combing of archives, Kolko uncovered a startling revelation: “The men who had led the push for federal regulation of railroads were not populist farmers or wage laborers but rather the railroad capitalists themselves.”

Until Kolko, liberal historians had argued that the Gilded Age, roughly the period just preceding the Progressive Era, was a period of “untrammeled monopoly power and corporate dominance.”  Kolko refuted that consensus by showing that instead, the 1890s was characterized by

“cutthroat competition, chaotic instability, rising labor power, radically anti-business legislation at the local and state level, and [a] Balkanized political system that did not fit the standardized needs of corporations aspiring to create a centralized national economy… Progressivism was initially a movement for the political rationalization of business and industrial conditions… …a movement that operated on the assumption that the general welfare of the community could be best served by satisfying the concrete needs of business. [But the regulation itself]…was invariably controlled by leaders of the regulated industry, and directed toward ends they deemed acceptable or desirable. . .  It is business control over politics (and by ‘business’ I mean the major economic interests) rather than political regulation of the economy that is the significant phenomenon of the Progressive Era.” provides several definitions for the term “liberal,” three of which seem appropriate to this discussion:

  • of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties;
  • favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties;
  • favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression.

These concepts, if put at the center of liberal ideology, could bridge the divide between liberals and radicals.  There would be differences remaining, but instead of identifying themselves with a conservative ideology constructed by business and financial interests, liberals might want to think about recapturing the term “liberal.”

They could strip it of the Progressive Era taint that has caused problems over the last fifty years (especially the cozy connections between the Democratic Party and business and financial interests) and make a genuine rapprochement with radicals to challenge the conservative and reactionary elements now in control of the government.

Gary Murrell is an independent radical, historian and writer living in Grays Harbor.


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I can read the labels, I know what they say…