When Glenn Beck wants to look serious he dons oversized horn-rimmed glasses and begins to lecture about Progressivism. In his telling, Progressives have contributed significantly to our latter-day political problems. He finds their ideology—combining massive bureaucracy with a command economy and certain forms of social engineering identified with eugenics—at the heart of today’s big-government liberalism. His litany of real or alleged Progressives includes Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, Franklin Roosevelt, and occasionally Franklin’s cousin Teddy. Early feminist and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger also sometimes appears among this unsavory group.
Beck could list many more. Self-described Progressives included President Wilson’s son-in-law and secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo; the Wisconsin antiwar senator Robert La Follette; California governor and longtime senator (from 1917 to 1945) Hiram Johnson; Idaho senator William Borah; historian Charles Beard; sociologist Harry Elmer Barnes; and Republican president Herbert Hoover. In fact, there were so many prominent Progressives in the early 20th century that Beck would have to devote several of his talkathons to the topic to give us some idea of the broad range of personalities and positions within the movement.
The radio host’s history is not altogether wrong. Originally identified with the reform wings of both national parties before World War I, Progressivism attracted many luminaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover, and Wilson. Those who adhered to this vaguely defined tendency typically favored the expansion of public administration as an alternative to party patronage, periodic use of referenda for determining the popular will, and public education as a source of national solidarity. Progressives generally preferred a highly centralized government run by professional bureaucrats, and they naïvely believed that the methods of the hard sciences could be applied to governing.
Indeed, Progressives thought that government should be the “science of administration.” This was an idea that Woodrow Wilson promoted as a professor and president at Princeton, as governor of the Garden State, and finally as the 28th president of the United States. Scientific administration demanded some significant changes in political practice. Progressive judges like Louis Brandeis and those who came after him used the courts to increase the powers of organized labor and extend federal authority at the expense of the states. Hiram Johnson, as California governor from 1911-1917, worked to expand the civil service; he also favored women’s suffrage because he hoped the fair sex would rally to his notion of an impartial public administration.
Certainly there are features of Progressivism that anyone concerned about centralized power has every right to criticize. But there are problems with how Beck frames his critique. There were different types of Progressives who stressed diverse themes, not all of which can be subsumed under the rubric of “big government.” The connection between Progressivism and modern liberalism is weak. And in truth, Fox News personalities like Beck support many federal programs vastly more intrustive than any the Progressives dared contemplate.
There are many several sides to Progressivism that Beck fails to acknolwedge. Progressives like Robert La Follette were more interested in popular referenda than they were in centralized public administration. Others like Senator Borah came out of a rural populist tradition and never overcame their distrust of the national government. Although McAdoo designed the Federal Reserve System at Wilson’s behest, he was a zealous hard-money man and fought to maintain the gold standard until it was abolished under Franklin Roosevelt. McAdoo was at most an unwitting agent for bringing about inflated paper money.
In foreign policy there was an unbridgeable divide in the Progressive camp between liberal internationalists and isolationists. Most of the opposition that FDR encountered to Lend-Lease and other policies leading to America’s entry into World War II came from his fellow Progressives in both parties. Antiwar Republicans in 1917 and again in 1939-1941 included Progressives such as La Follette, Borah, and FDR’s neighbor in upstate New York, Hamilton Fish. Hiram Johnson not only opposed American entry into both European wars but had the distinction of being the only U.S. Senator to vote against America’s joining the League of Nations and the United Nations. Although a self-described “Lincoln-TR Republican,” Johnson protested entangling foreign alliances and carrying an overly big stick into the international arena.
Pro-war Progressives came to be known as liberal internationalists and are the ancestors of today’s neoconservatives, not a few of whom have taken to calling themsleves “Hard Wilsonians.” Some of the original internationalists broke ranks, however. Though a pro-war Progressive in 1917 and lifelong admirer of President Wilson, Herbert Hoover changed his foreign policy stance in the 1930s and became a critic of American military involvement in Europe. Nevertheless, even as president, Hoover considered himself to stand firmly in the Progressive tradition of strong public administration.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by Fox News, Progressivism had effects in more than one ideological direction. By today’s standards its cultural orientation might seem quite conservative and was certainly pro-family. Even left-wing Progressives like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins would have emphatically opposed anti-discrimination legislation aimed at encouraging women to enter the workforce. Progressives in the interwar years favored government support for a single-family wage, one that would allow men to provide for their families “in dignity” while wives stayed home and tended to their children.
In Central Europe, Progressives’ notions about consulting the people in critical political decisions became their primary legacy. Interwar European jurists, including many on the Right, appealed to the idea of holding frequent referenda as an alternative to party-run politics. Conservative authoritarian leaders in the Baltic States admired and quoted American Progressives not as socialists but as nationalist populists.
In the postwar U.S., meanwhile, liberals such as historian Richard Hofstadter went after some Progressives for what was seen as their right-wing suspicion of administered democracy. Hofstadter attributed this populist streak to an atavistic dislike for rational control from the top, and he saw this as a blemish on the their left-wing credentials.
Progressive commitments to centralized administration and to popular referenda at the state level obviously pulled in opposite directions. The apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that, like the Populists of the late 19th century, Progressives were above all against governments being run by parties and machine politicians. Expert public administrators and popular referenda were both means of circumventing the corruption and deal-making associated with party politics.
California’s Governor Johnson supported a law to let voters register in more than one party. Its obvious purpose was to weaken the solidarity and power of the national parties. But the parties proved adaptable: they harnessed Progressivism by claiming to represent it. Republicans and Democrats alike went after the votes of the group that the Progressives had championed, public-sector employees, and the Progressives ultimately ended up reinforcing our two-party duopoly.
Progressivism’s influence has not been limited to one side of the political spectrum. Among isolationists on the Right, Beard and Barnes were heroes for their attacks on FDR as a warmonger. Yet both of those critics of liberal internationalism came from the left wing of the Progressive movement, and Beard alternated his invectives against Roosevelt with calls for a redistributionist government. The antiwar Republican Hamilton Fish, whom FDR would rail against in public addresses, was a social liberal in the interwar years. Fish had commanded a black brigade in the Great War, and he thereafter became an advocate of civil rights as well as a fierce opponent of liberal internationalism. It’s a mistake to ascribe to all Progressives Woodrow Wilson’s views on racial differences or his Anglophile attitude in foreign policy.
There is some truth in Beck’s caricatures. As social historians Carl Degler and Pat Shipmann have demonstrated, many Progressive reformers were indeed attracted to eugenics. Plans to sterilize the mentally deficient and to discourage those deemed unfit to reproduce were not foreign to the Progressives’ design for public administration. And McAdoo, who was as much a segregationist as his father-in-law, gladly accepted the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan when he ran unsuccessfully for California governor in 1924.
But none of this links Progressivism to latter-day liberalism, as Beck professes. Surely today’s Democrats are not calling for measures to ensure racial hygiene; nor are they enlisting Klan support to get elected. If anything, they are morbidly anxious to confer government favors on supposedly victimized minorities. Indeed Democrats discriminate against the majority in order to please those considered disadvantaged.
It also seems absurd to equate liberal support for abortion with the eugenic policies of Margaret Sanger. Today’s abortion advocates are in favor of killing fetuses of all pigmentations and ethnicities, as long as doing so allows women to express their autonomy. Abortion rights are not about eugenic notions of racial hygiene but about a late modern, feminist interpretation of individual liberty.
Borrowing from his frequent guest Jonah Goldberg’s ideas about “liberal fascism,” Beck frequently attempts to identify Progressives and modern liberals with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Because fascists and Obamaites have both favored social programs, and because the Nazis were genocidal murderers, we are free to denounce Obama and his party as racialist fanatics. The syllogism is simple: big government means fascism, fascism means the murder of minorities. He who grants the premises must concede the rest of the argument, despite the dubious connections being drawn.
Fallacies abound here. Lots of governments have advocated extensive social programs—indeed, programs far more extensive than those undertaken by most fascist regimes—without coming to resemble the Third Reich. In America, Republicans as well as Democrats have voted for welfare statism. Yet for Fox pundits somehow only the Democrats stand on the slippery slope leading to political-moral damnation. Not until Democrats had taken over the executive branch did Beck and company notice the fascist and Progressive genealogy of the federal government. Presumably those authoritarian influences were nowhere in sight as long as the GOP was riding high.
Beck and other Fox critics of the Progressives may be far more addicted to big government than those they demonize. Tears glaze their eyes when they talk about 1960s civil rights laws, which placed entire regions of the country that once discriminated against black voters under what is now perpetual federal surveillance. Beck rages against the late Sen. Robert Byrd for voting against the Civil Rights Act. Byrd believed this legislation would interfere excessively in commercial relations and plunge the country into endless suits and investigations over racial and gender discrimination. The senator may or may not have been right in this judgment. It is far from clear, however, that someone who zealously embraces such governmental interference long after the end of segregation has any right to accuse Progressives of being in favor of the “nanny state.” Although this indignation may be Beck’s attempt to woo minorities, it makes one wonder how serious he is about scaling back public administration.
Beck maintains that Americans stand at a crossroads between freedom and statism, much like the watershed of 1932—but this time we’ll do right and get rid of the welfare state. In promoting this idea, he is either mendacious or delusional. Americans will not be voting on the New Deal this year or in 2012 but on whether or not to expand Obama’s programs. A certain historical perspective may be needed here: FDR had a truly pressing reason for bold action, even if his policies were largely misconceived and had long-range harmful effects. The unemployment rate was many times worse in 1932 than it is now. And with few exceptions, people in the 1930s depended on single-breadwinner incomes, and the average family of four had far lower earnings than today, even taking inflation into account. Our present dependence on government is not the desperate behavior of impoverished people. It’s a habit instilled by the ideologies of both parties—by security statists and national-greatness conservatives no less than by the old Left.
The Progressives prepared the first tiny steps on a long journey that has resulted in a much bigger government than most of those early 20th-century figures planned to give us. The talk radio and television pundits who now inveigh against Progressivism have fully accepted the increased government that those they revile helped to create. And these faux conservatives celebrate the additions to it that came long after the Progressive era, amid the civil rights and sexual upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Our plight today has less to do with Progressives who lived a century ago than with the pabulum dispensers on our televisions every night.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers , among other works.