“Progressive” and “liberal” are often treated as synonyms, but the Progressive Movement has its own history and hallmarks, focused on finding solutions to specific social problems. (More)

What’s in a Name? Part II: Progressive

This week Morning Feature explores the terms “liberal” and “progressive,” and why they are not merely synonyms. Yesterday we began with the history and core tenets of liberal ideology: liberty, equality, and the social contract. Today we look at the history and development of the progressive movement: the rise of science and the search for effective solutions to societal challenges. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how “liberal” and “progressive” overlap, and how they differ.

From sin to science….

Historians generally date the Progressive Era as 1890-1929. But that endpoint has more to do with the need to distinguish the Great Depression, and that 1929 endpoint excludes one of the Progressive Movement’s most singular moments: admitting the mistake that was Prohibition.

The Progressive Era addressed many societal problems, from business monopolies to corporate corruption, sanitation to education, law enforcement to food safety, and worker’s rights to women’s suffrage. Any one of those could serve as an exemplar for the progressive method, but Prohibition offers the clearest example precisely because it was a mistake.

Prohibition had roots that predate the Progressive Era, but early prohibitionists were motivated primarily by the religious belief that drunkenness a sin. (Alcohol taxes, like tobacco taxes, are still often referred to as “sin taxes.”) But by the late 19th century, the rationale had changed dramatically. Consider Justice John Harlan’s opinion in Mugler v. Kansas:

There is no justification for holding that the state, under the guise merely of police regulations, is here aiming to deprive the citizen of his constitutional rights; for we cannot shut out of view the fact, within the knowledge of all, that the public health, the public morals, and the public safety, may be endangered by the general use of intoxicating drinks; nor the fact established by statistics accessible to every one, that the idleness, disorder, pauperism, and crime existing in the country, are, in some degree at least, traceable to this evil. [Emphasis added]

Note the italicized language: Prohibition was now grounded in statistical evidence of idleness, disorder, poverty, and crime attributed to drunkenness. There was also a government corruption rationale, as saloons were often used as polling places. Votes were declared publicly – most states did not yet use secret ballots – and many saloon owners rewarded voters who supported preferred candidates with free drinks.

Twice upon a time….

Prohibition was a paramount issue for the early Progressive Movement, so much so that they protected it from the Supreme Court through the Eighteenth Amendment. That did not happen with the Sherman Antitrust Act, or laws recognizing labor unions, or most of the other early progressive issues. Indeed among those issues, only the direct election of U.S. senators and women’s suffrage were also enshrined in the Constitution. To borrow Vice President Biden’s famous response to the passage of health care reform, Prohibition was for progressives “a Big F***ing Deal.”

Yet by the late 1920s, many of those same progressives were working to repeal it, and for good reason. As journalist H.L. Mencken wrote in 1925:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Prohibition did not solve the problems it promised to solve, and it created other problems – such as bootlegging and the rise of organized crime – that were as bad or worse. It was “The Great Experiment” that failed, and for progressives that experimental failure justified its repeal.

“A non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought”

In today’s political dialogue, focused on uncompromising devotion to ideological principles, the progressives who recognized the failure of Prohibition and turned to work for its repeal might be derided as “squishes.”

But that willingness to recognize the complex and changing dimensions of problems, and reject solutions that don’t work, are hallmarks of the progressive method. Consider this statement by the Center for American Progress’ John Halprin:

At its core, progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society.
Progressivism is an orientation towards politics. It’s not a long-standing ideology like liberalism, but an historically-grounded concept … that accepts the world as dynamic.

Yes, most progressives derive their values and ideals from liberalism, if only because science suggests liberals are more likely to be open to the experimental method at the heart of progressivism. The problems progressives most often address are grounded in timeless liberal values: the social contract, positive and negative liberty, and equality of opportunity. But the progressive method is a search for solutions that offer the most help and the least harm, based on the best available evidence, and for the specific conditions being addressed.

Healthy skepticism

That pragmatic, empirical method makes progressives skeptical of One Size Fits All solutions. In Realworldia, One Size rarely fits anyone well. That does not mean we reject such solutions out of hand. For some problems, One Size Fits All may be the best solution available, despite its imperfections. But the progressive method can also recognize that solutions can be found and implemented locally or individually, and those local and/or individual solutions may be essential to the success of ‘bigger’ solutions.

Similarly, progressives are skeptical of Now And For All Time solutions. Solutions that worked well in decades past may not work today, not because they were always ‘bad’ solutions’ but because the conditions that enabled their success have since changed. Likewise, solutions that seem promising in our time may problems in the future, not because we were ‘shortsighted’ but because the conditions around which we designed a solution have changed.

Indeed healthy skepticism, including self-skepticism, is another hallmark of the progressive method. Many of our worst mistakes, individually and collectively, have their roots in unfounded certainty. Conservatives deride that progressive skepticism as abandoning a “natural moral order” they presume to be eternal and enshrined in the Constitution as it was originally intended and/or understood. But progressives recognize that letting the dead rule the living is not self-government, especially as the dead disagreed with each other.

The progressive method is optimistic – but not utopian – precisely because it recognizes that the work “to form a more perfect Union” must be carried on by each generation of “We the People” … searching for solutions to the problems we face, using the best information we can gather, in our time.


Happy Friday!