Contemporary liberals fondly recall their progressive forebears from a century past, who railed against trusts and fought for social justice. Certainly, their forebears did much to make them proud; after all, who now could argue against measures that purified the water, ended child labor, compensated workers who suffered disabling accidents, and launched political reforms such as the initiative, recall, referendum, and party primary? And no doubt, Upton Sinclair’s maggot-gagging account of the meat-packing industry with the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act is widely hailed by progressives as one of the greatest triumphs of their era.
Those were heady days, inspiring rosy-cheeked blushes of pride on the faces of every true progressive, as he or she contemplates those decades that saw the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. And there was President Woodrow Wilson’s contemptuous disregard for minorities, the chorus of bellicose cheering for American imperialism, and the passage of censorship laws during the war years, and ….
“Stop the presses!” a progressive might say. After that anti-trust thingy, the pride stops there. What’s this business about progressive racism? And taking such a superior attitude of one’s own country, that—gasp!—even imperialist adventures abroad were lauded? Further, did progressives suppress free speech? No way! Actually, “yes, way”—on all three of these shameful scars in the American experience.
Take racism, first. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, who believed that enfranchising black Americans was “the foundation of every evil in this country,” approved efforts of some cabinet members to introduce segregation in several federal departments. His predecessor and fellow progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, was convinced that African Americans were inherently inferior to whites, and as if to substantiate his views, insisted on draconian punishments for a regiment of Black troops that had been falsely accused of starting a riot in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. It gets worse. As Jonah Goldberg reports in Liberal Fascism, “American progressives were obsessed with the ‘racial health’ of the nation,” including such noted black Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois, who agreed with Margaret Sanger’s “Negro Project,” which aimed at limiting reproduction of “inferior” portions of America’s black citizens. Indeed, over the course of the past century, far too many progressives—in my view—have never believed in equality of the races, today insisting that, left to their own devices, African Americans cannot make it on their own and thus need artificial props like affirmative action to lift them up. Contemporary progressives may say that they believe in equality, but they want government programs that advantage some over others.
All true enough and substantiated by the historical record, but what about progressive imperialism? It’s hard to hide the facts here, as well. Indeed, a progressive chorus of approval greeted Teddy Roosevelt’s diatribe against those who looked askance at America’s rule over the Philippines’ “Pacific Negroes”: “I have even scanter patience with those who make a pretense of humanitarianism to hide and cover their timidity, and who cant about ‘liberty’ and the ‘consent of the governed,’ in order to excuse themselves for their willingness to play the part of men.” In short, real men—progressive men, that is—rule, and their inferiors obey. Forget this folderol about equality and democratic values: “Men are as clay in the hands of the consummate leader,” Woodrow Wilson proclaimed.
One might object by saying: that was then and now is now; certainly it is the case that the progressives’ progeny, contemporary liberals, no longer approve of imperialism. Even President Obama declared that we have gone beyond the point where one nation may impose its values upon another, especially since progressives no longer believe in American exceptionalism. However, modern progressives have not so much dispensed with imperialism as they have changed its focus: from foreign policy to domestic. Today’s progressives favor a vast extension of power domestically rather than abroad.
This leaves us with the suppression of speech. Consider the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which prohibited any criticism of the government. Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department, with the aid of an organization known as the American Protective League, employed some quarter million individuals to keep an eye on neighbors, to smoke out any seditious speech, and this resulted in the arrest of tens of thousands of suspects. True, it was wartime and one needed to be cautious in what one said—and things are different, now, right? Perhaps, but try to criticize progressive politics on any college campus today and watch your career screech to a halt or your physical well-being threatened. Political correctness, anyone?
All of which points to the following conclusion about a centennial verdict on American Progressivism: the more some things seem to have changed, the more in fact they have remained the same, even though we prefer to remember them differently.