odern progressives claim to operate in the traditions of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But do they? And if so, should they be admired or condemned? Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers (2016) argues that the early progressives—presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; academics J.R. Commons, Richard Ely, and Edward A. Ross; and feminists Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Florence Kelley—were illiberal. Further, his book explores the intellectual continuity between early and modern progressivism.
Take eugenics, a mainstream progressive cause. Theodore Roosevelt bemoaned the United States’s descent into “race suicide.” The “wrong people”—immigrants, the poor, and those hazily defined as “unfit”—were having too many children, while WASPs, the middle and upper classes, and the “fit” were having too few. The solution was twofold: encouraging higher birth rates for the right people and sterilization for the "unfit."
In 1907, Indiana became the first state to enact a forcible sterilization law. Thirty more would follow. Governor Woodrow Wilson signed New Jersey’s, which targeted the “hopelessly defective and criminal classes,” while Wisconsin’s Edward Ross argued that involuntary sterilization was “not nearly so terrible as hanging a man…the chances of sterilizing the fit are not nearly so great as are the chances of hanging the innocent.”
Ross, convinced World War I’s death toll had compounded the danger to civilization, bemoaned the “immeasurable calamity that had befallen the white race.” In an effort to calm progressive hand-wringing, American universities began to offer courses dedicated to the study of eugenics. The 44 around the country in 1914 grew to 376 by 1928. John Scopes was tried in Tennessee for teaching evolution from a biology textbook that also warned of the perils of degenerate races “spreading disease, immorality and crime,” while promoting “celibate asylums” as one solution.
Progressives, perpetual institution builders, believe in ever-expanding direct democracy via initiative, referendum, and recall. Their early victories included the direct election of senators, primary elections, and the vote for women.
In practice, however, progressives prefer government by apolitical, ostensibly objective experts, who would be well-positioned to regulate and oversee the public interest. Leonard correctly notes that disinterested experts are impossible: no human actor is disinterested. The Madisonian Constitution’s aim was to balance those interests through political deliberation. The progressives, by contrast, have sought to surmount, overrule, and otherwise evade them.
Today’s illiberal progressives pay lip service to an expanded democracy even as they regard the populace as an obstacle to be circumvented, bullied, or simply herded along. The Jonathan Grubers of our world may not have been the public servants Theodore Roosevelt had in mind, but they are precisely who Barack Obama had on his mind—and on call.
Modern progressives regard their critics as survival-of-the-fittest Social Darwinists. Such caricatures were among former President Obama’s favorite rhetorical ploys. Were he to read Illiberal Reformers, Obama might be surprised to learn that his progressive forbearers were themselves Social Darwinists. As Leonard notes, there was “something in Darwin for everyone.” Evolution, according to progressive economist Irving Fisher, did not teach a “fatalistic creed.” Therefore, evolutionary thought could be quite useful to reformers who favored intervention over fatalism and vigorous over passive government. If anything, evolution awakened the world to the “fact of its own improvability.”
Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner are routinely regarded as the premier Social Darwinists of the late 19th century. Both were champions of laissez- faire economics, but according to Leonard neither was “particularly Darwinist.” The progressives, on the other hand, were “enemies of laissez-faire, not of Darwinism.” Among the leading self-described Reform Darwinists was Lester Frank Ward, who believed that “Darwin provided more weapons for assaulting laissez-faire than for defending it.”
Woodrow Wilson applied Darwinian thinking to government. “It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton,” said candidate Wilson on the campaign trail in 1912. The U.S. Constitution and the American regime, conceived under a mechanical understanding of political science, were outmoded. In Wilson’s view, both must be reconceptualized as living organisms, which had to evolve rather than perpetuate an antiquated set of rules standing in the way of progress.
Did progress include enhanced opportunities for women? Here the original progressives, both male and female, were ambivalent if not confused. The “protective legislation” that limited the hours and occupations open for women was a hallmark of progressive reform. Women were regarded as helpless victims and dangerous threats, hence progressive support for minimum wage laws that would eliminate the “unbridled competition” women in the workforce posed to men. Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League and a Jane Addams ally, also targeted children and immigrants, especially the Chinese. Their existence was in the process of “reducing all the employees to starvation,” taking work at the expense of the white man. Doing her part to counteract TR’s feared “race suicide,” Kelley would argue further that “family life in the home is sapped in its foundations when mothers of young children work for wages.”
In sum, minimum wage laws were an attempt to reduce overall employment levels. Maybe today’s progressives have the same goal. In any case, once a progressive reform has been enacted, progressives will declare that progress has been achieved.
We can establish that many progressive reforms have been essentially illiberal, whether in theory, practice, intent, or outcome. Everything else is up in the air, including where progressives, then and now, seek to take us.