The 20th century marked the rise and consolidation of a new style of "progressive" politics. It featured drives for greater equality of rights and condition, accompanied by the rapid growth of an activist state with an extensive bureaucratic and regulatory apparatus. Many social, cultural, and institutional currents assisted this movement, which was spearheaded by dynamic political leaders who mobilized mass followings, employed electoral politics to achieve major changes, and seemed altogether essential agents of history. Four new books seek to explain the emergence of Progressivism by focusing on the presidents and presidential aspirants who either drove it or were overwhelmed by it.
Some scholars might still place the beginnings of 20th-century Progressivism in the election of 1896 and William Jennings Bryan's Populist-Democratic insurgency. But notwithstanding his charisma and devoted mass following, Bryan was both a three-time loser in his pursuit of the presidency and a retrograde figure who never identified himself with the forces of modernity that were transforming America. It was Theodore Roosevelt who ushered the United States into the new political era. And after four years of the inept William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson emerged as the confirming force who made Progressivism bipartisan.
The four-cornered election of 1912 signaled the movement's high tide, presenting voters a choice among Taft's tepid "standpatism," Wilson's Jeffersonian-tinged reformism, Roosevelt's New Nationalism, and Eugene V. Debs's socialism. It has become conventional—and basically correct—to portray the second-place finisher T.R. as the ideological winner; Wilson largely appropriated his New Nationalism over the next eight years.
Ever since, progressivism (frequently called "liberalism") has been a nearly unstoppable force in American politics, advanced in one form or another by presidents as diverse as Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, scarcely slowed by the rearguard actions of Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
* * *
As a group, these four books attempt to account for the origins of a "Progressive Era" that has endured with peaks and valleys for more than a century—beginning in a "trust-busting" fight against large-scale corporate capitalism; promoting the establishment of an ever-growing regulatory, or administrative, state; and increasingly advocating a social-democratic welfare regime that strives for equality of results rather than equality of opportunity. Louis Gould's Four Hats in the Ring, a volume in the "American Presidential Elections" series published by the University Press of Kansas, provides a brief, authoritative survey of the 1912 contest and its four extraordinary protagonists. "For a moment," he tells us, "political philosophy and principles really did matter." The other books under review generally confirm that assessment. Professor of history at the University of Texas and a leading historian of both the Progressive Era and the presidency, Gould depicts an election campaign that demonstrated the triumph of modern Progressivism.
The results displayed the exceptional character of American politics. Debs, a charismatic personality running at a time when mass socialist parties were at the threshold of power in major European democracies, could muster only 6% of the popular vote. Taft, the muddled conservative (or perhaps 19th-century liberal with a realistic view of human nature), possessing the endorsement of the nation's majority political party, got less than a quarter of the electorate. The two Progressives, each promising a reformist path that avoided both radical socialism and stand-pat conservatism, got a combined 70%.
But just what was Progressivism? And why was charismatic leadership, primarily imbedded in the presidency, so crucial to it? The Progressive Era followed a third of a century in which principled parties, not personalities, were the primary force in American political life. Presidents, to be sure, were men of character and conviction, but few voters marked their ballots for, say, Rutherford B. Hayes or Grover Cleveland out of personal attraction. The men at the top of the ticket were representative types who happened to come from populous swing states. The party system mobilized its rank and file as loyal Democrats or Republicans, while ridiculing bolters as "mugwumps" or some other variety of deviant.
* * *
After 1900, all this began to change. Notre Dame political scientist Peri Arnold, a notable scholar of both the presidency and the American administrative state, examines the transformation most fully in his penetrating Remaking the Presidency. Changes in mass communications—the emergence of a popular newspaper and magazine press, voice recordings, moving pictures—led to a focus on personalities and made celebrities of political leaders. The rise of giant corporations created a truly national economy and with it a new system of interest-group politics. An emerging well-educated urban middle class became an increasingly large proportion of the electorate, and pursued its objectives in the guise of reform politics. This new middle class, as historians Richard Hofstadter and Robert Wiebe demonstrated nearly two generations ago, envisioned politics in terms of disinterested managerial expertise rather than as a vote-for-favors exchange. Its members tended to see themselves as advocates of "democracy," which they defined as government by "the people" rather than "the interests."
As the new politics rose in importance, political participation by low-income groups dwindled. (The reasons for this development are not fully understood. It may have been in part the result of progressive reforms designed to make elections more honest. The decline of parties and rise of political personalities with primarily middle-class appeal surely also had much to do with it.) At the same time, farm and labor movements shed ideological radicalism and adopted the interest-group model of politics, seeking pragmatic benefits rather than broad social transformation. All these forces generated a steadily growing administrative state that acted as regulator, dispenser of federal largesse, and conservator of resources. "Middle-class Americans saw government as necessary for solving social and economic problems," Arnold tells us. "In contrast to the parochial Congress, it was the presidency that presented a possibility for leadership to address what middle-class Americans identified as the public interest." The growing importance of the presidency was thus linked to the growth of the administrative state, and the two fed off each other.
T.R., Taft, and Wilson, Arnold explains, differed from such predecessors as Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley. The late 19th-century presidents had made their way up the ladder as party regulars and political candidates. Having absorbed these norms, they tended to defer to an entrenched party leadership in Congress. The three early 20th-century presidents had quite different backgrounds—Roosevelt a gadfly reformer, second-level administrator, author, and military hero; Taft a jurist and administrator; Wilson an eminent academic student of government and leadership. None would have been able to make his way to the presidency before 1900.
Each came to the office with an activist agenda that did not mesh with the goals of the congressional leadership. T.R., the great innovator, paid little attention to established lines of responsibility, shrewdly publicized his appealing personality, and established an "example that most resembles modern presidents' plebiscitary performance and ambivalent relationships with their parties." Taft embraced the unfinished aspects of the Rooseveltian agenda, but lacked both the charisma and the resolve to emulate his predecessor's achievement. He was, Roosevelt privately remarked, "a far abler man than I but he don't know how to play the popular hero and shoot a bear." Wilson, adopting the model of an English prime minister, established an impressive public persona, dominated his party in Congress, and secured a remarkable body of legislation. None established "the modern presidency," the present-day behemoth that students of the office stalk with Ahab-like intensity; but they foreshadowed it.
* * *
In the dilemma of progressivism, Will Morrisey, a Hillsdale College political scientist who employs classical political thought as a mode of explanation, displays scant sympathy for the Progressive project while mustering what regard he can for the presidents who confronted it. He reminds us that Machiavelli justified both the power of the prince (the Progressive presidency) and the building of a consolidated state as the necessary means of suppressing a greedy aristocracy (trusts and robber barons). Even granting the nobility of the purpose, however, the statist outcome was seldom satisfactory, even to the prince. As his power and territory grew, the agents (bureaucrats) he deployed to manage it became less controllable and unresponsive.
Morrisey also rehearses Alexis de Tocqueville's meditations, fueled by the French Revolution, on the alienating effects of a statism that promotes the love of equality over the love of liberty. Employing the ancient Greek philosophers, Morrisey criticizes Progressive thinkers for abandoning the idea of natural rights in favor of a historicist approach to politics and law. The result, an interpretation of fundamental law as constantly evolving, enables jurists (agents of aristocracy in the Tocquevillian perspective) to change the Constitution at their whim. Self-government is thus undermined. "The Constitution as a contract makes consent possible; the ‘living Constitution' makes consent weak. A reasoning, deliberating people gives way to reasoning, deliberating judges."
Morrisey finds the modern state to be primarily a Progressive project and more a hindrance to self-government than a facilitator of it. He characterizes the Progressive presidents as well-intentioned men who, in the name of democracy and justice, unleashed anti-democratic forces like bureaucracy and the "Living Constitution." T.R. hoped to deal with this Progressive dilemma by promoting a heroic citizenship rooted in Christian values. Taft wanted "the guidance of a republic-friendly aristocracy of lawyers." Wilson, rejecting natural right altogether, placed his faith in Christian providence. He believed that a divine immanence suffused the United States and informed his leadership. All, however great their personal qualities, deluded themselves. They failed to stop the march of statism and restore the promise of self-government.
Biographers of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson will hotly dispute the author's conclusions. Most historians—"historicist" by profession—will call for more attention to the concrete alternatives and situational realities of the early 20th century. Consumers of high political philosophy will find this book stimulating. Less prepared readers will dismiss it as abstruse and difficult.
* * *
Once upon a time, no political scientist spoke to historians about the march of liberalism and presidential leadership more persuasively than James MacGregor Burns. University of Virginia professor Sidney Milkis has become a lineal successor of sorts, lacking Burns's narrative gifts but providing a conceptual depth that more than compensates. His Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy is much more than an account of the 1912 imbroglio. He depicts T.R. as the foremost apostle of a "progressive democracy" that would serve as the basis of 20th-century American liberalism. Taking Roosevelt seriously as a thinker, he covers his protagonist's post-presidential career with a thoroughness unmatched by previous biographers.
Setting T.R. against the emergence of nascent welfare states in turn-of-the-century Europe, the author depicts a statesman who sought to reconcile a progressive administrative state with the legitimacy of popular mandates. Wrapping his appeal in the rhetoric of both Christian and patriotic duty, Roosevelt fused together a visceral nationalism and a softer humanitarian impulse. Thus, Milkis argues, the former president trumped a Taft who distrusted the masses, a Wilson who found it expedient to espouse traditional Democratic decentralization, and a Debs who scorned popular democracy as irrelevant to the higher justice of a workers' state.
The contradictions and sheer inadequacies of Roosevelt's ideology, Milkis admits, were substantial. He talked glibly and impractically about the power of democratic majorities to recall judicial decisions, administrative edicts, legislators, judges, even the president himself. Critics who have keyed in on T.R.'s neo-Darwinian rhetoric about nationalism, race, and heroic combat have sensed incipient fascism. Political analysts today are far more likely to see the administrative state as a playground for interest-group politics than as an instrument of enlightened and democratic governance. Milkis himself calls the emerging modern presidency "a Progressive innovation that has embodied the promise and disappointment of American democracy for the better part of a century." Still, he believes that Roosevelt's progressive democracy was a necessary challenge to an outdated American constitution—a term he uses in the English sense of a web of unwritten assumptions and political practices. If the promise of progressive democracy was never entirely fulfilled, its reshaping of the state and empowerment of the presidency did much to equip the United States for the challenges of the 20th century.
Contemporary conservatives instinctively reject that last conclusion. Milkis responds by reminding us of the way in which the conservative movement over the past generation has employed ballot initiatives, referenda, and recall elections. Moreover, he cites Ronald Reagan's deployment of the modern presidency in opposition to the liberal state. Contemporary conservatism, he concludes, owes much to the platform of the Progressive Party. He might indeed have gone further and discussed in some detail the conviction of so many present-day activists on the Right that they are fighting for rule by the people and against liberal elites that scorn ordinary folk. In fact, the conservatism of William Howard Taft is largely dead and forgotten, supplanted by right-wing populism.
In the end, Milkis believes, the legacy of progressive democracy transcends the ideological battles of the moment. As he admits, however, his judgment raises profound questions. Is a strong administrative state compatible with an active and competent citizenry? Can the modern presidency, even with the tools of instant mass communications, function as a truly democratic institution with meaningful links to the public?
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, Milkis believes, drew heavily on the legacies of T.R.'s progressive democracy. Whether the Obama presidency will produce a constructive sense of "civil religion" or an empty "cult of personality" remains an open question. Theodore Roosevelt's effort of 1912 contained the seeds of both possibilities.