In the immediate aftermath of the hopeful election that swept President Barack Obama into office in 2008, media critics on the far right wing of the political spectrum appeared disoriented. This was evident from the language used to describe the new administration. FOX-TV’s pundit Sean Hannity, for example, tried to tag “Fascism” to the new administration. The economic stimulus and the continuing bank bailout plan triggered an opposite descriptor as the label “socialist” began to appear. Here was evidence of a slight ideological disarray in pundit-land.
Most recently Fox-TV’s dynamic talk show host, Glenn Beck, rechristened the Obama administration as “Progressive,” a word Mr. Beck is trying to revalue downward. At the conservative CPAC conference on February 20, 2010, Beck was excoriating: “Progressivism is eating the Constitution...it was designed to eat the Constitution.” Progressivism was, he opined, a “cancer in America,” one that must be “eradicated,” though no specifics were given as to how to perform this radical surgery.
Understandably, some on the left were alarmed. There seemed a curious lack of response, however, from America’s academic establishment about this rhetorical nuclear strike. The Progressive Era, after all, is usually taught in most colleges and universities as a seminal and productive period in American history. Most textbooks label it as holding sway from about 1890 to 1920, a time when reform and retrenchment were very much in the air in American life. Less media-driven historians offer context and background to vital historical movements. Just as the fraying Neo-Conservative Era (from Reagan to Bush 42) makes sense as a reaction to the New Deal Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his political godson Lyndon B. Johnson, so Progressivism makes sense as a reaction to “Smokestack America,” a phrase taken from Gary Nash et alia’s respected textbook The American People: Volume Two. The phrase incorporates the nation’s headlong rush to industrialize, a trend noticeable before the Civil War, hardening during that tragic period and climaxing in the Age of the Robber Barons when names such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan defined an age. Action/Reaction. Even in Smokestack America there was a most notable benchmark in the form of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. The popular image of “Trust-Buster Teddy Roosevelt,” U.S. President from 1901 to 1909, makes sense against that historical transition.
In an age when popular culture’s political pundits appear at times to write their own rules in disregard of the academic culture, the accomplishments of the Progressive Era may need to be restated. This essay offers the briefest overview. If the incorporation of Standard Oil of New Jersey in 1870 can be seen as an introduction to the age of Rockefeller and Carnegie, the ensuing twenty years of infrastructure-building and industrial war that characterized this period of almost frenzied corporate expansion helps explain the themes of the reform-dominated Progressive Era. From the unwholesome overcrowding on Manhattan Island tenements and the mushrooming importance of Chicago (where half the babies born died of diphtheria in the 1870s), middle-class Americans read over their morning eggs and coffee about full-fledged pitched battles in the streets between overworked, underpaid workers and company goons - often aided and abetted by local police or state militia. Specifically, there was the notorious Haymarket Riot in Chicago (1886), the Homestead and Pullman Strikes in Pennsylvania (1892 and 1894), and the pitched battles between Rockefeller’s mine owners in Colorado and striking workers at Ludlow, Colorado in 1912. In that dispute eleven children and two women were killed.
In the words of a later generation, “Something had to be done.” The American Dream seemed to be fading before people’s eyes.
Workers in Smokestack America pressed hard for the essence of what are mainstream demands today - the eight hour day, the right to strike, unemployment compensation, industrial safety, and the regulation of big conglomerates. These demands mounted like a steady drumbeat during Progressive America. The spirit of Progressivism was later embraced by both the Republican Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). The real roots, however, often lay in civic and urban activism. In Toledo, Ohio, a Republican Mayor named “Golden Rule” Jones sought to run his factory by Christian principles, provided the eight-hour day, public parks, injury compensation, and even forced attendees at city court sessions to pay the fines of desperate mothers arrested for prostitution or forced to steal a loaf of bread.
Jane Addams, settlement house worker in Chicago, embraced the cause of women immigrants even as she followed the local garbage collector on his rounds each morning to make sure he would not (conveniently) dump his collections into the local drinking water. A climax of outrage was reached in New York City in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. Over 146 people jumped to their death, 123 of them women. Young girls vaulted tragically from a burning building that had no fire escapes, no fire extinguishers, no fire drills, and locked doors. A policemen on the scene reported that “they hit the pavement like hail.” It was, in many ways, Progressive America’s version of September 11, 2001. One of the first eyewitnesses to the carnage was a young social worker named Francis Perkins, who, in 1933, became FDR’s Labor Secretary and America’s first female cabinet member (see David Von Drehele’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America).
Something was done. John D. Rockefeller himself was subpoenaed to testify after the Ludlow massacre. The worm had turned. Americans, reported Glenn Porter in his classic The Rise of Big Business, embraced industrialism, appreciated its benefits, but they wanted it regulated. Note the highlights of some of these Progressive measures:
· In 1902 Maryland passed the first state workman’s compensation law.
· The Elkins Act of 1903 strengthened the Interstate Commerce Act (ICC), eliminated rebates to select corporations.
· In 1903 Oregon limited women’s work in factories to ten hours a day.
· The Hepburn Act (1906) was extended to check oil pipelines, terminals and bridges.
· In 1906 came the Pure Food and Drug Act - Theodore Roosevelt’s creation of the FDA to prevent fraudulently labeled food or drugs.
· The Meat Inspection Act of 1910 - federal inspection necessitated for meat crossing state borders.
· The Mann Act of 1910 - no transportation of women for immoral purposes across sate lines.
· Illinois in 1911 enacted the first state law providing public assistance to mothers with dependent children.
· In 1912, Massachusetts passed the first minimum-wage laws - later overturned.
· Woodrow Wilson’s “hat-trick” of 1915-1916 - creating the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission.
· The Adamson Act of 1916 - initiating an eight-hour day and time and a half for overtime on interstate railroads.
· Federal Farm Loan Act, 1916 - providing farmers with long-term credit.
· Nineteenth Amendment, 1920 - allowing women the right to vote nation wide.
Good teachers will point out to students that both Republicans and Democrats rode this Progressive tide, especially at the city and state levels. It is also noticeable how many ministers and churches embraced the now historic phenomenon called the “Social Gospel.” Theological warts and all, Social Gospel pastors showed Christians the need for reform. No doubt many of these reforms can be (and have been) argued both ways; it is clear that this kind of cataloguing does not play well on television - even with a blackboard. The bottom line is that much of the Progressive legacy is now mainstream American ideology in a sometimes “kinder, gentler nation.” And there’s the rub. Politicians, pundits and public relations counselors know that it so much easier to be against something, especially on prime time television. But in the Progressive period, it was clear that many Americans approved of the legacy of that era of reform, and still do.
To mention the word “legacy,” of course, is to be reminded of the continuities between the Obama Administration’s sixteen month fight in the Congress to overhaul the nation’s health care system, signed into law on March 23, 2010. Granted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s some 2000 pages of new regulations and prescriptions might have given even “Golden Rule” Jones pause, the continuities are still there. The cry of “socialism” greeted almost every extension of progressive politics from the appearance of the Social Security Act in 1935 down to the Great Society extensions of Medicare and Medicaid (see Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment). In spite of the “shoot from the hip” style of much political punditry from the right and the left, there is a mainstream tendency in America’s political and social life. Historians chronicle the fact that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) made no dramatic moves to overturn the leading initiatives of the New Deal/Fair Deal years of 1933-1953. The same held true, overall, for Eisenhower’s Vice President, the much more conservative Richard M. Nixon during his presidency (1969-1974). A non-socialist progressive consensus had taken hold, much to the chagrin of extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. Obama-care, to use the current phrase, has unleashed the same overcharged howls of communism and socialism and anarchism and danger to the state that reformers at Haymarket, Homestead and Ludlow might have recognized. Even religious pundit Oliver Thomas has argued in USA Today: “Try to imagine an America without fair housing, equal pay, handicap ramps, clean water and air…and voting rights for southern blacks.”
In an era when the political culture and the popular culture can easily blend into each other, it might be instructive to quote from ex-President Nixon’s remark to then First Lady Hillary Clinton as she set out on her failed quest to reform health care in the spring of 1993. “You know,” Nixon reminisced to the Clintons at a White House visit, “I tried to fix the health care system more than twenty years ago. It has to be done sometime.” Mrs. Clinton replied: “I know, and we’d be better off today if your proposal had succeeded.” These facts have been touted widely on the official website of the Nixon Presidential Library. There is indeed a vital center in America’s public life, to use historian Arthur Schlesinger’s aging but valuable descriptor. Dr. Samuel Johnson was convinced that society needs reminding even more than instruction. The frenzied and blustery winds of Operation Pundit Storm may temporarily obscure and obfuscate the game - changing accomplishments of classic Progressivism but the facts seem to speak for themselves. From this perspective, “progressivism” may not be such a bad word after all.
From guest contributor Neil Earle