Whitewashing Progressivism

Conservatives are frequently accused, with various levels of justice, of whitewashing the history of conservatism in the U.S. to ignore, evade, or cover up inconvenient historical truths.

Well, whatever sins conservative scholars have committed have now been matched by the Center for American Progress, which has published a monograph on the Progressive tradition in American politics.

The monograph begins with a laundry list of the Progressives’ legislation accomplishment. But among the Progressive reforms nowhere mentioned in this monograph are: alcohol prohibition; coercive eugenics (upheld in an appallingly insensitive opinion by Progressive hero O.W. Holmes); residential segregation by race (invalidated by the “conservative” Supreme Court); bans on private schools (invalidated by the “conservative” Supreme Court); judicial recall elections; and restrictions on women’s participation in the labor market (invalidated in part by the “conservative” Supreme Court, and then reaffirmed by a “Progressive” Supreme Court).

The monograph does mention immigration restrictions, but places the blame on “conservative” nativism, without noting the Progressives’ (including Theodore Roosevelt’s) longstanding creepy obsession with American “race suicide” because of immigration to the U.S. by the “lower races,” and without noting organized labor’s strong support for such restrictions.

To the authors’ credit, they do note that Progress Woodrow Wilson endorsed segregation in federal workplaces. However, they treat this as an unfortunate deviation from Progressive principle, when in fact early twentieth century Progressives’ views on race equality, with a few prominent exceptions, ranged from indifference to hostility. For example, every “Progressive” legal commentator who ventured an opinion decried the Supreme Court’s invalidation of residential segregation in Buchanan v. Warley.

In the end, what Progressives had in common was a commitment to activist government to promote their vision of the common good, and a concomitant impatience with or even contempt for competing claims of individual right. The best aspect of modern liberalism is that while it retained the Progressives’ enthusiasm for government regulation of the economic marketplace, it replaced Progressive statism in other spheres with respect for civil rights and civil liberties. It’s a shame to see the Progressives celebrated as modern liberalism’s forebears.

UPDATE: The problem, in other words, is the attempt to assert a seamless “Progressive” tradition from the original early twentieth century Progressives to modern liberalism/progressivism. The Original Progressives were not all recognizably on the political left, and had many political positions that people across the political spectrum would find appalling today. If the C.A.P.’s thesis was simply that modern “progressives” had adopted the best aspects of old-style Progressivism, while ditching the worst, I wouldn’t have any objection. But the suggestion that modern “progressives” are firmly in a generally unchanged “progressive” tradition, without noting the original Progressives’ views on state-sponsored segregation, coercive eugenics, and so forth, is a distortion of history.

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