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Modern “Progressives” and “Socialists” Offer Up Historical Name Confusion

What is a Progressive?

It is currently looking like in June that at least twenty-five Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency. With so many candidates, there seems to be a growing wedge in the party over the term “progressive.”

In a “60 Minutes” interview, Nancy Pelosi said her party needed to come back towards the center, whereas many of the newer members are moving too far left. Pelosi claimed the socialist wing of the party is small, but the interviewer countered that the progressive wing is actually getting larger. Pelosi’s response was that she is a progressive.  As the party of Wilson, FDR, and LBJ, being a progressive is a badge of honor for the Democrats, and if some is good, more must be better.

With so much talk about progressives, it is worth taking a look at the Progressive movement and consider who they were and what they stood for. When we understand the original movement, it becomes clear that progressivism is often misunderstood and misused.

In America’s first century, life could be hard on the poor, kind of an understatement, I know, but during this time it was not considered the government’s job to care. Government was much too busy in the Gilded Age passing tariffs and fighting about who started the Civil War to care about the poor.

The initial real push for change did not come from the progressives, but actually the Populist movement. This radical fringe movement first suggested government should actually help those in need. It was this movement that first introduced many of the reforms that Progressives would later claim, like income tax, direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage, and prohibition.

What hurt the Populists were some of their more radical ideas, such as government takeover of railroads and adding silver to the gold standard to increase the money supply. Ultimately, the Populists were too radical too quickly for the American public, however, they set the stage for things to come. It was the Progressives who, after the initial shock, asked for many of the same reforms but did so in a much more conservative, orderly, and controlled fashion.  They allowed Americans to ease into the drastic changes, while also not going as far as government takeover.

Today the historical faces of the Progressive moment are Teddy Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. With two Republicans and one Democrat, we see that Progressivism did not follow party lines but actually brought them closer together. The Progressive presidents became famous for “trust busting,” or going after monopolies. Wilson’s approach was to break up companies in order to restore competition between larger and smaller businesses, while TR wanted to expand the regulatory power of the Federal Government to control rather than destroy business.

None of the Progressives wanted to end capitalism or business. All three men ran in the 1912 election (TR for the Bull Moose Party) and all three opposed the socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, and his platform.

Some historians, most notably Joan Hoff Wilson, believe there was a fourth progressive president, Herbert Hoover. Even though a Republican, Hoover worked for Wilson during the Great War and inspired his beliefs in cooperation in the economy and volunteerism between labor and business. Hoover differed from fellow 1920s Republican presidents who believed “less government in business and more business in government.” Hoover, like his fellow progressives, did not want business in government. They wanted regulations but also did not want government completely controlling business.

If Hoover was a Progressive, as Wilson suggests, that means that FDR was not. Hoover had serious reservations about the New Deal and did not consider FDR a progressive. The problems Hoover had with the New Deal were that, first, it did not actually fix the Depression. Second, Hoover did not believe mixing capitalism with some of FDR’s more socialist ideas worked. Giving handouts, or what Hoover called “the dole,” hurt traditional freedoms and independence of Americans. Lastly, he feared the individual was becoming a pawn of the state and the government becoming too powerful.

Based on this example, it is Pelosi’s moderate wing of the Democratic Party that seems more in line with the Progressives. The Ocasio-Cortez wing fits more into the Populist ideology or even more like Deb’s socialists.

For historians who disagree with Dr. Wilson and who see FDR as a true Progressive, once again the Ocasio-Cortez wing does not match up with FDR’s progressivism. What I have always found the most interesting thing about the loudest critical voices of the New Deal were that they did not come from the right, but actually from further left. In FDR, America had a president who did more for welfare than any president ever had, but there were complaints that he should do more.

The two loudest voices were Louisiana Governor-turned-Senator Huey Long and Catholic priest-turned-radio star Father Coughlin. Long wanted a tax code that destroyed concentration of wealth by capping income. Father Coughlin wanted a complete overhaul of our monetary system, including adding silver to our monetary system, and nationalism of railroads. Both seem more influenced by the Populists, even to the point of free silver, than they do to the Progressives. Both men believed the answer to all ills was more government control, way more that FDR did.

What we see is that Pelosi’s call to return to the center is more in line with historical progressivism and Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist’s wing is fighting against it. If anything, the far left in the Democratic Party is more in line with the Populists. The problem is we have changed meanings of words; we call Trump a populist when he has nothing in common with the Populist Party and Ocasio-Cortez a progressive even though she does not have ties with the historic Progressive movement.

Words also matter in that labeling yourself a progressive is beneficial, so that anyone who opposes you becomes a non-progressive. Also, calling yourself a socialist will hurt electability. Pelosi understands that.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

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  1. A really simple definition of a contemporary progressive crosses boundaries of the left and right:
    Supporting candidates that canvas for small contributions.

    We have entered the Era of Electoral Progressivism

    Why is it that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar can be so brazenly outspoken about the environment, corporate greed and international violence while virtually all other House and Senate members cower and stay mum when these subjects are brought up?

    One must keep in mind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar won their seats by appealing to individual voters, asking for small campaign contributions rather than seeking corporate sponsors to whom they would be beholden.
    Consequently, AOC and Ilhan Omar only have to answer to their constituents and are free to express themselves how they see fit.
    Shouldn’t we have more representatives like that?
    It ought to be self-evident, but in the day-to day fray it is easy to lose track of how this phenomenon arose. But a good way to explain it is that we have entered an era of Electoral Progressivism.

    Electoral Progressivism first gained national popularity in 2016, when Bernie Sanders demonstrated it was possible to run a very effective campaign by asking solely for small donations.
    It was a brilliant strategy, the advantage being that once in office, the elected candidate is beholden to the voters rather than special interests.
    The imposition of the very rich upon the political landscape has increasingly become a thorn of annoyance in the side of the electorate; not just for the Left, but across the entire political spectrum.

    Because of this, the small donation practice is able to cut through partisan politics: Why should the political Left be the only group to enjoy the fruits of the small donation process? Why can’t conservatives or any political affiliation use the same tool?
    Hence the term, ‘Electoral Progressivism’; it describes individuals of any affiliation who utilize this small donation principle which can cross the entire political spectrum, irrespective of party affiliations.
    Electoral Progressivism makes for a stronger, healthier, more democratic “Vox Populi”.

  2. Socialism does not work pragmatically. Thank you for a no punches pulled article. I wish everyone could at least read it even though most, thanks to public education, will not have the capability to understand it.

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