By Dennis Grimski
Exposing the Marxists Roots of the
American Left (Article IV)
Article Focus: Progressivism
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I am writing a series for Blue Water Healthy Living on: “Exposing the Marxist Roots of the America Left.” In my first article, “In Search of Civility,” I showed that most Americans believe our nation has significantly declined over the past several decades. The key question I attempted to raise in this article asked the hard question: “Did our level of civility decline through recent years by natural evolution or societal events; or did our moral decline and level of divisiveness come about by design?”
In my last two articles, I provided readers an overview of our Founding Fathers, and our nation’s historical guiding values and principles; beliefs that have been a crucial component to American Exceptionalism for the majority of our history. Again, my belief is that the liberal left today desires to discard our historical beliefs, and replace them with a new cultural, societal, and economic paradigm that will transform America as we know it.
“We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” —Barack Obama, October 30, 2008
“We are going to have to change our conversation; we’re going to have to change our traditions, our history; we’re going to have to move into a different place as a nation.” — Michelle Obama, May 14, 2008
If you think my writing style gradually building toward a crescendo, you are correct. The story is just too complex to lay out in one article. In order to understand the story, it is important to comprehend the plot, and how it is has been unfolding for decades.
Through this series, I will show evidence that people came to America in the 1930s with the intent of destroying it. When they came, they found a willing audience of progressive intellectuals who were eager to incorporate Marxists beliefs. However, as time went on, these well-intentioned progressives were co-opted by a Marxist belief system that has essentially taken over our key institutions, including the Democrat Party. Progressivism and Cultural Marxism are now very much blended in America. In order to understand how this blending occurred, it’s important to unfold the next chapter in our story: PROGRESSIVISM! The Progressive Movement in America was (and is) a very important, yet complex and metamorphic movement.
Who Were the Progressives, and
Why is Knowing about Progressivism Important Today?
Progressivism was the reform movement that ran from the late 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century, during which leading intellectuals and social reformers in the United States sought to address the economic, political and social questions that had arisen in the context of the rapid changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the “free market” economy in America. The Progressives believed that these changes marked the end of the “old world order” and required the creation of “new world order” more appropriate for a modern America.
The concept of Progressivism emerged through European philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Marx (see box right). In the 1800s, people began to believe that progress in science, economics, and technology would result in the improvement of the human condition. Gaining empirical knowledge was thought to be foundational to a progressive society, versus relying on an Almighty Creator who controls mankind’s destiny. Progressives valued economic and technological growth; the intrinsic value of life on earth, including valuing the earth itself; and the use of reason and scientific knowledge over Judeo-Christian beliefs and moral standards.
Progressivism took hold in America in the late 1800s, increased in power through the Presidential terms of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and reached its peak with the Great Society under Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). After the 1960s, the concept of “progressivism” was transformed into what we know today as modern liberalism. Today, we see the belief system of liberalism playing out on college campuses, throughout our media and Hollywood, and in our government at all levels. Generally, there is a great divide in America today, between people who call themselves Conservative, and those who call themselves Liberal. The former can trace their roots back to the Founding Fathers; and the latter can trace their roots back to the Progressive Era. Each dramatically views the role of government as substantively different.
According to R.J. Pestritto Shipley, Professor of the American Constitution at Hillsdale College, many on the left today call themselves “progressive,” and they do so not just because it’s a nicer way of saying “liberal,” but also because they very much intend to revive the political principles of America’s original Progressives. Why would leftist politicians, like Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi today, purposely identify themselves as “Progressives” and with the Progressive movement?
The reason is that America’s original Progressives were also its original, big-government liberals. Most people point to the New Deal era as the source of big government and the welfare state that we have today. While this is perfectly accurate, it is important to understand that the principles of the New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) did not originate in the 1930s, but came from the Progressives, who had dominated American politics and the American intellectual cultural a full generation earlier.
In terms of the personalities who made up the Progressive Movement, some are familiar to us and others are less so. The movement was comprised of well known politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson; but it was also comprised of intellectuals and writers who are less well known today, but who were very influential in the Progressive movement, and whose ideas are still being adhered to (knowingly or unknowingly) by many on the left today.
- Progressives such as William U’Ren and Robert La Follette argued the average citizen should have more control over their government; and were major adherents to government addressing the social needs of society, especially those persons residing in large urban areas.
- Progressives such as Louis Brandeis hoped to make American government better able to serve the people’s needs by making governmental operations and services more efficient and rational. Efficient was a colloquialism for expert governmental administrative personnel.
- Progressive thinkers such as John Dewey and Lester Ward placed a universal and comprehensive system of “public education” at the top of the progressive agenda. Dewey worked hard to revamp public education, and believed updating all public school curricula with progressive ideas were the key to changing the minds of young people for generations to come. In this regard, Dewey believed in a well-funded, government managed “public education” system, with a large internal administrative component, as the best way to transform America.
- Two of the biggest movements of the progressive era were: women’s suffrage, and the settlement movement. Both of these movements were championed by Jane Addams. Addams was a pioneer of the American settlement movement which helped with “settling” incoming immigrants in large urban areas. Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House that would later become known as one of the most famous settlement houses in America. Addams also helped America focus on issues that were of concern to woman and mothers, such as the needs of children, local public health, and the role of women in public education and social services.
- Progressive “muckraker” journalists who attacked traditional American institutions, big business, and conservative politicians who disagreed with their progressive modern views. Muckraking magazines began to emerge—notably McClure’s of the publisher S. S. McClure— and the New Republican, managed by Herbert Croly, Journalists (the Mainstream Media of today) became very influential in shaping the progressive views of Americans.
- Major political progressives like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson believed in an expanded role of government, especially in the office of the President. Wilson envisioned a large centralized decision-making bureaucratic government managed by trained experts, with substantially reduced power for local and state governments.
Progressivism in American History
The Progressive Era was a period of significant change in the United States that lasted roughly from the mid-1880s to World War 1. The most basic definition of ‘progressive‘ means to: “gradually change something over time.” The desire of progressives was to “reform” the American culture, society and political landscape, through the power of the public government. In this regard, the Progressive Movement is best capsulated by historian William Leuchtenburg:
“The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of a large central government; that is, a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was individualism, states’ rights, and limited government.”
Progressivism in America occurred as a result of America’s rapid urbanization and industrialization at the end of the 19th century. In the late 1800s, millions of Americans migrated west and into urban areas, and hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved to northern cities. Moreover, the United States experienced unprecedented levels of immigration at this time.
To understand the Progressive Era, take a few moments to picture life during that time. When the colonists first arrived in America, they were farmers, but that all changed during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Millions of people flocked to cities to find jobs. Factories were noisy, dangerous, and spewed toxic gases that polluted the air and clouded the sky. Small children and women worked 12-hour days and risked life and limb to climb across dangerous machinery.
Moreover, rapid advances in technology and industrialization took its toll on Americans. While urban areas benefited from electricity and running water, cities became the breeding ground for not only disease, but also crime and poverty. Rural farmers struggled to maintain their farms as they battled increased competition, costly machinery, and falling prices.
Thus, progressivism began as a social movement to cope with the various social needs of the time and ultimately evolved into a reform movement. Progressives believed that society’s problems, such as poverty, poor health, poor education, and class warfare could be best eradicated through better education, a safer environment, and a more efficient government. Progressives at this time were primarily college-educated urban dwellers and University elites who believed that the government could be used as a tool for societal change.
What is important to know is that the foundation of the “modern liberal” of today was born out of the beliefs of the progressive era (Chambers, 1980). Progressives aimed for a thorough transformation in America’s founding principles through the intervention of government. While our founders understood that our national government must have the capacity to be strong and vigorous, they also were very clear that this strength must always be confined to very limited areas of responsibility, as defined within the confines of the Constitution. For the Founding Fathers, the federal government, while not weak or tiny, was to be strictly limited. This “limited view” concept did not sit well with progressives who wanted to use government to enact their desired programs and societal changes, regardless of the limits and parameters set forth by the Constitution.
In this regard, the Progressive view of government was quite different from the Founding Fathers. Progressives had an “evolving” or a “living” notion of government (i.e. we get the term “living constitution” from the Progressives). Progressives wanted government to take on whatever role and scope the times demanded, and as they determined. Because of their “intellectual elitism” they always know what’s best for America, and they just have to educate the masses accordingly. If you disagree with their beliefs, however, then you are labeled ignorant, or a more demeaning term.
Progressives did not want to limit the role of government to the restrictions noted in the Constitution. Presidents, like T. Roosevelt, W. Wilson, and F. Roosevelt, used progressive concepts to expand the limits of the “executive branch” as defined in the Constitution. They wanted to use their “executive office” to create a new government bureaucracy, with trained administrators, to make informed key decisions to “transform” America. These progressive presidents all believed that bureaucratic administrators, under the auspice of the Executive office, could better manage the government than elected politicians. We see this belief being played out today, with the thousands of rules being promulgated by non-elected administrators of the various Departments within the federal government.
The Progressives reasoned that people of the Founding era may have wanted a limited government, but they argued that people of their own time wanted a much more activist government, and that our society should adjust accordingly to these more modern beliefs.
According to Professor R.J. Shipley, quite simply, the Progressives detested the bedrock principles of American government. Progressives detested the Declaration of Independence, which enshrines the protection of individual natural rights (like personal property) as the unchangeable purpose of government; and they detested the Constitution, which places permanent limits on the scope of government and is structured in a way that makes the extension of national power beyond its original purpose very difficult. “Progressivism” was, for them, all about progressing, or moving beyond, the principles of our Founders, and the limits of the Constitution.
This is why the Progressives were the first generation of Americans to denounce openly our founding documents. Woodrow Wilson, for example, once warned that “if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not read the preface” – i.e. that part of the Declaration which talks about securing individual natural rights as the only legitimate purpose of government. And Theodore Roosevelt, when using the federal government to take over private businesses during the 1902 coal strike, remarked, “To hell with the Constitution when people want coal!” This remark may be apocryphal, but it is a fair representation of how progressives viewed the Constitution.
In America, the progressive era flourished until World War I. Progressivism ended when the horrors of war exposed people’s cruelty, and many Americans associated President Woodrow Wilson’s use of progressive language (“the war to make the world safe for democracy”) as a major failure to keep America out of the European war. Consequently, when President Woodrow Wilson led America into the Great War, many people paired progressivism with the war movement, and a major backlash occurred. During the roaring 1920s, progressivism still flourished, but more at the University level amongst intellectual elites.
Even though the heyday of the progressive era had come to an end by 1920, the core concepts of “progressivism” continued to flourish in America politics. In the 1930s, FDR was a huge proponent of large government, believed the federal government could cure the ills of society, and believed government alone had the responsibility to bring America out of the Great Depression. FDR’s key legislative and huge government expansion effort, the New Deal, including the emergence of the public welfare state as we know it today, was built on large-government progressive beliefs.
In the late 1940s-early 1950s, Truman’s Fair Deal, was built on progressive beliefs which further expanded the federal governmental role beyond the Constitution. And in the 1960s, LBJ would use progressive beliefs to launch his keystone legislation: “The Great Society” and the “War on Poverty.” Both of these huge governmental efforts were built on the concepts that the US Constitution was obsolete, and the government should solve the issue of poverty, racism, class warfare, healthcare, and women’s health in America through enacted social programs, regardless of the limits of the Constitution. In the end, progressive liberal judges, appointed by these progressive Presidents, would back this belief with the notion that the Constitution was a “living document,” and not limited to the intents or words of the Founding Fathers.
To summarize, although the Progressive Era formally ended during World War 1, the tenets of progressive beliefs lived on in America, and have become the lynchpin philosophy for many politicians over the past 80 years. Specifically, all “liberals” today in America can trace their roots to the progressive era; and most politicians today (both Democrat and Republican) follow a progressive belief in the role of government, because doing social programs is the best way to get reelected.
In regards to progressivism itself, the tenets of a the Founding Father’s “limited view of government” have been pushed aside by adherents to a belief system that it is the government’s role at all levels (federal, state, local) is to address and solve all of society’s ills, regardless of costs, and regardless of government size. Government expertise is what society needs to solve its key questions. Unfortunately, this view is disconcerting for the federal government in light of the limits placed upon it by the Constitution. But when it comes to Progressivism, let me again repeat the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “To Hell with the Constitution…”
Progressivism and Socialism
Since the Progressives had such a limitless view of State power, and since they wanted to downplay the founders’ emphasis on individual rights, it is only natural to ask if they subscribed to socialism? According to Professor Shipley, there are several things to consider in answering this question.
First, when considering the relationship of progressivism to socialism, we must be clear that we are talking about the similarity in the philosophy of government; we are not suggesting that America’s progressives were the kind of moral monsters that we see in the history of some communist or fascist regimes.
Second, we must also bear in mind that there was an actual socialist movement during the Progressive Era, and prominent progressives such as Roosevelt and Wilson were critics of it. In fact, Wilson and Roosevelt both ran against a socialist candidate in the 1912 election (Eugene Debs). The progressives were ambivalent about the socialist movement of their day not so much because they disagreed with it in principle, but because the American socialist movement was a movement of the lower classes. The progressives were elitists; they looked down their noses at the socialists, considering them a kind of rabble.
Keeping these points in mind, it is, nonetheless, the case that the progressive conception of government closely coincided with the socialist conception. Both progressivism and socialism champion the prerogatives of the State over the prerogatives of the individual. Wilson himself made this connection very plain in a revealing essay he wrote in 1887 called “Socialism and Democracy.” Wilson’s begins this essay by defining socialism, explaining that it stands for unfettered state power, which trumps any notion of individual rights. It “proposes that all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view,” Wilson wrote, and “that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will.” After laying out this definition of socialism, Wilson explains that he finds nothing wrong with it in principle, since it was merely the logical extension of genuine democratic theory. It gives all power to the people, in their collective capacity, to carry out their will through the exercise of governmental power, unlimited by any undemocratic idea like individual rights or a Constitution. He elaborated:
“In fundamental theory, socialism and democracy are almost if not quite one and the same. They both rest at bottom upon the absolute right of the community to determine its own destiny and that of its members. Limits of wisdom and convenience to the public control there may be: limits of principle there are, upon strict analysis, none.”
Roosevelt, too, argued for a new conception of government, where individual natural rights would no longer serve as a principled boundary that the state was prohibited from crossing. He called in his New Nationalism program for the state to take an active role in effecting economic equality by way of superintending the use of private property. Private property rights, which had been serving as a brake on the more aggressive progressive policy proposals, were to be respected, Roosevelt argued, only insofar as the government approved of the property’s social usefulness. He wrote:
“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”
As you can see from the above analysis, the type of progressivism that was argued for by its leading statesmen is very similar, in both concept and application, to a socialistic system. Most modern progressives realize that the more the government controls and takes over (e.g. Obamacare and the healthcare industry, for example), the further America moves away from being a capitalistic system to becoming a socialistic system. The unfettered government control that progressives’ desire is very much a socialistic system (central government controlled and managed).
Progressivism Today: An America in Crisis
There are important connections between America’s original Progressive Era and the political views we see in many of our modern progressives today. These views have put America at a crossroads with our historical and traditional beliefs.
The crisis in “beliefs” we are facing today must be considered on two levels.
The first connection is at a general level, and concerns our abandonment of the Constitution. The present crisis America finds itself in did not appear out of nowhere, and didn’t simply begin with the election of Barack Obama (or even the potential election of Hillary Clinton). Politicians of both parties spent the better part of the 20th century disregarding the Constitution, as they looked to have government step-up to solve every conceivable human problem. Thus it ought to be no surprise that the Constitution’s limits on the federal government aren’t even part of the conversation today, as our politicians debate the new interventions in our economy and society that seem to come daily.
The state of things we see today in Washington DC would have greatly pleased America’s original progressives. As I’ve endeavored to explain in this article, progressives believe that the role of government should be determined not by our Constitution, but by whatever the needs of the day happened to be. This is why they sought to eradicate talk of the Constitution from our political discourse; today, that goal seems to have been realized.
Yet, there is hope. With the emergence of the Tea Party, there is a conservative political base taking root in America, leading to the election of “true conservatives.” Currently, there is a growing group of ‘conservative’ politicians called the Freedom Caucus that is attempting to reign in governmental spending and control.
But the deck is stacked against Conservatives in congress, even though Republicans currently control all three branches of government. When it comes to large government beliefs and uncontrolled budgetary spending, these “true conservatives” are up against progressive Democrats and progressive Republicans (RINOs) who control Congress, and who see government as the solution to all issues facing America. Congressional progressives, although they may wear a different color tie, and may disagree on policy approach, all see government as the means to achieve their desires outcomes. On this, both sides of the political aisle agree.
The second connection between the original Progressive Era and our situation today has to do with policy. The progressives knew that our original system of government was not capable of handling all of the new tasks that they had in mind for it. So they envisioned creating a vast set of bureaucratic agencies. When you look at the broad array of federal departments that have been created in the past 80 years, you can see this progressive policy playing out in real life. Progressive politicians have argued that Congress should enact very broad and vague laws for supervising more and more facets of the American economy and society, and then delegate to the bureaucratic agencies the power and discretion to enact specific policies. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and LBJ clearly conceived of government in this way, and these policies have been continued by Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barak Obama. It wasn’t until the recent election of Donald Trump, where America said enough, that you can see any curtailment in government overreach.
For example, under FDR, the New Deal certainly went a long way toward implementing this progressive vision. Later, LBJ enacted the Great Society with trillions of taxpayer funds being spent on free government give-a-ways, with no statistical success of reducing poverty in America. In fact, more people are in poverty today, than they were in 1962.
Most recently, under Barak Obama, we saw his progressive philosophy expand the federal government and its deficit spending like never before. The Obama administration racked-up more national dept in his eight years than all previous Presidents combined. During Obama’s tenure, his administration launched new “social justice” programs such as OBAMACARE, TARP, and DACA, just to name a few, that only increased the size of government, and the budget deficit of the United States. Social justice programs, which find its roots in the Progressive Era, are just part of the overall modern progressive plan for America, as we march toward “socialism.”
In turn, our Congress has simply said to federal agencies: “Here’s a trillion dollars, here’s all the legal authority you need, now go out, determine what’s in the public interest, and spend and regulate accordingly.”
Spending taxpayer money, without regards to measured results or unintended consequences, under the justification of solving all of America’s ills is the progressive vision of government, in a nutshell. Currently, in America, there is no self-management of the overall growth of the federal bureaucracy. Ineffective federal Departments are not downsized or eliminated, they are just given more money, with the belief that the “policy” is right; it’s just that we haven’t thrown enough money at the problem yet to achieve the solution we desire.
This progressive vision is a far cry from what the original Founders had for our federal government, and is the reason we are facing a Constitutional crisis today. Many conservatives believe we are on the road that led to the collapse of the Roman Empire, and America is in process of spending our way into oblivion.
The question for our future is now on the table. Will American’s continue to allow our Constitution to be blatantly ignored, or will we take a stand for our traditional American values, beliefs and principles? Only the American people hold the answer to this question through elections, whereas current Washington politicians have demonstrated no restraint to its government spending and increased government growth approach. The level of intrusiveness of “government” into American lives is now at an all time high, and will only get worse if “progressives” continue to dominate the American landscape, especially the political arena.
Chambers, J. W. (1980). The Tyranny of change: America in the progressive era, 1900-1917. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Filip, V. (2015). Origins of American social policies: The progressive era. Universitatea Danubi Galati, 7(1), 67-84, from: http://journals.univ-danubius.ro/index.php/administratio/article/view/2973
George Washington University. The progressive era (1890-1920)., from: https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/progressive-era.cfm
“Progressivism”. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001–05.
Alonzo L. Hamby, “Progressivism: A Century of Change and Rebirth,” in Progressivism and the New Democracy, ed. Sidney M. Milkis and Jerome M. Mileur (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
Vincent P. De Santis, The shaping of modern America, 1877–1920 (1999) p. 171. In the South, “purification” meant taking the vote away from blacks according to Jimmie Franklin, “Blacks and the Progressive Movement: Emergence of a New Synthesis,” Organization of American Historians Jimmie Franklin, Blacks and the Progressive Movement: Emergence of a New Synthesis Archived 2010-01-13 at the Wayback Machine., Organization of American Historians.
Leuchtenburg, William (December 1952). “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1916”. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review. 39 (3): 483–85. JSTOR 1895006.
Alexander Keyssar (2009). The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2nd ed. pp. 103–30. ISBN 9780465010141
“Hillary Clinton on flip-flop charge: ‘I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done'”. The week.com. 13 October 2015.
David P. Thelen, Robert M. La Follette and the insurgent spirit (1976)