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Progressivism and Liberalism

The Progressive assault on the limited constitutionalism of the Founders set the stage for modern liberalism and the rise of big government over the past century. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on Progressivism and Liberalism. When you're ready for more, read the primary sources yourself and explore Progressivism and Liberalism in greater depth.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the Progressives? What did they believe?

The Progressives were reformers in the late 19th and early 20th century who believed that in order to address modern problems, America needed to abandon the old ideas of the Founding in favor of a new expansive conception of the role of government. Progressives paved the way for modern liberalism and politics, and their core ideas are still the mainstay of today’s liberalism.

Some Progressives were prominent journalists such as Herbert Croly (co-founder of The New Republic), some were distinguished professors such as John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson (president of Princeton before he was President of the U.S.), and many were political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. Progressives could be found in both political parties: Wilson was a Democrat, Roosevelt was a Republican.

The Progressives were united in their contempt for what they called the “individualism” of the Founding. Instead of a government that protects natural rights through limited, decentralized powers, they envisioned an expansive government, a “living” and evolving Constitution, and the rule of “experts” in nationally centralized administrative agencies.

For more on the subject, see the First Principles essay by Thomas G. West and William A. Schambra “The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics.

What were the intellectual origins of the Progressive Movement?

The Progressives derived their political ideas from European thinkers. The seeds of Progressivism were first sown by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born in Geneva, lived in France) who wrote that citizens ought to be “forced to be free” and that the “general will” should govern the individual wills of citizens, placing individuals in the service of the collective will of society.

These ideas made their way to Germany in the early 19th century, and had an important influence on the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel incorporated them into what he called a philosophy of History, in which ideas, society, and humanity itself are evolving toward a higher form of freedom. This progress is achieved, Hegel argued, by abandoning the antiquated ideas and traditions of the past, and embracing a new form of freedom, where individuals give the government unlimited authority over their lives.

Many of the American Progressives studied in Germany, and were taught by students of Hegel. They brought the German model of education and German political ideas back to America with them and established Ph.D. programs in several areas of study, producing a new generation of professors and students who sought to replace the principles of the Founding with the new Progressive teaching on politics. These ideas, mixed with Darwinism and a deep faith in science, form the roots of modern American Liberalism.

For more on the origins of Progressivism, see R. J. Pestritto’s First Principles essay “The Birth of the Administrative State: Where It Came From and What It Means for Limited Government.

How is the Progressive understanding of government different from that of the Founders?

Whereas the Founders believed the government had a well-defined and limited role to play in the lives of citizens—essentially leaving people alone to lead their lives—the Progressives favored a much more active role for the government in overseeing civil society, regulating the economy, and redistributing wealth.

These two fundamentally different understandings of the role of government grow out of two different understandings of freedom. For the Progressives, freedom is not secured when government protects natural rights and otherwise leaves citizens to rule themselves. True freedom, by this view, demands an active government that provides equal means to self-fulfillment for all. It is not enough to create the conditions that allow people to pursue their own happiness—equal opportunity—since some citizens start with more advantages than others. Government must set out to level the playing field and determine outcomes.

To ensure that all citizens possess all they need to attain happiness, government must create an environment in which all possess the same advantages, despite the fact that this requires government to interfere with the very natural rights the Founders sought to secure. Government must redistribute wealth and grant benefits in order to ensure that everyone has equal means to pursue happiness, and must provide economic and social resources to develop the social character of citizens.

For more on the subject, see the First Principles essay by Thomas G. West and William A. Schambra “The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics.

What is Liberalism and how is it different from Progressivism?

Liberalism can be understood in two very different ways. Liberalism, or what some call “classical liberalism,” is a political philosophy based on individual liberty and limited government. Over the last century, however, liberalism has come to take on a different meaning. The contemporary understanding of liberalism is based not on individual liberty, but on the use of government to grant benefits and advantages in order to give everyone the ability to achieve a certain standard of living and reduce inequalities. Therefore, modern liberalism encourages an extensive network of interest groups that receive benefits from government and organize in order to preserve those benefits.

Modern liberalism grows out of the Progressive rejection of American constitutionalism and an embrace of a new conception of freedom, anchored in big government. There are however certain significant differences between Progressivism and modern liberalism.

Whereas modern liberalism exalts freedom of self-expression, especially sexual liberation, most Progressives embraced traditional morals. Liberals are also obsessed with equality of outcomes in ways that the Progressives were not. Today, liberalism has lost the faith in progress that characterized Progressivism, mostly because of a loss of confidence in the inevitability of progress and the creeping effects of having embraced relativism from the start of the Progressive movement.

What’s the difference between Progressivism and Socialism?

Both Socialism and Progressivism use government power to control economic outcomes. The methods they use, however, are different. Socialism, strictly speaking, involves the government’s ownership of the means of production in a society. In a socialist economy, there are no private corporations that manufacture goods. All factories and companies belong to the state. Progressivism, by contrast, allows private ownership and control of corporations and manufacturing (thus a private economy and markets), although it does subject them to extensive government administration mostly through heavy regulation as well as other controls.

What is the "New Deal"? How does it depart from the principles of the Founding?

The New Deal was the economic security program established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933–1945. Roosevelt argued that new economic conditions of industrialization had changed government’s role. Accordingly, the government’s job was no longer merely to safeguard natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Instead, government would have to expand to regulate the economy (through government agencies such as the National Recovery Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission) and guarantee a standard of living for everyone (through programs such as Social Security). 

The New Deal departs from the principles of the Founding in several ways. First, while regulation and welfare have always been a part of the Founders’ theory of government, Roosevelt shifted these functions from local and state governments to the national government, centralizing power and disconnecting it from the communities it was supposed to serve. 

Second, Roosevelt advocated shifting government powers away from the three constitutional branches of government and into a federal bureaucracy that was unaccountable to the people and which combined all three functions of government. 

Finally, with the New Deal, Roosevelt sought to undermine the Founders’ understanding of rights and freedom. For the Founders, citizens possess their rights by nature and must be left free to pursue happiness on their own, within the limits of the law. For Roosevelt, rights come from the state, and government has to supply citizens with what they need in order to become happy.

For more on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, read his “Commonwealth Club Address,” “First Inaugural Address,” and “1944 State of the Union Address” in the Primary Sources series.

What is the "Great Society"? How does it depart from the principles of the Founding?

The Great Society was the term used by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to describe the plethora of programs that made up his grand vision for the role of government. Johnson described the Great Society as the next phase of liberalism after the New Deal. While the New Deal, he claims, gave us economic security, the Great Society would tend to the needs of the spirit and “enrich and elevate our national life.”

The Great Society aims to give people access to beauty and art, and to build communities, rather than merely expand economic benefits (the Great Society does promise to end poverty). Environmental protection, highway beautification, public broadcasting, and other social and spiritual programs are the centerpiece of the Great Society.

Taken along with the New Deal, the Great Society represents the culmination of the Progressive philosophy of government. The Great Society conflicts with founding principles by centralizing government power at the federal level, consolidating power in unaccountable administrative agencies, and establishing a new philosophy of positive rights granted by government rather than stemming from nature.

For more on the Great Society, read LBJ’s Great Society speech in the Primary Sources series.

What is the “Administrative State?” Is it constitutional?

The administrative state is the conglomeration of federal administrative agencies—whether executive agencies, executive departments, or independent regulatory commissions—that have become a “fourth branch” of government. Power has in effect been transferred from the representative, constitutional institutions—Congress, the President, and the courts—to administrative agencies and bureaucrats.

The administrative state is the conglomeration of federal administrative agencies—whether executive agencies, executive departments, or independent regulatory commissions—that have become a “fourth branch” of government. Power has in effect been transferred from the representative, constitutional institutions—Congress, the President, and the courts—to administrative agencies and bureaucrats.

Although our civics textbooks still describe a government where Congress makes laws, the President executes laws, and courts adjudicate disputes, this is not the way our government actually works. Today, bureaucrats make law, execute law, and adjudicate. Although the laws made by agencies are called rules, they carry the force of law.

The administrative state is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. Article I, section 1 of the Constitution states that all legislative powers shall be vested in Congress, yet Congress has transferred its powers to these agencies. Furthermore, the Constitution clearly requires the separation of powers, yet powers are combined in administrative agencies. Finally, many agency personnel are unelected and unaccountable, despite the republican principles on which the Constitution is based.

For more on the administrative state, see Joseph Postell’s special report “From Administrative State to Constitutional Government.”

Primary Sources

Our Publications

More Resources

Progressivism and Liberalism: Progressivism

American Progressivism: A Reader
Ronald Pestritto and William J. Atto (Lexington Books, 2008)
A good collection that runs the gamut of progressive thought, from political principles, to Social Gospel writings, to foreign policy speeches and documents. It also includes a fine introductory essay explaining the basic views of the progressives.

Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform
Eric Goldman (Alfred Knopf, 1952)
An honest and comprehensive overview written in narrative form by a historian sympathetic to the reform efforts of the period.

The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science: Transforming the American Regime
Edited by John Marini and Ken Masugi (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)
Several recent works have delved more deeply in to the progressive rejection of the American Founding. A good introduction to this scholarship with essays on the progressive critique of American constitutionalism, as well as on progressive ideas in theory and practice.

Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism
Ronald Pestritto (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)
An important volume that treats Woodrow Wilson as a political thinker as well as a politician, Pestritto's work reveals Wilson’s progressive philosophy, derived from nineteenth-century German thought, and its profound and continuing influence on progressive-liberalism in America.

Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence
Bradley C.S. Watson (ISI Books, 2009)
Bradley C.S. Watson's work explains how modern legal thinking began with the progressive rejection of America's principles and its creation of a new theory of the “living Constitution.”

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change
Jonah Goldberg (Doubleday, 2008)
A heavily-researched and deliberately provocative book, this recent work chronicles many of the excesses of the progressive movement and explains how those excesses were connected to some of the basic principles implicit in progressive philosophy.

Reprints of Progressive classics by Transaction Publishers
Transaction has republished important Progressive books that have long been out of print, including titles by Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly. Each book has an introduction by Sidney A. Pearson, Jr. in which he contrasts the Progressive arguments with the principles of the Founding.

Progressivism and Liberalism: Modern Liberalism

The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass
Myron Magnet (William Morrow & Co., 1993)
Magnet declares that it was the 1960s counterculture that divided the nation into haves and have-nots and created today’s underclass. The sexual revolution, he argues, transformed American values and behavior, In effect the new culture held the poor back from advancement “by robbing them of responsibility” and “squelching their initiative and energy.”

The Closing of the American Mind
Allan Bloom (Simon & Schuster, 1987)
In 1987, Allan Bloom published his withering criticism of relativism and multiculturalism on the American campus along with a stout defense of the great books and thinkers of Western Civi­lization. The Closing of the American Mind became one of the most talked-about books of the decade and a best-seller with a million copies in circulation.

Liberal Parents, Radical Children
Midge Decter (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975)
In Liberal Parents, Radical Children, Decter argues that the parents of her genera­tion failed to discharge their fundamental responsibility of passing on to their children the importance of character, standards, and the notion of right and wrong. As a result, their wayward children eagerly embraced the counterculture with its contempt for authority, taste for drugs, and sense of entitlement.

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women
Christina Hoff Sommers (Simon & Schuster, 1994)
Who Stole Feminism? is a convincing indictment of the ideo­logues who hijacked the feminist movement, deliberately dis­torting the data and manipulating politicians along the way. Sommers argues that the gender feminists have done far more damage than good for women because they constantly encourage conflict between the sexes and a victim mentality among women.

The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis
Robert P. George (ISI Books, 2001)
Public philosopher Robert George effectively disproves the liberal argument of the 2000s that the conservative position on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage is “mere religion,” bereft of rationality. Using natural law philosophy, he calls for a return to limited government, the rule of law, and private property as well as social justice and the common good.

Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism
James Burnham (John Day Co., 1964)
Burnham argues that the West has been in territorial retreat and civilizational decline since World War I, having apparently lost its will to survive. The reasons he gives, including “the decay of religion,” “an excess of material luxury,” and the pernicious influence of modern liberalism, remain as valid as they were in 1964.

Making It
Norman Podhoretz (Random House, 1967)
The arresting memoir of the son of immigrant Jews who rejected liberalism in favor of neoconservatism and became one of the most influential intellectuals in America.

Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey
David Horowitz (Touchstone, 1997)
Horowitz’s story of his remarkable ideological metamorphosis from being a leader of the radical Left during the 1960’s into being one of the most quoted conservatives of America today. In Horowitz’s own words, “It was what I thought was the humanity of the Marxist idea that made me what I was then; it is the inhumanity of what I have seen to be the Marxist reality that has made me what I am now.”

Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus
Dinesh D’Souza (The Free Press, 1991)
D’Souza exposes the alarming transformation of American higher education for the worse in the name of political correctness. He concludes that affirmative action has only increased tensions between the races and the genders.

New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America
Burton Folsom, Jr. (Threshold, 2008)
Folsom argues that New Deal government intervention did not end the Great Depression and continues to cause problems for America to this day. An accessible revisionist assessment of the New Deal and the “Roosevelt legend.”

The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America
Roger Kimball (Encounter, 2000)
Kimball examines a series of Sixties figures to determine how they succeeded in effecting a revolution in American morality and mores. A polemical critique of the Sixties and the negative consequences of its ideas.