Progressivism is the support and advocacy of social progress in society through reforms that often go against society’s traditional notions. As a philosophy, it is based on the idea of progress, which argues that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization matter for the improvement of human conditions. In the United States, progressivism emerged to fight for the political activism of the middle and lower classes, and progressivists themselves tried to fight the corruption of the upper classes (Eisenach, 2021). Progressivists included ideas of public health, class struggle, and modernization. One of the strong progressivists is Theodore Roosevelt, who created the Progressive Party USA. Roosevelt’s figure is a bulwark of ideas and strategic decisions to strengthen society and provide progressive social benefits.
Roosevelt entered politics consciously at a relatively early age and continued the family business. Progressivism as a movement became part of his duty because he wanted to achieve social equality in society. More than once, he engaged in conflict, exposing the corruption of corporations and dismantling the monopolistic market. Thanks to his diplomatic skills, he achieved peace on many complex international issues. It probably led him to single out progressives as individuals capable of national revolution.
Roosevelt attributed various traits to progressives: confidence, the stubbornness of spirit, diligence, and perseverance. A vital feature the former president saw as a struggle for human welfare and social justice as the highest value. In his speech, he said that any “fights fearlessly and effectively against special privilege in any form is to that extent a Progressive” (Roosevelt, 1912). Roosevelt did not tolerate concession and saw every man as his equal. He saw in progressives the hope of development and a rejection of a corrupt reality. In this regard, he repeatedly called for the development of medicine and jurisprudence, calling the ability to do so the essential trait of any human being. In addition, Roosevelt referred to progressives as honest and fair, supporters of reasonable control and change. Other crucial characteristics of a progressivist included an optimistic outlook on life and concern for the effects of industrialization.
Anti-progressives: Opponents of Change
The sociopolitical reasons for the emergence of anti-progressivist theories stemmed from the inconsistency of the realities of social life with the idea of progress. Progressivism challenged the economy and the state by agitating toward the need for social welfare (Progressive Party Platform of 1912, 1912). And those who disagreed with this Roosevelt called anti-progressives, who refused to put the interests of society first. He saw anti-progressives as people unable to renounce privilege and favor special interests. The reactionaries, as Roosevelt called them, were incapable of social sympathy and showed no interest in society (Roosevelt, 1912). It was more critical for them to create protections for privileged groups or to remain on the sidelines. Roosevelt did not accept this position, and his speech was filled with loud aggression toward those who remained on the sidelines.
Anti-progressives participated in many activities that seem wild at present. These people have been torn to monopolize and dominate government power, denying the need to participate in elections. The progressivism advocated by Taft was not valid because it only met with the approval of the upper classes while the people remained dissatisfied with taxes and punitive work. The anti-progressives advocated the harsh exploitation of the working class to maintain their advantage (Roosevelt, 1912). They were opposed to environmental protection and excluded the welfare of workers from their plan. The reforms proposed were always criticized and rejected, and in their place, all new privileges for the wealthy stratum were brought to the fore.
The anti-progressives were a category of people with whom Roosevelt could not come to terms. In his speech, he called their minds clouded but insisted that ignorance does not equal crime. Nor could Roosevelt accept the collapse of his labors in defense of the environment. Anti-progressives derailed his hydroelectricity, agricultural control, and alcoholic beverages. Roosevelt called many laws “paralyzed and discredited,” which aggravated the people and restricted their freedom (Roosevelt, 1912). The anti-progressives were not absolute evil, but their inaction did significant harm to the people.
The Goals of Progressivism and Its Achievements
Progressivism was versatile and exciting in terms of philosophical ideas about society. Different people, often disagreeing with each other, identified themselves as progressives, making the movement suspicious. As diverse as opinions differed about the measures of action, the goals of progressivism included several major components: social welfare, economic and government reforms, and moral improvement (Eisenach, 2021). All of the plans can be lumped together under the main one: to foster efficiency.
Social security became one of the main motives of progressivism as the class struggle gained momentum. Many workers continued to toil in harsh conditions that were not covered by wages (Stid, 2021). Industrialization did not affect all families, causing this social institution to suffer more (Zeidel, 2020). Roosevelt highlighted progressive changes among labor unions and food and drug laws in his speech (Roosevelt, 1912). He called them advances because family and the working class were finally protected.
Economic and government reforms were an essential part of Roosevelt’s progressive agenda. He defended the public interest by exposing corrupt government and shifting freedom of choice to public opinion (Roosevelt, 1912). In the economic sphere, progressives promoted the regulation of business practices that would allow free enterprise and fair competition. In addition, the efficiency of businesses was improved by reducing unemployment and raising wages (Progressive Party Platform of 1912, 1912). Among the changes at the state level, local laws were passed. It allowed citizens to introduce legislative initiatives through their deputies and referendums with a direct vote. It led to significant changes in the struggle for civil rights: women gained the right to vote, and children became a more protected group.
Moral improvement is always a question of the limits and responsibilities people are willing to accept. People’s attitudes toward education changed: Roosevelt notes that the number of schools significantly increased, and the level of education increased. As stated earlier, Roosevelt saw the family as the cornerstone of American society, and his program was predominantly family-oriented. In his speech, he stressed the need for unity, highlighting his achievement that the world was a better place through moral improvement (Roosevelt, 1912). Roosevelt called for “being your brother’s keeper” to reinforce this idea.
The political arena in which the 1912 election unfolded was a clash of progressives and supporters of tradition. Advocating progress, Roosevelt brought equality and class welfare ideas, designating them as core values. He singled out progressives as just and honest people, while the anti-progressives, on the contrary, ascribed to vanity. The anti-progressives opposed the change and tried to keep power at the top, while the progressivists promoted social, economic, and moral welfare. Among the significant progressivism achievements, Roosevelt cites the rise of labor unions, the exposure of government corruption, and the increase in education.
Eisenach, E. J. (2021). Progressivism as national regime. In The lost promise of progressivism (pp. 8–47). University Press of Kansas.
Progressive Party Platform of 1912. (1912). Teaching American history, Web.
Roosevelt, T. (1912). Who is a Progressive? Teaching American history, Web.
Stid, D. D. (2021). Progressivism and politics in New Jersey and the nation. In The President as statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the constitution (pp. 66–88). University Press of Kansas.
Zeidel, R. F. (2020). Turmoil amid reform: Immigrant worker protest and progressivism. In Robber Barons and Wretched Refuse: Ethnic and class dynamics during the era of American industrialization (pp. 136–159). Cornell University Press.