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The Failings of the Progressive Movement

AP US History Doug Van Hollen

The Progressive party, while it addressed many social issues that were on the minds of the people, chose to leave unapproached or unsolved many problems that other parties saw fit to acknowledge.  Progressive reformers and the progressive president seemed unaware of the short-comings of the party in which they believe

This is one of about a thousand five-paragraph essays that I had to churn out as part of my high school A.P. US History class.  It's funny now how firmly I held opinions about issues that I no longer remember or understand.  This was written 2/15/1999.


The Progressive movement was the upsurge in interest of human nature and general optimism about America.  Progressives addressed such issues as birth control, alcohol, prostitution and child labor.  Though many Americans were swept up in this movement, the issues addressed by Progressives were not all-encompassing.  The Progressive movement disregarded many pivotal topics that needed attention.  Some of these unapproached problems included internal problems, such as racism, foreign affairs, and the ever-important issue of finance.

Since the Progressive movement dealt with humanistic issues, it is surprising that the important issue of racism was not one of the top six topics regarded by the Progressive party (industrialization, optimism about human nature, personal intervention, legislative reform, evangelical science, and total influence).  At this time in history (early twentieth century), racism was growing in vigor because of remaining cynicism from the Civil War, magnified by inflated Black peonage in the South.  The issue of racism was never fully addressed by the Progressive movement because, it is assumed, that the progressives were looking too far ahead of their present situation to notice problems that would have been handled better (or handled at all) by a party or movement that incorporated more conservative ideologies.  Other internal problems, such as poverty and homelessness were also disregarded in a similar way due to insufficient short-sightedness.  Looking ahead is usually beneficial, but it cost the Progressives the presidency.

Another issue left unattempted by the Progressives was the state of American foreign affairs.  True, some progressives, such as Theodore Roosevelt, were aware of the evident foreign affair neglect, it failed to achieve the status of a major point amongst party members in general.  As opposed to the racism argument, Progressive vision, this time, fell short of the mark, not in time, but in distance.  Progressives remained tied up with the idea of American reform.  Granted, America needed tidying up, but that does not mean we should ignore international issues.  The Progressive party showed that the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was still very much alive and kicking.  Manifest Destiny helped the country a lot when it first appeared in the early nineteenth century, but it also blinded its believers, and a blinded political party was exactly what the country didn’t need.

Another nearly ignored problem of the Progressive movement was national finance.  There is no mention in the basic principles of Progressivism of financial reform.  Though Progressives acknowledged money as a necessary evil of the twentieth century, they seemed to have overlooked the problems caused by money, or more drastic, the lack of it.  “Optimistic humanist” suggests that Americans would just find a way to thrive, regardless of finance.  Optimism in this sense is a danger to a political philosophy, as it dismisses problems too unsolvable to conceive.  Progressives used governmental legislation to reform the people, but they neglected the opportunity to use the same power to reform the government.  That is the upper hand which the other more influential parties had over Progressivism:  the ability to overhaul everything that required it.  It is believed that the lack of financial recognition was the straw that broke the Progressive back.

The Progressive party, while it addressed many social issues that were on the minds of the people, chose to leave unapproached or unsolved many problems that other parties saw fit to acknowledge.  Progressive reformers and the progressive president seemed unaware of the short-comings of the party in which they believed.

My Speech to the 2004 Brandeis Interfaith Baccalaureate

Dissecting “Il Catalogo e Questo”