Ohio History Journal

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Robert Bulkley:

Progressive Profile



Twenty years ago American historians characterized progressivism as a

political movement whose reform impulse was rooted in the "status

anxieties" of its predominately middle-class membership. Since then, a

generation of historians has effectively challenged the simplicity of that

hypothesis and replaced it with the notion that progressivism was more

diffuse in nature. No longer viewed then as a movement cohesive in

philosophy and homogeneous in membership, progressivism has become

merely a term used to describe a series of widely divergent reform ideas,

some radical and quasi-socialist, others mildly reformist or even conserva-

tive, that Americans adopted as an alternative to unfettered capitalism.'

Bernard Sternsher has recently offered historians a useful tool in

analyzing the complexities of progressivism. Avoiding the error of those

who labeled all political philosophies to the left of laissez-faire as "progres-

sive" (or of those like Gabriel Kolko who characterize all to the right of

socialism as "conservative"), Sternsher has constructed a political typology

that accounts for the variety of political philosophies housed within the

capitalistic system. To the left of laissez-faire are the antitrust advocates,

such as Louis Brandeis, who sought government intervention only to

restrict the size and power of business. In the center are the neo-

mercantilists, defined as those favoring government intervention to pro-

mote the general welfare. Within neo-mercantilism Sternsher distinguished

between right-of-center proponents of the trickle down theory and left-of-

center advocates of social welfare legislation. Located further to the left,

just before socialism, was the philosophy of "concentration and control,"

which Sternsher described as planned capitalism involving the combined

efforts of government, business and labor.

With such a spectrum in mind, it becomes easier to understand the

results of Otis Graham's study of 105 progressives who lived to see the New

Deal. The shotgun application of the term, progressive, guaranteed the

inclusion of reformers within that so-called movement who would react in


William D. Jenkins is Associate Professor of History at Youngstown State University.


I. See PeterG. Filene,"An Obituary for the Progressive Movement," Ar'vri(can Quarterly.

XXII (Spring 1970), and John Buenker, Urban Liberalism andi Progre.ssive Reflrm (New

York. 1973) for a thorough discussion of recent historiography.