What is Progressivism!?


CONTROVERSY LEVEL: 7-8 of 10 I suppose. It really depends on your outlook on government. But I will say that a lot more of you out there are progressive than you think.

Again, the question; why go over so many isms? Because these ideas tend to create policy positions and ultimately reflect the real world. In essence, the ideas become reality. And isms are very important in politics because they drive improvement, innovation, and ethics. Finally, regardless of whether you buy into it or not, progressivism has been around for quite some time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Nobody wants to study isms, and this is one of the main reasons why studying politics is frustrating; it includes a synthesis of philosophy, psychology, sociology, logic, and just about any other discipline you can think of. It’s abstract, difficult to wrestle with, and forces serious questions about the environment we live in. Also, sometimes the answers to questions aren’t always answerable.

Regardless, I move forward. Progressivism is a major component of the American political system, and here’s how it works:

What is this PROGRESSIVism you’re talking about?

Well, it’s a political theory/movement that occurred starting during the early 20th century or so (although ideas were floating around since the late 19th century). For reference, imagine yourself living through the pre-Depression era. Imagine the world with primitive electricity structures and vehicles are just beginning to be mass produced. In this timeframe, massive scales of industry were taking off, there was increasing urban migration, and societies were industrializing at a very rapid pace.

One of the foundational ideas in progressivism is positive governance. This is the idea that governments have the ability (and perhaps the obligation) to positively change the environment of its citizens. Because there is no other authority to make positive environmental change, governments should take steps to induce such positive change for everyone involved in the system. There are similar ideas in academics; positive academic inquiry seeks to pool studies together, and use that research to move forward our understanding of whatever it is.

EXAMPLES: For the most part, aside political theory, the systematic study of political science is positive. For example, the American political subset seeks to pool together what others have found to clearly identify what “American politics” actually is, and how it operates. What are the principles it operates on? What is the pattern of elections? How do term limits affect democracy? Can we accurately predict the outcome of elections? If you can understand these principles, then you can shape American politics. This is positive; as in continually progressing the understanding of the subject.

Opposite positive academics (or politics for that matter) is normative study (or politics). So, this is the study of how things “ought” to be. This study includes political philosophy (the way governments OUGHT to be; as opposed to studying what they ARE). Similarly, normative governmental ideas would seek to understand the way governments should implement policy and behave. Also, normative arguments can re-evaluate and interpret policy currently in place. Where positive progresses some conception of the subject, normative explains the way it “should be.”

Until progressivism became the dominant thought in America, most political conduct was normative. Arguments surrounded Constitutional interpretation, the proper role of the government, and largely ignored what “could” be.

So what happened? Communism and modernization.

Progressivism the system (and consequently movement) was in reaction to modernization, and it was a movement that targeted the enhancement of standards of living, social justice to minority groups, and government-individual relations. So, progressives really wanted to “progress” what governments are capable of. Communism charged capitalist systems because they lack sense of communal justice, standards, and it generally said that workers are merely tools for businesses.

Why is modernization such a big deal!?

Well, an “ization” is a process of; so, in this case, it was a process of becoming modern. And what happens during this process? Lots of stuff. The United States overall was moving from a primarily agrarian-based means of production to an urban industrial one. This means bringing lots of diverse people together, changing routines and traditions, blending cultural ideas, the creation of giant corporations and production organizations, and really revolutionizing the way that people interact with one another.

Machines were created to mass produce stuff, employers were working people too much to meet production demands, people were drinking more booze (because it was cheaper and more available — because of production method enhancements), school were separated across racial lines (black/white), women couldn’t vote, and Communism seriously shook the foundations of Capitalism. Communism charged Capitalism with lacking coherent community, the de-humanization of workers, and subordinated people to money. Also, workers had pretty much zero rights before progressives … and had their concerns not been addressed, Communism would have been a very attractive option for workers.

Cities become job centers where millions people migrated from countrysides to find stable income and some promise of prosperity (even minimally so). Because of mass production, employers required increasing amounts of manpower. Producers increasingly become urban, and mass production caused all sorts of environmental pollution, provided minimal protections for the workers (also, children could work ridiculous hours during this time), and people were selling all sorts of generally nasty stuff (imagine a butcher shop or even grocery store around the early 1900s). This period of development seems to be where modern day China is right now … and there are conflicting ideas between Communism/Capitalism … so China is a bit funky to study. Also, women couldn’t vote around the progressive timeframe, and they seemed to be a bit angry at that.

So, progressive ideas targeted educational, environmental, and social standards in an effort to foster community relations while maintaining a Capitalist system at the same time. This idea was essentially the American reactionary answer to Communism, and all sorts of isms of that time criticized Capitalism’s ability to abuse workers and general lack of community.

How does this work!?

Naturally there were radical and moderate progressives … because there are radical and moderate people everywhere. Radical subscribers wanted to completely revamp American culture to emphasize quality and immersive education, strict moral conduct (they supported Prohibition), highly regulated standards for ethical business conduct, and lots of other things.

Meanwhile, the moderates generally understood that progressive ideology was a very slow moving idea, and each policy would add a layer of change; this way there was no radical revolution. Instead, there would be incremental changes … sort of like a lobster in a boiler; the temperature gradually climbs, but not instantly.

So, how can you make incremental changes? Create a BUREAUCRACY!


Yes, progressive ideas by-and-large drive theories about bureaucracy. Thinkers of this idea advocated the corporatization of politics. Most famously, German sociologist Max Weber advocated bureaucracies as the most-efficient and rational method of human organization.

What is a bureaucracy? A non-elected administration or organization created by elected officials to address a specific topic or issue. Also, this is a “cracy” system. This means that, in Greek, it literally means “rule of the bureau.”

Is this unconstitutional? Nope. The Constitution makes no mention about elected officials creating separate organizations.

Dig this:

The federal political process in the US is limited to three branches and some rules. BUT, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use income tax (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1906) to create subject-matter-specific organizations that specialize and target specific problems or topics. In fact, at the begining, there were only three bureaus; State, War, and Treasury. Now, there are 15 organizations in the presidential Cabinet. The heads of which are nominated by the president, then confirmed by Senate (though some are directly appointed). But in addition, there are agencies all over the place. These organizations aim to set the “rules” for the conduct of pretty much anything you can imagine.

Each “bureau” is really an organization meant to address a specified problem. The unemployment office deals with people out of work; the VA office deals with veterans and their benefits; Health and Human Services deals with healthcare and food delivery; and driver’s services deals with the ins and outs of driving.

Each bureau operates like a tightly regimented business. There is a mission statement, workplace policies, explicit rules of conduct and expectations, and regulations governing them. The difference is that they are publicly funded; so all employee salaries are publicly reported, yearly budgets are reviewed and made public, and record keeping is very tedious (and all public knowledge in the US).

Also, bureaucratic organizations don’t necessarily care about customer service; they care about efficiency. The IRS doesn’t care about your personal situation, all it cares about is whether or not the forms are filled out correctly. Driver’s services doesn’t care about whether or not you forgot the prerequisite paperwork, it only cares that you have what you need. Why? Because bureaus process incredible amounts of work, and it’s actually pretty amazing how much work bureaus get done and process every day. Think about how much mail gets processed every day, or how many applications are processed in any given day in any given bureau.


Well, the idea is that by creating a specified organization to deal with each problem, then it’s possible to target that problem for positive progress. So, now policy can be generated by not only the public, generalists (representatives), and presidential orders, but we can ALSO have subject-matter experts.

Look at working standards:

In America, there is a Department of Labor, usually at both state and federal levels. Before this bureau existed, there were no (or very few) laws governing business conduct. So, 8-year-olds could work 10 hours a day, there was no minimum wage, conditions for workers could be overcrowded, no benefits had to be given, housing standards didn’t exist, and generally the workers were at the mercy of the employer.

To target the problem, the US made an organization that specializes in that problem area.

So, the DOL has statutory power (which means backed by law — agreed through representative deliberation) to enforce wage minimums, or hour and age standards, and workplace standards. Increasingly the role has been equal opportunity standards, the right to unionize and negotiate wages, and the DOL also established unemployment insurance standards.

The idea is very scientific. If you see a negative, then make it a positive (or at least a neutral). If you see the world in terms of problems, than this is an effective means to fix the problems.

All sorts of bureaus exist now, all for separate purposes. The Department of Education targets school standards; the EPA targets environmental standards (although this is an AGENCY, and agencies act as agents for bureaus); VA targets veterans, and there are many others.

The theory is that by adding to bureaucracy, government can make positive environmental changes that benefits if not everyone, most people. This is separate than politics, because in politics, there is always a single winner. The concept of bureaucracy was that it would enforce public policy that affects the public more broadly.

This is my main critique of Libertarian-type capitalists; if there is a completely unregulated market, then what checks and balances exist to limit unethical conduct? It’s been patently proven that businesses are capable of pretty horrendous treatment of workers; look at China, Bangladesh, or America in the early days. If some believe that businesses will conduct themselves ethically by virtue of being a business, I would probably not believe that.

EVERY president has been a progressive since FDR.

Yes. It’s true. Yes, even Ronald Reagan. Reagan popularized the “war on drugs,” and, yes, contributed to bureaucracy (not to mention vast increases to the Department of Defense). Maybe he advocated taking some complications away, but he most certainly didn’t take away from the bureaucracy.

George W. Bush created Homeland Security with an executive order … the newest bureaucratic agency in the United States. At some point during their presidency, every president has developed the bureaucratic structure in some way. Because of this, every president is in fact a progressive.

Also, the bureaucracy is now used as a presidential tool to emphasize policy preferences.

You say the president’s wife wants to improve health and prevent childhood obesity? Well, then go ahead, we have a bureau that can help out. The president wants to focus on diplomatic relations with China? OK, we have the State department, USAID, Education, Energy, or other department to target specific relations with China. You’re saying that 9/11 happened because the CIA and FBI didn’t share information, and appropriate measures weren’t taken to secure borders? No problem, let’s push the Patriot Act through and create the Department of Homeland Security.

So, the structure can be used to shape policy to “progressively” and positively affect the lives of the citizens, make presidential policy preferences known, and enhance overall governance. But in the contemporary context, presidents use the bureaucracy to make their mark on the United States federal government. Also, they have executive orders (writeup to come).

Now, whether or not you agree with the actions each president takes, that’s totally an opinion based on … whatever. But, it’s true, I would say it’s pretty safe to assume that progressivism is pretty much engrained in our political culture. Also, keep in mind I just wrote about federal politics, and haven’t even touched state politics. Each state has it’s own separate bureaucracy as well. So … the idea isn’t going anywhere.

One bad thing about bureaucracies is that once they exist, it’s very difficult to get rid of them. Why? Because you’ve created an organization with a CEO, workers, specialized knowledge, and a budget. This means that the organization will continue to fight for money, policy say, and try to shape policy according to their interests.

Again, sorry Libertarians, you can’t just go and undo bureaus haphazardly. What authority would you have to abolish the IRS, CIA, FBI, Secret Service, or any other bureau? You would hit resistance not only from the organization, but Congress (if you’re the president), and the Supreme Court.

So, you can bring heads of bureaucracies in front of Congress to explain their actions, you can shrink their budget, and you can implement controls on the organization. But abolishment … good luck. Homeland Security was created with an executive order (a pretty weak enforcement mechanism), and it still exists today. So attacking an institutionalized bureau like the IRS is impossible without bottom-up consensus and advocacy; and even then it wouldn’t happen for quite some time.

I hope this actually explained this ism pretty well; because it’s a major component of contemporary American politics.

The main thing to remember is that every bureau is mean to act as a subject-matter expert, enforce standards, and act as a good for more people than it benefits.


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