Know Your History: Progressives vs. Progressives (Part II)

Part I: HERE!

In part one of  Progressives vs. Progressives, my class researched the progressives of the early 20th century compared to the progressives of today. Part one dealt with protecting social welfare and promoting economic reform. Part two will look at the final two categories:

  • Promoting Moral Improvement  vs. Secular Progressivism
  • Foster Efficiency vs. Regulatory Bureaucracy

Promoting Moral Improvement (early 20th century)

One of the important and perhaps surprising roles of the progressives of the early 20th century was to promote moral improvement. This manifested itself in a variety of ways, some rather unsavory (like Carrie Nation who was a hatchet-wielding Christian who smashed saloons) and others in rather inspirational ways. The moral push of the progressives had several prongs. One was to help women earn the right to vote which they helped achieve with the 19th amendment. They also supported organizations which tried to help the poor and promote a moral lifestyle such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army. Other important groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union focused on the evils of alcohol, and their criticisms were not without warrant. Households at the time depended upon a man to bring home the money, but if he got caught up in drinking, he could jeopardize the entire household. Many lives were destroyed because of this. Prominent preachers such as Billy Sunday ranted on about the evils of alcohol until 18th amendment was passed and prohibition became the law of the land. Of course, prohibition laws failed miserably and were eventually repealed by the 21st amendment. Overall, many progressives were Christian and cared about the family, society, and the moral improvement of everyone.

The progressives of the 21st century have moved passed the religious background. Many are now called secular progressives, trying to remove religious expression from the public square, especially schools and government. Groups such as the ACLU target schools and others with lawsuits to help bolster their understanding of the first amendment which they interpret to mean a strict “separation of church and state.” Secular progressives push the ideology of moral relativism, and are at the forefront of the LBGT movement. This category, perhaps, describes the largest discrepancies between the progressives of the 20th century when compared with the progressives of today.

Promoting Efficiency vs. Regulatory Bureaucracy

The progressives of the early 20th century worked tirelessly to promote efficiency in the business realm. Taylorism – scientific management – was introduced whereby each part of a business was looked at with scientific eyes to see how improvements to efficiency could be made. Manufacturing was completely overhauled, led by innovators like Henry Ford who used the assembly line and the concept of the division of labor in order to create products in a quick and efficient manner. Businesses were transforming themselves. Chain stores emerged, creating a standard of products throughout the country. Mail-order catalogues enabled anyone anywhere to order products from Wards, Sears, or other companies.

In comparison, progressives of the 21st century put effort into the government’s regulatory bureaucracy. They push for green legislation and regulatory control of the environment through the EPA and other agencies. Business has a large number of hoops it has to jump through in order be completely compliant with regulations. Agencies like OSHA create a framework for safety for workers and work environments by creating hundreds of regulations which are meant to better the work environment. New businesses are tasked with following a dizzying array of procedures just to be legal. The regulatory environment has made small entrepreneurs like child lemonade stands an illegal endeavor.

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s an instructive exercise to understand how the progressive movement has changed in the last one hundred years. And, of course, we understand that it had to. The mere definition of progressives means that there is no standing still. On the other side, some would argue that standing still too has its merits.

Thus, this is the political and ideological struggle that we see coming together for the 2016 election. Should be fun to watch.

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