The Relentless Dilemmas of Progressivism

The 1912 election fundamentally transformed American politics.  This transformation and the events which led to it are the subject of Sidney Milkis’s excellent book Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy.  Milkis’s book is both lively and profound, a joy and an education at the same time.  The key thread that runs throughout Milkis’s tapestry is the paradoxical result of Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy: the joining of mass democracy – replacing party politics with candidate-centered elections and a plebiscitary presidency – with a centralized administrative state where commissions make policy outside of the direct influence of public opinion.  The dilemmas with which Milkis grapples in the book are still the dilemmas confronting progressivism today, and Milkis’s hesitancy about the legacy of progressivism is highly informative for dealing with the contemporary problems we face in light of the progressive resurgence in 2008.

Milkis’s dramatic account of the 1912 election focuses on the central figure during the election: Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt’s democratic faith was the impetus for his departure from the Republican Party and leadership of the Progressive Party.  Yet it is unclear whether Milkis thinks Roosevelt was a true believer in the cause of democracy or whether Roosevelt used the theme of democracy to provide clear distinctions between he, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson.  Milkis notes that in speeches leading up to 2012, Roosevelt expressed “temperate support for direct democracy” rather than a full-fledged defense of reforms such as the initiative, referendum, recall, direct election of senators, and referenda on judicial decisions.  Responding to some progressives’ fears that he was not a faithful devotee of direct democracy, Roosevelt suggested that it was wrong “to speak of democracy…as if it were a goddess.”  In an important speech in Columbus in 1912, Roosevelt finally became a convert to the cause of direct democracy, only months after condemning the idea in the National Progressive Republican League platform.  Roosevelt’s actions provoke an important question, not fully resolved in the account: did Roosevelt adopt his faith in direct democracy out of sincere belief, or in order to become the leader of a new progressive party?

This question is all the more compelling because Roosevelt is the foil to the eventual victor in 1912, Woodrow Wilson.  Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” was the alternative to Wilson’s “New Freedom,” and Roosevelt represented the side of progressivism that emphasized centralized administrative bureaucracies controlling the economy.  In other words, Roosevelt’s proposals for centralized administrative control of business could have rightfully prompted questions about the sincerity of his professed faith in direct democracy.  This wedge between New Nationalism and New Freedom was profoundly important because it represented two conflicting approaches to regulating the economy.  New Nationalism relied upon centralized administrative power – housed in agencies such as the ICC and FTC – to protect the less powerful classes in society.  By contrast, Wilson’s New Freedom relied upon the courts, implementing statutes such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, to break up monopoly and restore competition.  The New Freedom, in contrast to the New Nationalism, could have ensured that government power remained in the hands of the constitutional institutions controlled by the people.  Milkis’s book deftly navigates these fundamental issues dividing the progressive ranks in 1912.  One of the highlights of the book is the intra-progressive battle over regulation of monopolies.  Milkis persuasively notes that this issue entailed “a struggle for the soul of the Progressive movement.”

Ironically, Roosevelt in 1912 was the exemplar of direct democracy, and centralized administrative power far removed from direct popular control.  Wilson’s contrast appeared as a moderate alternative to Roosevelt, and Wilson ran as the moderate progressive candidate in 1912.  Milkis offers a highly fascinating and sympathetic portrait of Wilson, in opposition to the radical candidacy of Roosevelt.  Milkis’s interpretation of Wilson is fascinating, if somewhat disjointed.  As with his treatment of Roosevelt, it is unclear whether Milkis thinks that Wilson was a true moderate in 1912, or whether he espoused such views due to political expediency.  He suggests that Wilson’s alternative platform “portended…a battle between rival reform candidates who would vie for leadership of the progressive movement.”  Yet he also argues that “the difference between Wilson’s executive-centered party leadership and the candidate-centered campaign championed by Roosevelt was sometimes difficult to discern.”  The latter possibility, that the differences between Wilson and Roosevelt were not fundamental, is supported by the fact that Wilson governed after 1912 as Roosevelt had campaigned, choosing the awkward combination of direct democracy and centralized administration that characterized Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.  Wilson’s dramatic about-face prompted Herbert Croly (who had supported Roosevelt in 1912) to remark that “the New Freedom had been discarded.”

Wilson’s post-campaign conversion from New Freedom to New Nationalism disappointed prominent progressive reformers, such as Robert La Follette and Louis Brandeis, who pushed strongly during the election for the New Freedom alternative.  Of these two competing visions for the administrative state, the New Freedom alternative was lost forever due to Wilson’s abandonment of it after 1912.  The reader is left pondering what might have been had Wilson implemented the New Freedom platform he espoused, and how different American politics might be today if this kind of progressivism had carried the day!

As with any compelling and well-told story, the protagonists and tragic figures become apparent by the climax.  Wilson actually emerges as perhaps the most intriguing figure, even more intriguing than William Taft in many respects.  But by 1913 the Wilson of the New Freedom is gone, replaced by the New Nationalist approach to centralized administration.  Taft’s principled and stubborn defense of party politics and constitutional, republican government is relegated to the sidelines, but Wilson’s New Freedom suffers the same fate even as Wilson emerges victorious in the election.

One cannot help but see the continuity between the 1912 and 2008 elections, with a few minor exceptions.  Barack Obama plays the role of Theodore Roosevelt, not Woodrow Wilson as one might have expected.  The similarities between Obama and Roosevelt are too obvious to miss.  Milkis masterfully illustrates these similarities.  The Progressive Party Convention occurs in Chicago, and contains all of the quasi-religious elements which lurked behind the Obama campaign in 2008, but in overdrive.  If the cult of personality of Obama’s campaign alarmed many conservatives in 2008, imagine how they would have reacted to the Progressive Party Convention!  As Roosevelt constantly exhorted his audiences to “stand at Armageddon” and “battle for the Lord,” he worked them into a frenzy and fanaticism that Milkis describes in incredible detail.  The most astonishing moment comes at the conclusion of Roosevelt’s “Confession of Faith” at the Progressive Party Convention, when as Milkis explains “In singing the chorus of a popular spiritual – ‘Follow, follow, We will follow Jesus; Anywhere, everywhere, We will follow on’ – they remarkably substituted the name of Roosevelt for that of Jesus.”

Moreover, John McCain was no Taft.  Taft’s defense of constitutional government (although not articulated in frequent campaign speeches to the public) was remarkably sophisticated and Taft emerges as a figure who ought to inspire contemporary constitutional conservatism.  He was no stalwart of laissez-faire, but he stood for a defense of constitutional forms and the party system which mediated between the people and their government.  McCain was unable during the 2008 election to present this kind of defense of sober constitutionalism in the face of a “change” candidate.

Milkis is both hesitant about and supportive of progressivism in its 1912 manifestation.  His hesitation comes from two critical difficulties.  The first difficulty is that progressivism in 1912 emphasized national community over the dignity and rights of individuals: “the Progressives’ distain for traditional rights-based politics and the way the judiciary buttressed them tended toward a celebration of mass democracy that was all too willing to disregard the fundamental liberties of minorities.”  The failings of progressivism to deal honorably with African-Americans and immigrant populations stands as an enduring testimony to this problem and “a dark side of progressive democracy.”  While Milkis is right to note this fundamental shortcoming of progressivism, he also lets progressivism off the hook too easily.  In Milkis’s telling, Franklin Roosevelt’s (and John Dewey’s) transformation of progressivism into a “New Individualism” based on a second bill of rights resolves the tension between rights-based politics and progressive communitarianism.  “FDR’s version [of progressivism] was more in keeping with the American constitutional tradition” than the Progressive Party’s, Milkis concludes.  Yet I am not entirely persuaded that progressivism can be saved from this difficulty simply by grafting positive rights onto the communitarian rejection of individualism, for there is a profound tension between the basis and nature of the rights FDR promotes versus those the Framers recognized.  Thus, as Milkis rightfully recognizes the difficulty in progressivism’s effacement of natural rights from the American constitutional tradition, he also problematically argues that this difficulty is overcome by FDR’s adjustments to the progressive program.

The second critical difficulty is more difficult to resolve, in Milkis’s view.  The “apparent contradiction between Progressives’ combination of direct democracy and their hope to achieve more disinterested government, which seemed to demand a powerful and independent national bureaucracy,” has enervated civic participation in a way that challenges the very perpetuation of a well-functioning free society.  Milkis’s real hesitation about the legacy of progressivism comes through at the end of the book, where he describes “the love-hate relationship Americans forged with the state in the twentieth century.”  This love-hate relationship Americans have with their government is a product of the awkward combination of mass democracy and centralized administration.  The effect of both “weakened constitutional constrains and political associations” such as political parties, federalism, and representative government, “that nurtured a sense of collective responsibility among individual men and women.”

The fundamental dilemma of progressivism, Milkis concludes, is not the tension between individual rights and collectivism, but the relationship between progressive reforms and “an active and competent citizenry.”  Progressive reforms have “weakened political parties and fostered a more active, better equipped national state,” aims Milkis seems to favor.  But the same reforms have also left government “without adequate means of common deliberation and public judgment, the pillars of a vital civic culture.”  Unfortunately, in Milkis’s view, progressivism has yet been unable to provide a definitive answer to this profound dilemma.

Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy is a profound and impressive achievement.  It is a lively read, the kind of book one would buy for an avid reader of history who is loathe to crack a book about American political thought.  At the same time, it also teaches profound lessons about the advantages and disadvantages produced by American progressivism.  Furthermore, it is an extraordinarily fair-minded treatment of the fundamental issues which it addresses.  Milkis does not definitively answer the essential questions surrounding progressivism, perhaps because it is impossible to answer these questions.  But by bringing them to light in a clear and fair manner, Milkis has produced a book that will become essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand this extraordinary campaign and its lasting effects on American political development.