The term “progressive” has been on the comeback for the last couple of years. It’s become a synonym for the Left of the Democratic Party, not yet tarnished by the branding efforts of conservative members of the media, and is used with a sense of pride among its true-believers. Unsurprisingly, with a Democrat in the White House, there’s been a lot of discussion of whether he’s a progressive. Many progressives supported Obama run for President and while the Left still sees him as a progressive, others never thought so, or have changed their minds. However, the Leftist claim that Obama is not a progressive shows today’s Leftists don’t understand the ambiguity of the original (post-Reconstruction and pre-World War II) meaning of their self-designation.

Progressivism today, like progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th century, contains too wide a variety of viewpoints to be easily defined. On the whole, progressivism was more of a sentiment than a set of policies. Perhaps the only things the progressives could agree upon was that the existing political order (the state of courts and parties) was horrifically flawed and that a government administration filled with smart, dedicated, non-corrupt people needed to step in to fix it. However, there were disagreements over what the permanent bureaucracy should look like. In recognizing the system is broken, and failing to come to a consensus on how to fix it, the progressive movement today looks similar to progressive movement one hundred years ago.

Much  the progressive movement today, defining the progressive movement of one hundred years ago is inevitably troublsome. The broad policy differences between late 19th and early 20th-century progressives are hard to ignore. Woodrow Wilson disagreed with William Borah on the League of Nations, Teddy Roosevelt disagreed with Hiram Johnson on imperialism, Roosevelt disagreed with Herbert Hoover on the role of big business in the state, and Fiorello LaGuardia disagreed with Gerald Nye on the New Deal.

The difficulty in defining the progressivism of one hundred years ago stems from the fact that there was not one progressive movement, but two — a populist progressive movement and a technocratic progressive movement (or, as others say, a radical progressive movement and a rational progressive movement). The differences between the two not only explains the fractures in the late 19th century and early 20th-century progressive movements, but also the divides apparent in today’s progressive movement. What follows are rather broad generalizations which only underscore how little consensus there is among progressives on how to fix the broken American state.

On the whole, the populist progressives were isolationists, anti-imperialists, mostly pro-free trade, and often sympathetic to revolution (or at the very least wanted to see the USSR recognized as a state). Predominantly midwestern, many turned against the New Deal during Roosevelt’s second term because it favored urban interests over agrarian interests. The populists’ generally feared consolidated power and wanted the newly created bureaucratic state to be controlled by Congress.

The technocrats, on the other hand, were foreign policy idealists (despite the fact that some had little problem with imperialism) and were virulently anti-revolution and anti-Communist. The technocrats tended to be wealth and educated elites. They had no qualms with increasing the power of the President, wanted the bureaucracy to be controlled by the executive branch, and had a far greater interest in efficiency than the populists.

Interestingly, this populist-technocratic split continues in today’s progressive movement. The technocrats abandoned the progressive label for a time, and in that sense are Johnny-Come-Latelies to the revival of the moniker among American liberals. Today’s technocrats, identifiable as the kind of elites David Brooks usually hates, believe smart people working for the government can come up with clever solutions to solve the nation’s problems and make our society more equitable. And they believe they can do all this without ringing up too great a bill. For a better explanation of the technocratic progressives’ values and agenda, see Matt Miller’s Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The populist progressives, on the other hand, remain utopian Leftists. They were Howard Dean’s supporters of 2004 and they are likely to agree entirely with the sort of political viewpoints pushed by Michael Moore and DailyKos. Until recently, they called themselves liberals (long after those in the Center-Left had abandoned the term), before conservatives completely succeeded in branding the label as a dirty word. The populist progressives want the state to create more equitable conditions and have little regard for equality’s price tag. Unsurprisingly, they are becoming restless as they recognize that Obama belongs to the technocratic camp. The “This Modern World” strip I saw in the Hartford Advocate last week sums up the populist progressive mindset at this moment.

On which side of the populist-technocratic divide Barack Obama, a self-described progressive, will eventually settle is still up in the air. While he seemed to be firmly technocratic (as I wrote in an earlier column), his recent calls to transform American society wholesale have made me shed my conviction. Attempting to  categorize Obama is nearly always a mistake, but if Obama is mostly a technocrat, as I still believe he is (although with slightly less conviction), he’s one with spectacular faith in the potential of smart people to conquer extremely complicated policy problems. To be honest, like Brooks, I find myself a little scared.

However, if Obama is indeed a more cautious centrist technocrat, and I still hope and believe he is, I’m interested if he’ll actively use the progressive label throughout his presidency, if only to draw those on his left into the diverse governing coalition he aspires to create. If Obama does start publicly referring to himself as progressive, I suspect today’s populist progressives, who have been using the term for at least half a decade now, will be peeved about a  powerful presence from outside their camp appropriating their self-designation. The irony is by the muddled late 19th-early 20th century definition of the word, Obama the technocrat is as much a progressive as today’s populists.

  • Anonymous

    this is basically a rewrite of a better, more succinct article on fivethirtyeight.

  • Jonah Blumstein


    Thanks for making me aware of that article. I hadn’t seen it before I wrote this, but it does make the same point very well. I’ll put a link in to the post to try to direct people to that article as well. For anyone who wants to read it, go here:

  • johnwesley

    I would compare this favorably to Mytheos’ attempt at wringing humor from the same subject a week ago. This was more substantive than humorous.

  • The Situation(ist)

    remember this douchebag?

  • Mytheos Holt

    Unfortunately, yes.