Why the Progressives Are My Favorite American Political Party
Everyone gets fired up about Republicans or Democrats, but my favorite political party from a historical perspective is the Progressives. Even though they were never a major party, the Progressives got the most votes of any third party in American history, and I don’t want to think about where we’d be without the reforms and regulations that were passed because of the Progressive Movement (Kollman 467).
The Progressive Party itself started gaining traction in 1912 under Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership, but the movement well preceded this (Kollman 470). In the 1880s, when reformers known as mugwumps called for the end of the spoils system, which I discussed in a previous post (Kollman 262). There were also the muckrakers, journalists who exposed systemic problems in food production, economic inequality, the treatment of asylum patients, and other institutions. Starting in the late 1890s, the Progressive Movement continued the mugwumps’ efforts to make the bureaucracy more competent and less political (Kollman 264). In the late 1800s, party bosses controlled who received many positions in the government bureaucracy, including positions at customhouses where officials would accept bribes from importers (Kollman 263).
Most of the Progressives were former Republicans who opposed Democrats and the use of political machines—organizations that provided supporters with jobs or government benefits through their domination of local government—but supported more government regulation than Republicans (Kollman 467). It was this kind of political corruption in elections that was instigated by political parties that Progressive reforms successfully reduced (Kollman 505).
The Progressive Movement “greatly reduced the incidence of fraudulent elections” by introducing the Australian ballot, which is basically a state-produced ballot that includes all of the candidates who are up for election and is marked in a private voting booth (Kollman 505). Before this reform, political parties printed their own colored ballots with only their candidates, which both helped party leaders find out who voted for their candidates and forced voters to vote for all of one or the other party’s candidates (Kollman 505). For example, a voter who supported William McKinley for president in 1896 and picked up a Republican party ballot would be unable to vote for a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives.
The Progressives also increased economic regulations of financial transactions and the banks through new bureaucratic agencies: the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Reserve Administration (Kollman 259). The Progressives also took on other social problems caused by industrialization and promoted Prohibition (unpopular opinion: I really think Prohibition would have been so bad at all if it had worked) (Hansen).
These reforms and economic regulations are the reason why, while reading my textbook for my college politics class, I like the Progressives the most of all the political parties in American history. They wanted to make government more apolitical, competent, and honest and tackle the social problems of the day, and I’m down with that. While I haven’t done extensive research into the Progressives, what I have read makes me wish they were still around.
Kollman, Ken. The American Political System. 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.
Hansen, David J. “Prohibition and Progressives: Progressive Movement Promoted Prohibition.” Alcohol Problems and Solutions, edited by David J. Hansen, Sociology Department, State University of New York, www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/prohibition-and-progressives/.