In the opening years of the twentieth century a number of reformers joined together to try to improve the quality of American life. Many of them for a short time supported a national political party, the Progressive Party, which offered an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. That party gave a name to the reformers. Within another generation, historians were talking about the "progressive movement" of the pre-World War I years and placing the movement in "the American reform tradition" that stretched at least from Jacksonian democracy to the New Deal. There the progressives have remained, familiar to all students of American history as advocates of municipal reform, the New Nationalism, and the New Freedom.
Historians have approached these years of reform in a number of different ways. They have viewed this period as a "Progressive Era" but have differed sharply about how to analyze the era and about its significance for the student of general American history. For some writers, the period was one of triumphant efforts at reform, a time when city governments, election laws, tariffs, income taxes, and the financial framework of the country received analysis and restructuring of incalculable benefit to the nation. For others the period was one of useless rhetoric, business domination of the government, and reform charades that received extensive publicity but that only, in fact, distracted public opinion from the need for more basic, true reform.
Approaches and techniques in historical analysis of the era have been even more varied. Historians have looked at economic alliances, social status, religious biases, voting behavior precisely measured, intellectual assumptions, and reform tradition. By the 1970's, the result was something like chaos. Historians could no longer even agree whether or not there had been a "progres-