The Progressive Vision of Politics
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Progressives fashioned a distinctive vision of politics that has profoundly affected the United States to the present day. Progressive ideas have become commonplace and largely unquestioned, so much so that we might be inclined to see this vision of politics as a modification of the original ideas underpinning the U.S. Constitution, a reform movement affirming the values of the nation's founding. But we would be wrong. The creators of this vision completely rejected the founders' constitutional vision of politics. They fashioned a new regime in thought that eventually became in part a new regime in power.1
The political vision of the Progressives continues to inform contemporary politics, not least the struggle to impose ever more restrictions on campaign finance.2 The influence of this vision is both overt and implicit. The Progressives' faith in government and their hostility to business remain staples of daily politics in the United States. Other themes receive less emphasis. For example, the original Progressives were often Puritanical zealots who subordinated politics to their religious commitments. Today they oppose such mixing of God and man, if not the whole idea of religion itself. But that does not mean partisans of campaign finance restrictions do not still seek to realize a “kingdom of righteousness” in the United States or that the religious impulse that gave birth to Progressivism has not lived on in a secular form.
This vision of politics rejected the foundations of the Madisonian vision: individualism, limited government, and representative democracy.3 These were replaced by a reforming, regulatory state and direct democracy guided by an ethical elite. This reform aims at the common good, often understood as an egalitarian distribution of wealth. That goal requires