One of the defining features of the Occupy movement was the unwillingness—or inability, depending on perspective—to offer “solutions.” Now, with inequality again being hotly discussed, the debate has taken a notably wonkier course. Within these conversations there have been gestures to the Progressive Era, a time when America actually made some headway in counteracting inequality. Or so the story goes. Below, David Huyssen, author of the recently published Progressive Inequality, challenges the notion that the early twentieth century has much to offer to those again striving to alleviate economic injustice.
With Barack Obama’s declaration that inequality is the “defining issue” of our time, some observers—including noted historians, economists, and former government officials—have been invoking the Progressive Era as an instructive historical moment.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, in promoting her blockbuster history, The Bully Pulpit, has been celebrating Teddy Roosevelt as a model for Obama to follow in battling inequality. Harvard’s Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker, approvingly compares Elizabeth Warren’s new memoir to Louis Brandeis’s 1914 classic, Other People’s Money. Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, told Jon Stewart that the way to get out of the inequality trap today is “the way we got out of it in 1901.” And now a certain French economist is making waves with wild proposals for a tax on wealth.
The Progressive Era is having a moment.
Yet in rushing to embrace the spirit of a century ago, few have stopped to ask a basic question: how did Progressives fare in their battle with inequality?
As far as wealth and income in the United States are concerned, the answer is clear: badly. Despite decades of hopeful reformism from 1890 onward, inequality between rich and poor in the United States became more, not less acute, all the way up to the Crash of 1929.
So why the drumbeat for a “new Progressive Era” to combat inequality in our own time?
There are at least three likely wellsprings of Progressive revivalism.
The first is a basic sense of historical kinship. The Progressive Era marked the first moment in U.S. history when the recognition of inequality’s dangers to democracy moved from the radical fringes of Populist fulmination into common-sense territory of Presidential speechmaking.
We’ve experienced a similar shift. Decrying inequality in the 1990s was the preserve of unruly anti-capitalist protestors like those at the 1999 Seattle W.T.O. meeting. Now most Americans—nearly 80%, according to a recent Harris poll—agree that inequality is a problem, and 66% think that the government should introduce policies to reduce it.
The second source of Progressive nostalgia is a wistful yearning for their storied cross-class unity. Back then, we are told, it wasn’t just workers demanding a fairer shake. Jacob Riis’s 1890 exposé, How the Other Half Lives, insisted that everyone confront inequality. “What are you going to do about it?” Riis demanded of his mostly well-to-do readership. It was the book that launched a thousand philanthropists. The likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan began devoting public energy and resources to addressing disparity.
In truth, Progressive Era consensus was far from absolute—social Darwinism had plenty of disciples then, too—and we have our own philanthropists now. But to watch Fox News or listen to Republican politicians, it seems many among today’s wealthy would rather celebrate themselves as “job creators” and excoriate “moochers” than even concede the dangers of inequality. In this light, the extent of Progressive cross-class collaboration and its power to affect a politics of ambitious reform inspires real admiration.
Third, of course, Progressives did log pivotal regulatory accomplishments. They passed workplace safety legislation, limited the working day, outlawed child labor, and made important strides in public health. Despite weak or sporadic enforcement mechanisms, such measures set precedents for further political-economic interventions during the New Deal era and beyond, from Social Security to industrial controls, whose benefits most of us take for granted.
Yet a closer look at the Progressive Era itself should give us pause, for at least two reasons.
First, Progressives failed to stem many of the primary ills they attacked. Industrial violence, urban congestion, and the corruption of courts and legislatures by monopoly capital continued apace. In 1916, near the end of the Progressive Era, the federal Commission on Industrial Relations still identified labor unrest, unemployment, judicial inequity, and the squelching of worker organization as the most urgent threats to democracy. Labor violence escalated in the ensuing years, culminating in the 1920 bombing of Wall Street. Unemployment surged again in the early 1920s, and that decade saw a loosening of legislative fetters on business and further consolidation of corporate power.
Second, and more disturbingly, many well-intentioned Progressive efforts to reduce inequality actually perpetuated it, with pernicious consequences for our own day.
This was particularly true in housing and charity reform. Progressive housing reformers attributed poor conditions to the allegedly unhygienic habits of working people, spreading stereotypes about residents rather than censuring unscrupulous landlords. Their insistence on legislating working-class behavior instead of making landlords accountable for the condition of their properties both alienated the working poor and guided the urban reform agenda for the next century. Popular explanations of urban blight still invoke notions of residents’ cultural deficiencies, ignoring decades of systematic exploitation, state-sanctioned discrimination, and ill-conceived development.
Progressive Era charity volunteers tried to address the needs of applicants for aid, but often put greater effort into compiling catalogues of their misdeeds. The newly adopted case file system’s meticulous record-keeping gradually pathologized those seeking help. As those seeking relief today can attest, case file records of having been “uncooperative” continue to stigmatize and deny those the system is supposed to benefit, while further prejudicing the affluent against the afflicted.
So what lessons can we take from the Progressives that will actually help us confront inequality in our own moment?
Most obviously, Progressive-style reforms were not enough. Constructive headway awaited far stricter protections for labor organizing and regulation of industry than Progressives had envisioned. These New Deal measures made a real difference during the Depression, but they also set the stage for a more equitable division of wartime economic growth thereafter.
We should also learn from a tragic flaw shared by many Progressive reformers of means: their driving belief that reducing inequality required changing the behavior of the poor. Educating, assimilating, or simply controlling working people, they believed, should be the priority in tackling economic inequity.
This persistent belief encourages us to overlook the Progressive legacy that actually proved most valuable to struggling Americans: the principle that a regulatory state should intervene to change the behavior of the wealthy. Bill de Blasio and others have begun to recover that principle in proposals to expand living wage legislation and buttress worker protections, but they have a long way to go, and they face stiff resistance.
The Progressives never realized the full potential of the regulatory state to restrain propertied power because they were too intent on correcting the behavior of working Americans rather than listening to them. It took the Great Depression and a near-revolution to make policymakers listen.
We have the benefit of not having to invent the regulatory state. If we learn from Progressives’ failures instead of romanticizing their success, perhaps we will have the courage to use their invention a little better than they did.