Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (1914)


[W]hile fully admitting that the transition may not be as abrupt as it seems, we have apparently been witnessing during the past year or two the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. A movement of public opinion, which believes itself to be and calls itself essentially progressive, has become the dominant formative influence in American political life.

The best evidence of the power of progressivism is the effect which its advent has had upon the prestige and the fortunes of political leaders of both parties. For the first time attractions and repulsions born of the progressive idea, are determining lines of political association. Until recently a man who wished actively and effectively to participate in political life had to be either a Democrat or a Republican; but now, although Republicanism and Democracy are still powerful political forces, the standing of a politician is determined quite as much by his relation to the progressive movement. The line of cleavage between progressives and non-progressives is fully as important as that between Democrats and Republicans. Political leaders, who have deserved well of their own party but who have offended the progressives, are retiring or are being retired from public life. Precisely what the outcome will be, no one can predict with any confidence; but one result seems tolerably certain. If the classification of the great majority of American voters into Democrats and Republicans is to endure, the significance of both Democracy and Republicanism is bound to be profoundly modified by the new loyalties and the new enmities created by the aggressive progressive intruder. . . .

[T]he complexion, and to a certain extent even the features, of the American political countenance have profoundly altered. Political leaders still pride themselves upon their conservatism, but candid conservatives, in case they come from any other part of the country but the South, often pay for their candor by their early retirement. Conservatism has come to imply reaction. Its substantial utility is almost as much undervalued as that of radicalism formerly was. The whole group of prevailing political values has changed. Proposals for the regulation of public utility companies, which would then have been condemned as examples of administrative autocracy, are now accepted without serious public controversy. Plans of social legislation, which formerly would have been considered culpably "paternal," and, if passed at the solicitation of the labor unions, would have been declared unconstitutional by the courts, are now considered to be a normal and necessary exercise of the police power. Proposed alterations in our political mechanism, which would then have been appraised as utterly extravagant and extremely dangerous, are now being placed on the headlines of political programs and are being incorporated in state constitutions. In certain important respects the radicals of 1904 do not differ in their practical proposals from the conservatives of 1914. . . .

Thus by almost imperceptible degrees reform became insurgent and insurgency progressive. For the first time in four generations American conservatism was confronted by a pervasive progressivism, which began by being dangerously indignant and ended by being far more dangerously inquisitive. Just resentment is useful and indispensable while it lasts; but it cannot last long. If it is to persist, it must be transformed into a thoroughgoing curiosity which will not rest until it has discovered what the abuses mean, how they best can be remedied, and how intimately they are associated with temples and doctrines of the traditional political creed. The conservatives themselves have provoked this curiosity, and they must abide by its results.

Just here lies the difference between modern progressivism and the old reform. The former is coming to be remorselessly inquisitive and unscrupulously thorough. The latter never knew any need of being either inquisitive or thorough. The early political reformers confined their attention to local or to special abuses. Civil service reform furnishes a good example of their methods and their purposes. The spoils system was a very grave evil, which was a fair object of assault; but it could not be successfully attacked and really uprooted merely by placing subordinate public officials under the protection of civil service laws and boards. Such laws and boards might do something to prevent politicians from appropriating the minor offices; but as long as the major offices were the gifts of the political machines, and as long as no attempt was made to perfect expert administrative organization as a necessary instrument of democracy, the agitation for civil service reform remained fundamentally sterile. It was sterile, because it was negative and timid, and because its supporters were content with their early successes and did not grow with the growing needs of their own agitation. In an analogous way the movement towards municipal reform attained a sufficient following in certain places to be embarrassing to local political bosses; but as long as it was a non-partisan movement for "good government" its successes were fugitive and sterile. It did not become really effective until it became frankly partisan, and associated good municipal government with all sorts of changes in economic and political organization which might well be obnoxious to many excellent citizens. In these and other cases the early political reformers were not sufficiently thorough. They failed to carry their analysis of the prevailing evils far or deep enough, and in their choice of remedies they never got beyond the illusions that moral exhortation, legal prohibitions and independent voting constituted a sufficient cure for American political abuses. . . .

All this disconnected political and economic agitation had, however, a value of which the agitators themselves were not wholly conscious. Not only was the attitude of national self-satisfaction being broken down in spots, but the ineffectiveness of these local, spasmodic and restricted agitations had its effect on public opinion and prepared the way for a synthesis of the various phases of reform. When the wave of political "muck-raking" broke over the country, it provided a common bond, which tied reformers together. This bond consisted at first of the indignation which was aroused by the process of exposure; but it did not remain for long merely a feeling. As soon as public opinion began to realize that business exploitation had been allied with political corruption, and that the reformers were confronted, not by disconnected abuses, but by a perverted system, the inevitable and salutary inference began to be drawn. Just as business exploitation was allied with political corruption, so business reorganization must be allied with political reorganization. The old system must be confronted and superseded by a new system--the result of an alert social intelligence as well as an aroused individual conscience.