The Lost Promise of Progressivism
Eldon J. Eisenach
Long before the current calls for national service, civic responsibility, and the restoration of community values, the Progressives initiated a remarkably similar challenge. Eldon Eisenach traces the evolution of this powerful national movement from its theoretical origins through its dramatic rise and sudden demise, and shows why their philosophy still speaks to us with such eloquence.
Eisenach analyzes how and why, between 1885 and World War I, progressive political ideas conquered almost every cultural and intellectual bastion except constitutional law and dominated every major national institution except the courts and party system. Progressives, he demonstrates, were especially influential as a force in American politics, higher education, and the media. They created wideranging professional networks that functioned like a "hidden national government" to counter a federal government they deeply distrusted. They viewed the university as their national "Church"—the main repository and disseminator of values they espoused. They established truly national journals for a national audience. And they drew much support from women's rights advocates and other highly vocal movements of their time.
“This is an excellent, thoroughly documented interpretation of how Progressive thought transformed American government and politics.”
“An extremely rich and forceful intellectual history of the Progressive period, one that supersedes in many ways other nationalist interpretations.”
—American Historical Review
“A complex and engaging pursuit of progressivism.”
—Reviews in American History
“An extraordinarily wide-ranging and meticulously research study, [this book] reveals a ready grasp of many areas of American history, especially religious doctrine and vision.”
—American Political Science Review
“Thoughtful and well written, this splendid book effectively links important Progressive thinkers with developments in American political theory today. Taking the Progressives seriously on their own terms, Eisenach succeeds where many others have failed. An illuminating and important work.”
—James T. Kloppenberg, author of Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920
“Required reading for anyone interested in how Progressive ideas reshaped political life in the United States. Eisenach reveals how Progressivism gave rise to a new political order by the eve of World War I, one that redefined American identity in nationalist and historicist terms, only to disintegrate in philosophical contradiction and institutional fragmentation. A provocative and thoughtful study.”
—Sidney M. Milkis, author of The President and the Parties: The Transformation of the American Party System since the New Deal
“Eisenach succeeds admirably in capturing anew what was genuinely distinctive and transformative in American thought at the beginning of the twentieth century . . . and casts important light on many of the key dilemmas of American liberalism.”
—Sanford Levinson, author of Constitutional FaithSee fewer reviews...
Permeated with an evangelical Protestant vision of the future, progressive thought was an integral part of the national discourse for nearly three decades. But, as Eisenach reveals, at the very moment of its triumph it disintegrated as both a coherent theory and a viable public doctrine. With the election in 1912 of Woodrow Wilson, the movement reached its peak, but thereafter lost its momentum and force. Its precipitous decline was accelerated by world war and by the rise of New Deal liberalism. By the end of the Depression it had disappeared as an influential player in American public life.
In the decades that followed, the Progressive mantle went unclaimed. Conservatives blamed the Progressives for the rise of the welfare state and many liberals cringed at their theological and imperialist rhetoric. Eisenach, however, argues that we still have much to learn about and from the Progressives. By enlarging our understanding of their thought, we greatly increase our understanding of an America whose national institutions—political, cultural, educational, religious, professional, economic, and journalistic—are all largely the product of this thinking. In other words, their ideas are still very much with us.