The Left Doth Protest Too Much

Progressive politicians, from Hillary Clinton on down, rush to assure voters that their philosophy actually works.

In its earliest American manifestation, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Progressive movement sought to create better government. Books like Woodrow Wilson’s The Study of Administration touted a government run by an elite bureaucracy, independent of potentially corrupt elected officials. Theodore Roosevelt set out to demonstrate what progressive reform could accomplish when, as president of the board of New York City Police Commissioners, he instituted widespread changes in how cops operated, such as instituting hiring practices based on merit rather than political connections. The influential master builder Robert Moses entered public life writing studies on how to reduce political patronage in government—though Moses also embodied what opponents feared in progressivism, emerging as a powerful autocrat who steamrolled opposition as he constructed vast public projects in New York.

Progressivism lost some of its momentum during World War I, though many progressives subsequently saw Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as a 1930s offspring of their movement.