Illiberal Reformers: The Racist, Sexist, and Elitist Roots of Progressivism

A Princeton University professor’s book could help frame an important political discussion as the 2016 election approaches.

Dr. Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers is due to be released by Princeton University Press next February. The galley proof has 192 pages of copy, and 40 pages of (728) footnotes. The author’s assertions are thoroughly documented; his syntax is clear and concise; his conclusions incisive and convincing.   

True to what follows, the first sentence of his Prologue promises that “Illiberal Reformers tells the story of the progressive scholars and activists who led the Progressive Era crusade to dismantle laissez-faire, remaking American economic life with a newly created agent of reform, the administrative state.”

In telling the story, Leonard introduces many of the guiding lights, particularly among economists of the Progressive Era from 1877-1917, when “a crusade to reform and remake American government” was largely accomplished by the end of Woodrow Wilson’s first Presidential term. By then, the foundation for “a new regulating edifice” was complete upon which was built the “fourth branch of government.” Construction followed the “twin principles at Progressivism’s core”: (1) government guided by science, not politics; and (2) an industrialized economy directed by “the visible hand of a modern administrative state.”

The historical events described in the book are well known. What is not well known is the litany of multiple, unfortunate, social consequences of progressivism that Leonard describes as he enters territory that may unsettle those who look back on the birth of the modern administrative state through rose-colored glasses.  Much of it isn’t pretty – some of it is ugly.

The complete title of Leonard’s book alludes to two of the groups negatively affected by the progressive movement:  Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era.  A more comprehensive, but impractical, title might have added…Women, Immigrants, the Social Gospel & Darwinism, and the Science of Government.  

Leonard documents the favored status given eugenics by many progressives. “Eugenics and race science are historically important, and during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era many people – most conspicuously the progressives – thought they were good ideas.”  Eugenics, of course, included forced sterilizations. Race science often attributed inferior status to African-Americans.  

Addressing the progressives’ impact on women in the work force, Leonard states all the “progressive justifications for regulating the employment of women shared two things in common. They were directed at women only. And they were designed to remove at least some women from employment.”

As to what drove the Progressive Era reformers, Leonard cites (1) their “anti-individualism,” (2) their discontent with the inefficiency of industrial capitalism, and (3) their disdain for monopoly.  They were driven, too, by an “extravagant faith in administration.” 

Leonard’s self-description is “a historian of economics.”  His book “shines its narrative lamp on progressive economics” staffed by “a large, eclectic, and sometimes fractious cast” that included John R. Commons, Irving Fisher and, most oft-mentioned, Richard T. Ely. Their field of expertise was the emerging academic discipline of economics; their vocation was reform.  “By 1912, only English had more undergraduate majors than did economics at Yale University.”  

Not limiting his narrative to economists, Leonard factors in many others among “the best and brightest” who aimed to mold and shape 20th Century America, including sociologists Edward A. Ross and Lester Frank Ward, and editor and political philosopher Herbert Croly.  Leonard’s book is a veritable Who’s Who of Progressive Era thought-leaders.  Ward, for example, “brought to American social thought two claims, both of which became pillars of progressive thinking: first, humanity was the agent of its own destiny, and second, society, not the individual, was the proper unit of explanatory account.”  Elsewhere, the author concludes that, “The progressives’ discrediting of individual rights was unprecedented, but it was consistent with their view that the health, welfare and morals of the social organism came first.”

Leonard does not use the word “hubris” to describe the illiberal reformers, but he could have.  “The progressives…nearly all agreed that expert public administrators do not merely serve the common good, they also identify the common good. The expert instructed on how to achieve society’s goals, and also on what society’s goals should be.”  The best thinkers thought they knew what was best for all.

The First World War shook the world of “the progressive economists’ [whose] outsized confidence in their own wisdom and objectivity was matched only by their faith in the transformative promise of the administrative state.” Germany had been their model of state efficiency.  Many had received PhD degrees there in the later part of the 19th Century.  The carnage of the World War had a sobering effect on their enthusiasm.  But it didn’t erase it. 

Near the end of his book, Leonard concludes that “Illiberal Reformers has shown that progressives dismissed not just economic liberties but also the most basic civil liberties, threatening individual rights to person, to bodily integrity, to marriage, and to reproduction, all in the name of protecting society.  In proposing an American nation, making the United States singular rather than plural, the progressives turned illiberal.”  Hence the title of his book.

So, what makes this a particularly timely book, beyond being a superlative narrative about a pivotal era of American history?

The likely Democrat candidate for President in 2016 described herself, in 2008, as a “proud, modern American progressive.” That rises the question: “How does a modern progressive today differ from those of the Progressive Era?

Addendum: See another review of Illiberal Reformers.