As this illustrates, the New Deal, for all its Progressive roots, is in some sense less purely Progressive than LBJ's Great Society. In the Great Society, we had more explicit and direct an application of the Progressive commitment to rule by social science experts, largely unmitigated initially by political considerations.
The Progressive system managed to gain a foothold in American politics only when it made major compromises with the Founders' constitutionalism. The best example is the Social Security system: Had the Progressives managed to install a "pure," community-minded system, it would have been an altruistic transfer of wealth from the rich to the vulnerable aged in the name of preserving the sense of national oneness or national community. It would have reflected the enduring Progressive conviction that we're all in this together -- all part of one national family, as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once put it.
During the 1920s, when educationturned increasingly to "scientific" techniques such as intelligence testingand cost-benefit management, progressive educators insisted on the importanceof the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of human development--"themost living and essential parts of our natures," as Margaret Naumburg putit in .
After the Depression began, a groupof politically oriented progressive educators, led by George Counts, daredschools to "build a new social order" and published a provocative journalcalled to advance their "reconstructionist"critique of capitalism.
Kilpatrick and other studentsof Dewey taught the principles of progressive education to thousands ofteachers and school leaders, and in the middle part of the century, bookssuch as Dewey's (1938) Boyd Bode's (1938), Caroline Pratt's (1948), and Carlton Washburne's (1952) among others, continued to provide a progressive critique of conventionalassumptions about teaching, learning and schooling.
Progressivism also had a racial dimension. In the South, advances in education, public health, workplace safety, and civic efficiency primarily benefited white people. Furthermore, the disfranchisement of African Americans significantly reduced the potential constituency of advocates for progressive change in the region, and helped create the political reality of a one-party state in the region (Democrats). Later in the 20th century, the strength of that one-party rule constrained further progressive reform, again along racial lines, in the shaping of the Social Security program during President Roosevelt's New Deal and the enactment of civil rights legislation during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. In the North and West, while African Americans were not necessarily formally excluded from taking advantage of economic and political reforms, white prejudice and racism were still the norm, and blacks were viewed by many Progressives as alien "others," just like Chinese, Japanese, and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Exclusion from many jobs, as well as segregated housing, schooling, and recreational facilities such as beaches were also the norm outside the South, and as noted above, race riots instigated by whites were a common occurrence in Northern cities during the first quarter of the 20th century.
Ironically, the Jim Crow regime coincided with a sustained burst of reform energy that swept the nation from the late 19th century through World War One, which historians call the Progressive Era. The juxtaposition of these long historical episodes, one predominating in the South and one in the North and West, reveals the deepest contradictions in American democracy at the beginning of the modern era. The various strands of Progressive reform were responses by middle-class, educated, and professional Americans to the rapid pace of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization that characterized the period. These trends raised fears about the unchecked power of concentrated wealth, intensified class conflict between workers and employers, abundant opportunities for political corruption, alien cultural mores about alcohol and sex, and how the nation would be able to assimilate tens of millions of these immigrants and their children into the American mainstream and turn them into loyal citizens. From the viewpoint of the Progressives and their allies in other social groups, these were all threats pointed straight at the heart of American democracy. The significant social, economic, and political reforms that emerged during this period included federal regulation of business, professionalization of municipal administration, widespread construction of playgrounds and kindergartens, introduction of electoral measures such as the referendum and the direct election of U.S. senators, and further attempts to suppress the consumption of alcohol which culminated with national Prohibition in 1919. Evaluating the effects of these myriad solutions on the institutions and practice of democracy is complicated and difficult to summarizeexcept to say that in some ways individuals became more empowered to influence public affairs and the conditions of their lives, and in some ways they became less empowered. Taken as a whole, the reforms implemented during the Progressive Era struck a balance between promoting equity and social justice on some levels, and imposing control over the behavior of groups defined as "other" by Middle America on other levels.
The Progressives rejected these claims as naive and unhistorical. In their view, human beings are not born free. John Dewey, the most thoughtful of the Progressives, wrote that freedom is not "something that individuals have as a ready-made possession." It is "something to be achieved." In this view, freedom is not a gift of God or nature. It is a product of human making, a gift of the state. Man is a product of his own history, through which he collectively creates himself. He is a social construct. Since human beings are not naturally free, there can be no natural rights or natural law. Therefore, Dewey also writes, "Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology."
Since the Progressives held that nature gives man little or nothing and that everything of value to human life is made by man, they concluded that there are no permanent standards of right. Dewey spoke of "historical relativity." However, in one sense, the Progressives did believe that human beings are oriented toward freedom, not by nature (which, as the merely primitive, contains nothing human), but by the historical process, which has the character of progressing toward increasing freedom. So the "relativity" in question means that in all times, people have views of right and wrong that are tied to their particular times, but in our time, the views of the most enlightened are true because they are in conformity with where history is going.
This post-Civil War consensus was animated by the principles of the American founding. I will mention several characteristic features of that approach to government and contrast them with the new, Progressive approach. Between about 1880 and 1920, the earlier orientation gradually began to be replaced by the new one. In the New Deal period of the 1930s, and later even more decisively in the 1960s and '70s, the Progressive view, increasingly radicalized by its transformation into contemporary liberalism, became predominant.