The men and women of the Progressive Era had wonderful intentions. “Americans identified major social problems, called for an expanded role for the state, and pursued a more active regulatory government”(Gould, 3). Seeking to curb the growing power of a small minority of industrialists, end child labor, and secure voting rights for women, they stood for the ideal that social change should keep pace with the dramatic technological and geographical change that was affecting America. Their first mistake was assuming that the government would effect positive change at home and in the world.
Before the masses began to agitate for social change, multi-millionaires such as J. P. Morgan, J. D. Rockerfeller, and Andrew Carnegie were consolidating their respective powerbases. Without government subsidies, it would not have been possible for many of the “robber barons” to build their empires. The second mistake they had made was the belief that the government would regulate morality at home and abroad. Favoring Prohibition as a way toward a more peaceful, intelligent society, it was repealed in the 1930’s when organized crime and social instability had become more the rule than the exception.
“The national government did not regulate economic life substantially in the late nineteenth century, although it vigorously promoted corporate interests by subsidizing railroad construction, maintaining a tight currency, and keeping tariffs on imported goods high to protect domestic producers. By the end of the century, however, Americans looked to the national government to mitigate the negative effects of industrial capitalism. With so much economic power concentrated in the hands of giant corporations, many argued, the federal government must now regulate the market and supervise corporations in the public interest”(Diner, 46).
When World War I erupted in 1914, the United States prudently stayed out of the conflict. The founding fathers warned against interference in foreign affairs, plus, Americans were too busy implementing domestic changes. Although the U. S. involvement in World War I was brief, the government formed alliances with other nations—one that would drag the country into the Second World War.
“The 1890s marked a turning point in the nation’s history, that developments thenceforward to World War I made U. S. society into something significantly different from what it had been before the 1890s, and that accordingly, the years from the 1892s to 1916 marked a distinct period in American History” (Sklar, 39). The changes Progressives made so long ago, contributed to much of the national agenda today. There is a large centralized government, high income and inheritance taxes, welfare for the elderly and poor, laws against child labor, women now have the right to vote, and minorities are granted the same legal rights as the majority. As with all changes, some were good, some not so good.
Government corruption and an interventionist foreign policy agenda are two glaring negatives that sprouted from the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century. We have become involved in wars that have nothing to do with us, and effectively become the police force for the world. Before the Progressive Era, government employees were by and large members of congress, postal workers, and enlistees of the armed forces. Now, there is a gigantic bureaucracy of alphabet organizations plastered with tons of red tape. With the Progressive movement, socialism had become more of a mainstream political movement.
The Democratic-Socialist party of the United States now has a majority in Congress due to the mismanagement of the previous administration. Progressive politicians would have done better to focus on domestic social issues, foster solid trade agreements with other nations, and keep out of international affairs.
Diner, Steven J. A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era. NY: Hill & Wang, 1998 Gould, Lewis L. America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1914. NY: Longman, 2000 Sklar, Martin J. The United States as a Developing Country: Studies in U. S. History in the Progressive Era and the 1920s. University of Cambridge, 1992