Progressive Populists, Religious Activists, the Tea Party, and Other Types of American Progressives
Progressivism from this broad lens includes left-wing progressivism (like Teddy Roosevelt to FDR to Obama to Bernie Sanders), right-wing religious progressivism, Tea Party progressivism, and other types on the political left, right, and center.
Today when we say progressive we mean a social liberal like Bernie or Obama, but when we consider the Scopes Monkey Trial, Temperance, and Prohibition we realize progressivism can be more than just a movement for the equality of the sexes and workers’ rights. Likewise, when we compare Bernie and Teddy Roosevelt, we can see that even something specific like “progressive socially left” comes in populist and elite forms as well.
Below we examine the history of American progressivism to see its roots, see its effect on America, and to see if it is still “fit as a bull moose.”
The Progressive Era: Crash Course US History #27. The idea that there are different types of progressives as illustrated by the progressive era.
“The conscience of the nation is now aroused to free the Government from the grip of those who have made it a business asset of the favor-seeking corporations. It must become a people’s government again, and be administered in all its departments according to the Jeffersonian maxim, “equal rights to all; special privileges to none.” “Shall the people rule?” is the overshadowing issue which manifests itself in all the questions now under discussion.” – Democratic Party platform 1908 which Democrat William Jennings Bryan helped to write.
The Origin of American Progressivism
The term “progressive” doesn’t get used until the 1900’s with figures like Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive “Bull Moose” Party taking up the progressive mantle. Before that, it was called populist, as we can see with William Jennings Bryan’s Populist People’s Party. However, the ideology starts before even this.
To see the roots of American progressivism we can look to the Reform Movements of the United States starting in the 1840’s. Groups like the Shakers established a utopian society based on equality and the Bible, and the Tea-party-esque Know-Nothing Party moved toward a different type of “great” Bible-based populist America. The roots of progressivism are largely in Religious movements in the 1800’s.
However, even earlier than the Reform movement, I’d point to the non-religious and enlightened liberal progressivism of abolitionist founders like Alexander Hamilton, more liberty minded fathers like Jefferson and the general pioneering American spirit. The term “progressive” isn’t used until later, but the roots of progressivism are found in any American ideology which sought more liberty and more equality than was afforded at the time.
The Civil War ended most Reform Movements. In the age of industrialization, big business created new inequalities and a new elite class; progressivism rose again under Bryan and the Roosevelts; today it is going strong under figures like Bernie Sanders and Trump, though in very different ways.
19th Century Reforms: Crash Course US History #15. Some reforms are social-justice-y, like the 19th, some more traditionally or socially conservative, like the 18th. Both are progressive. If you don’t offer qualifiers then today in America liberal and progressive mean Democrat, Green, or left leaning. From a broader perspective, we can see that all Americans have liberalism and progressivism in their roots and most have a little traditional or social conservatism in them as well. It is a complex world, and we are a diverse nation of 50 different states.
“We hold with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln that the people are the masters of their Constitution, to fulfill its purposes and to safeguard it from those who, by perversion of its intent, would convert it into an instrument of injustice. In accordance with the needs of each generation the people must use their sovereign powers to establish and maintain equal opportunity and industrial justice, to secure which this Government was founded and without which no republic can endure. This country belongs to the people who inhabit it. Its resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest. It is time to set the public welfare in the first place.” – Progressive Party Platform of 1912 which Ex-Republican Theodore Roosevelt helped to write.
What ideas and voter issues are progressive? Education reform, women’s rights, equality of the sexes, modernization, labor, abolition, prohibition, temperance, science, the arts, and more are all progressive issues. Out of this one can make a right-wing Tea Party version that focuses on “the American worker” and perhaps some religious issues but oddly stands against the other forms of progress. Just compare the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and other Progressive Commune-ist and generally liberal religious movements. There is a movement for every way people can interpret the Bible.
Why do we cite both Sanders Progressives and the Tea Party? Although most equate “progressive” with the left, there is the right-wing version of populist nativists. A world where all “hope and change” looked the same would be simple. We don’t live in a simple world. Both Trump and Obama were elected on a message of “hope and change.” Call change radical or progressive; that part is little more than semantics.
TIP: In the commonAmerican language, “progressive” generally refers to “moderate progressive social liberalism.” It denotes an ideology focused on equality and liberty, an extension of classical liberalism which seeks to progress toward the ends of social justice and social equality by cultural and state-based means. However, even looking back to the father of American progressivism Williams Jennings Bryan and other spiritual fathers of progressivism like Jefferson, Lincoln (especially the Radical Republicans of the time), and the Roosevelts, we can see that “moderate progressive social liberalism” is only one type of “progressivism.” Even that type contains many factions. If you think of Wikileaks, Anonymous, Green Party, Bernie Sanders, Obama, and Elizabeth Warren, they aren’t all “moderate,” but you get the idea. This page discusses how we can view other left, right, and center ideologies as “types of progressivism” through a broader lens to see the activism of groups like the Religious Right and Tea Party as “progressive.” They are driven by hope and have “change” at the top of the agenda. They seek their ends through state-based and cultural means.
TIP: Compare this page to our page on the types of American populism. It is a similar subject but it is not “exactly the same.”
What is Progressivism?
Progressivism is any ideology based on the idea of progress.
Progressivism typically also favors the people, at least rhetorically. With that said, I’d argue that elite ideologies like neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and imperialism are all progressive in practice, as they all desire to progress and change.
Thus, progressivism is similar to populism in many ways, but where some populists might desire a lack of change or always favor the people over upper class (like the Young America movement). Progressivism is unique in always pushing for change, even when it forms coalitions of between the classes.
Generally, Progressivism is associated with the modern liberal left and is focused on the advancement of science, technology, economic development, and social organization to improve the human condition.
Also generally, progressivism seeks to use the state as a means to those ends.
However, from a broader definition, one that considers all that we call radical or progressive on the left and right (including those who seek deregulation as a means), we find more types of progressivism than just the original.
In ways, each voter issue or coalition formed around a general political ideology can see a progressive faction form around it. For example, the tea party and Occupy Wall Street or the Democrats and Republicans.
It is this broader definition that allows us to understand America and its heroes like Hamilton, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Bryan, the Kennedys, LBJ, Reagan, the Clintons, the Bushs, Obama, and Trump and the movements that supported them. All were looking for different forms of “change” and “progress” and are progressive in some way.
- Want to “make America great again”? That is progressive as it requires “change.”
- Want “hope and change?” Change is progressive by definition.
- Want to increase taxes and ensure the rich pay their fair share? Progressive.
- Want to tax Wall Street. Progressive.
- Want environmental regulations? Progressive.
- Want to deregulate and cut taxes? Progressive. Progressive neoconism specifically.
- Want “neoliberal globalization“? That is progressive.
- Want a welfare state that ensures a UBI? That is progressive.
- Want to subsidize farmers and ensure a strong rural America?… progressive.
- Want to police the world ensure the principals of liberalism abroad?… progressive militarism.
- Want to teach evolution in schools? How progressive of you. That is religious progressivism.
- Want to ban pot and alcohol with a sudden rule change? You are a moral activist and thus, progressive.
- Want to tell people what to eat or drink, what they can or can’t say, not to get vaccines, etc? These are all puritanically progressive stances on key issues but to different degrees of course.
- Want to ban a race, creed, or color? A change like that is technically progressive despite it socially conservative aspects.
Saying one type of progressivism, like Tea Party, isn’t “progressive” is a judgment call and a matter of semantics. Their whole thing is fighting against the government for the forgotten man. We aren’t talking about what the Green Party thinks; we are talking about what a faction’s ideology is, what it wants. If it wants a change that [at least rhetorically] favors the people, then it is progressive.
American Imperialism: Crash Course US History #28. Imperialism, or Progressive imperialism rather. Something I’m sure a radical progressive like William Jennings Bryan would fight about, against another radical progressive like Theodore Roosevelt, who all disagreed with another radical progressive like Hitler. See the complexity, what you are progressive about matters greatly.
TIP: Consider, in the Progressive era all the parties were progressive. How can this be? Was there no left or right? Indeed there was a left and right, but all sides were reacting to the elite-driven Gilded Age (where progressive industrialization occurred alongside arguably little social change outside of Reconstruction), and the people wanted change. Hence “the progressive era” and the different types of progressives.
TIP: Were the founding liberal patriots? They were all progressives. Nothing is more progressive than overthrowing a King and creating a brand new Constitution based on principals rarely embraced by any country in history up until that point. Oddly, if we were to ordain a King and pick a state religion, it would be progressive today. We would be progressing toward traditional conservatism (which yes we could also denote as conservative… but the path is one of progression).
Understanding the Types of American Progressivism
To assume Bernie Sanders is progressive and the Tea Party is conservative is a misreading of history and reality. America is a liberal nation founded by liberals, and while it is tempting for a left-leaning American to paint the Tea Party as purely conservative, nothing could be further from the truth.
They are socially conservative on some issues but look a little closer. They are rebelling against big government, which is “left” and they want change, which is “progressive.” Deregulating and saying “we are taxed enough already” isn’t conservative. It is a type of progressivism that is socially conservative in comparison to other types. We can call it nativist, populist, socially conservative, classically liberal progressivism or we can call it radicalism. It is a question of semantics.
A true conservative, one who does not want progress of any type, is hard to find in America. Instead, some on the left want to progress toward a small government where there is social justice and few other rule-sets (the anonymous sort of left). Others want to progress toward a Rooseveltian big government “welfare state.” These two types of “left-wing American progressivism” look so utterly different that trying to give them both the same name is downright confusing.
The Rooseveltian ideology is classically conservative as it calls for a king-like figure and big government to ensure social justice, AND it wants to impose morality on society. The other type wants some government (like a basic safety net) but seeks a more Democratic and arguably libertarian alternative. Meanwhile, the Bernie Sanders type of progressivism falls somewhere in the middle. The Obama model follows Roosevelt while protecting business interests. It is a mixed-market ideology like that of Clinton. Green focuses on the environment. Socialists favor workers. Extreme socialist progressives want the state to run the Fortune 500 companies. We can keep going until we get those few fringe factions who want a total Communist state, which would take an extreme amount of change to achieve in our society.
Quick History: The Bull Moose Party.
William Jennings Bryan: Founder of Religious Right and Populous Left! Dick Morris TV: Lunch ALERT!.
Meanwhile, on the right-wing we have several types of American progressivism too. We have a type which seeks prohibition and church-state politics. They want to progress toward a moral church state, which seems very conservative, but how different is it from Roosevelt? We have a Jacksonian type that wants states’ rights and to “kill the banks,” which is a very left-leaning concept, yet is socially conservative as it isn’t seeking social justice for all races, sexes, and creeds. We have a Jeffersonian type that is even more left-leaning and libertarian than Jackson, seeking a rural America free from banking, globalization, and foreign wars.
We also have a fascist type of progressivism. This group wants to progressively change the nation “back” to a perceived Judeo-Christian Anglo basis and get-your-refugees-out-of-my-country America. Hitler was a national socialist; he changed Germany completely. We may not see it as progress forward, but it was a type of progressivism.
Age of Jackson: Crash Course US History #14.
War & Expansion: Crash Course US History #17. Manifest Destiny, a form of progressivism.
While today “progressive” means left-leaning Democrat and “liberal” means left-leaning Democrat. Democrats want social justice, social welfare, diversity, and are fine with the state ensuring it. We can call that progressive liberalism, but real ideologies are complex. A libertarian who wants all those things, but doesn’t want the state involved is also “a progressive” “liberal.”
Our country was founded on liberalism. The Tea Party is socially conservative, but they are socially conservative liberals in a liberal country who want progressive change. They want to return to the days of Jefferson and Jackson, the anti-Federalist liberals.
Tea Party America BBC Documentary.
In summary, in casual conversation, we can say progressive and get that we are talking about Bernie, Obama, and the general American left. However, when you dig into our history and try to tell stories like “how the American political parties evolved from the founders to today” you find yourself having to face the truth. There are MANY different types of liberals who all love liberty and America equally but agree on little else.
This is the advice Hamilton gave us:
“It’s not tyranny we desire; it’s a just, limited, federal government…. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.” – Hamilton is stating a timeless truism. While we may seek progress, we must ensure a moderate government that can balance and respect the needs of all.