“Progressive” is a label thrown around carelessly at dinner tables, coffee shops, news desks, and anywhere else politics is discussed to identify a particular political affiliation. The term is generally used to refer to a person with a leftward-leaning bent — somewhere to the left of the Democratic Party’s traditional core. Modern-day progressives are generally reluctant to take on the explicitly partisan label of “Democrat,” or to use the stigmatized moniker of “liberal” — in an effort to avoid being tossed in with the corporate-sponsored moderates who make up the bulk of today’s elected Democrats. So it may shock them to learn that their intellectual forefathers were mostly Republicans.
The progressive era, which began in the 1890s and ran through the 1920s, started as a series of local political movements, made up of individuals frustrated by some of the nastier byproducts of the Industrial Revolution: poor working conditions, corrupt political machines, and an increasing concentration of wealth
Like many modern-day progressives, the reforms they pursued were populist in nature and aimed to help ordinary people. In California, progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, a Republican, signed legislation allowing citizen initiatives, referendums and recalls as a way to level the playing field between individuals and moneyed corporate interests.
Like-minded progressives also dominated the nation’s highest office for 20 years at the beginning of the 20th century. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, Taft, a Republican, and Wilson, a Democrat, were all progressive leaders. They fought for a meritocratic civil service system, child labor laws, eight-hour workdays, workers compensation and women’s suffrage. Each of these reforms likely still appeals to modern liberal progressives, but many are valued just as much by blue-collar Republicans.
Roosevelt and Johnson ran as the Progressive Party’s nominees in 1912, and remain the only third-party ticket to win in California and to receive more electoral votes than the nominee of a major party.
The progressives also led the drive for a federal income tax through the passage of the 16th Amendment. Before the amendment was ratified in 1913, the federal government had collected revenue through import tariffs and excise taxes. The income tax is considered “progressive” because it imposes higher tax rates on larger incomes, unlike “regressive” taxes such as the percent-based sales taxes we pay on most purchases, whose fixed rates take a bigger bite out of poor households’ budgets than rich ones’. While taxes are now universally reviled, the income tax has an inarguably populist result of redistributing some of the wealth of the 1% back to the other 99%.
The sorts of populist ideals espoused by progressives of the 1900s are no more exclusive to the Democratic Party now than they were then. Although President Trump has done less swamp draining than many of his supporters hoped for, his electoral success on the right and Bernie Sanders’ better than expected showing on the left demonstrates an appetite for many of the same principles that early progressives championed. Trump and Sanders highlighted rising inequality and the corrupting influence of money in Washington, D.C., during their campaigns.
Inarguably, Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism is vastly different from the democratic socialist variation espoused by Sanders. However, some of the core tenets of progressivism – such as fighting corruption, reducing inequality and protecting workers from exploitation – appealed to many of the white middle- and lower-class voters who turned out for the current president.
So, before you use the word “progressive” to identify yourself or someone else as being on the far left of the American political spectrum, remember that many of those progressive ideals have a lot of appeal to the blue-collar Trump supporters who feel like the economy isn’t working for them. It might not be so hard to convince them that tackling corruption through campaign finance reform and single payer healthcare, are better solutions to their problems than building a wall or promising to drain the swamp.