Batavick: A look back at what the Progressives accomplished in light of today’s politics

April 15 will soon be upon us, and as onerous as the federal income tax is, its creation was the great leveler, ensuring that all citizens were levied taxes based on their ability to pay. The government uses these funds for many purposes, from protecting our food supply to fighting disease to paying for our national defense.

Today we get to elect our U.S. senators instead of having them appointed by the state legislature in smokey back rooms where bribes once greased the selection process.


This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage which won the right to vote for more than 50% of the population.

What do all these initiatives have in common? Well, if you believe they’ve improved your lives and the nation’s well being, then you can thank the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Progressives championed the 16th, 17th and 19th amendments, respectively summarized above, and did so against considerable pushback.

Republicans and wealthy industrialists fought the 16th amendment because of their disdain for taxes. Believe it or not, some of today’s conservatives wish to repeal the 17th amendment because they want to return control of senatorial elections to states to help control the growth and overreach of the federal bureaucracy. And most of the southern states, including Maryland, opposed the 19th amendment. They argued that a woman’s place was in the home and that women didn’t really have enough intelligence to form useful opinions to vote. Yikes!

The Progressives of old also fought political corruption and the federal government’s spoils system by passing the 1883 Civil Service Reform Act. It assured that federal employees would be hired and promoted based on merit alone.

Progressive social crusaders like Jane Addams fought for better housing for the poor. Muckraking Progressive journalists joined the fray. Lincoln Steffens pilloried the political machines that strangled our major cities. Upton Sinclair exposed contaminated products and unsafe working conditions in the meatpacking industry. And Jacob Riis crusaded against the shameful living conditions in the tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side.

Too, Progressives championed antitrust laws and new regulations to remove cartels and monopolies in industries like oil, sugar, meatpacking, drugs, and railroads. They also pushed for better consumer protection, shorter working hours, and higher wages. You can thank them for these benefits too.

All the above should frame potent arguments for refuting today’s conservatives who belittle the Progressive Era of the 1890s to the 1920s. Was it a perfect time? Absolutely not. The Progressives made mistakes. They aligned themselves too closely with the unions, thus encouraging a racist stance toward African Americans and the Chinese because of their willingness to work for low wages. Progressives also supported the Immigration Act of 1917 that barred Asians and those mentally and physically disabled and the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1924 that created a quota system based on national origin. And some Progressives sadly thought eugenics was a bold, new way to improve humanity’s gene make-up. In today’s light, these are all horrors to be sure, but the good wrought by Progressives easily outweighs the bad.

And there’s also the troublesome 18th amendment that brought us prohibition and Al Capone. Enough said.

The Progressive era ended with the elections of Republican Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover who changed the subject from reform to deregulation, laissez-faire economics, and tax cuts. Then the Great Depression hit with a thunderclap in 1929.

OK. The last paragraph was a bit unfair, though certainly undeniable. Those Republican presidents also accomplished some admirable things, but I did what I did just to show you how easy it is to selectively use history to tar the opposition.

Why the current mania by the right to rake the old Progressives over the coals? Perhaps it’s because they can be made handy precursors of what voters might expect if Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders get elected to the presidency. Republicans may even rope Uncle Joe Biden into this group if he becomes the candidate. After all, he’s a liberal right?

Remember what those darn Progressives did to the country over 100 years ago? Wait. Weren’t those Progressives fighting income inequality and corporate and political corruption just like Bernie and Warren are today? Yeah, I do remember, and I hope other voters will, too.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.