Acton Institute Powerblog

The Dawning of the Age of Neo-Progressivism

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Progressive-ObamaGiven the current slate of policy proposals that are popular today across the country, one could argue the Democratic Party could rename itself the “Progressive Democratic Party.” From the policies and public rhetoric of leaders in the Obama administration to New York mayorial candidate Bill de Blasio, we can see that progressivism is back in a new way.

According to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University, progressivism is a term applied to a variety of responses to the economic and social problems that rapid industrialization introduced to America spanning from around 1890 to 1920. Progressivism began primarily as a social movement but later morphed into public policy initiatives and even into a political party in 1912. The early progressives rejected Social Darwinism, believing that “the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace. Progressives lived mainly in the cities, were college educated, and believed that government could be a tool for change.”

Does this sound familiar? President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was not so much a platform for “liberals” as it was an introduction to America’s neo-progressivism. Today’s neo-progressivism has the same views of the role of elites to govern society, the role of government to run economies with a twist on social agendas, and so on. There are differences, however. The progressivism of old was explicitly racist at times and supported programs like eugenics to rid America of those who might impede national progress. In fact, Margaret Sanger helped to launch and systematize abortion as a progressivist weapon to that end. While the eugenicist abortion platform has been recast as a “women’s health” issue, today’s neo-progressivism comes with the consecration of minority groups as sacred and therefore justifies the use of government to guarantee them various special rights, protections, and privileges under the law. In the neo-progressivist era, every minority group deserves to have their lifestyles and choices enhanced and protected by the state.

U.S. explains the development of progressivism this way:

The Progressives were urban, Northeast, educated, middle-class, Protestant reform-minded men and women. . . It was more of a movement than a political party, and there were adherents to the philosophy in each major party. There were three progressive presidents — Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and Taft were Republicans and Wilson was a Democrat. What united the movement was a belief that the laissez faire, Social Darwinist outlook of the Gilded Age was morally and intellectually wrong. Progressives believed that people and government had the power to correct abuses produced by nature and the free market.

Does the Obama administration believe that government has the power and capacity to correct the contingencies of a broken world? Does his administration believe the government is there to manage and oversee the free market? It would be difficult to answer “No” to these questions. This explains why his tenure has been criticized by some as an explosion of more and more government programs. Moreover, one of the greatest examples of the resurgence of neo-progressivism is Obamacare. This is the most Rooseveltian idea we have seen in decades.

In the New York City race for mayor, the contest for the Democratic Party’s candidate is actually a debate about who best represents progressivism. Bill de Blasio is explicitly campaigning on a progressivist platform. He is pitching himself as the “True Progressive Choice.”

Do not take my word for it. Read the Progressive Party platform from 1912 and compare the agenda to what we might hear from today’s “Democrats” or the proposals on the President’s own website. Among progressive ideologues there is heated debate about the President’s true progressive commitments because of his foreign policy proposals of late. But it could be argued that what we are seeing is a new era of progressive fusion that, at times, will borrow rhetoric from classical liberal, democratic, conservative, nationalistic, and socialist ideologies to reassert what progressives sought back in 1912.

Neo-progressives are finding themselves more accepted as social commentators as well. One of the chief promotions of neo-progressivism can be found in the writing of Wendell Berry, for example. Whatever the source, it is safe to say that neo-progressivism will be with us for quite some time.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Curt Day

    You could have mentioned the following:

    1. Prior to gov’t meddling in controlling currency, the flow of capital, and the stock market was the Great Depression. Pre-depression times relied on Classical liberal economics

    2. Between the Great depression and the 1970s was more gov’t control and regulation. Part of that was demonstrated between WWII and the 1970s by the Bretton-Woods System.

    3. Then between the 1970s up through now, we have had neoliberalism, though our try of it didn’t really begin until Reagan took office. We should note that neoliberalism was a form of classic liberalism and both stressed the individual and reduced gov’t control.

    We could also note the similarities between the liberal foreign policies of Woodrow Wilson and the tenets of today’s neoconservatism. Neoconservatism stressed America’s predominant role in the world and nationalism.

    We could also note that Socialists opposed classical liberal and neoliberal economics as well as our military adventurism both back during Wilson’s day and now. Of course it opposed the classical and neoliberal approach to economics because these economic approaches prohibited local worker control of companies in favor of control by stockholders who were removed and were often investing solely for personal financial enrichment. Socialists also oppose Obamacare because of its dependence, and thus transfer of wealth to, the private sector.

    I write this because the choices offered to the American public have only a few small differences that are explosively debated. Both today’s Republicans and today’s Democrats favor neoliberal economics and stress nationalism and military adventurism. Both are strongly supported by different contingents of private sector elites. And both are voting for the appropriation of more power by the gov’t. For this last point, please note the progression from the Patriot Act to the 2012 NDAA and how both had strong bipartisan support.

  • Dave Henry


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  • jfortin

    Check out the recent article on Heritage about “Neo-Progressives,” called “Liberalism Radicalized,” by Kevin Slack–it seems to explain what you’re talking about.