The Progressive Era 2.0: Then and Now

The Progressive Era took place between the 1890s and 1920s. The Era was highlighted by goals like ending corruption, modernizing science, suffrage for women, passing antitrust legislation, and counteracting the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. Progressives demanded the government look out for the welfare of all people. They also wanted the government to help efficiently manage the lifestyle and cultural shifts that were taking place during the period.

Cultural shifts like those of the Progressive Era are happening again today. From automation to immigration, the United States is changing quickly.

From Gilded Age to Progressive Era

Interestingly, the Progressive Era followed the Gilded Age of the 1860s to 1890s. Just after the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Mark Twain was the first to name the late 19th century the “Gilded Age.” Twain defined the Gilded Age as glittering on the surface, but deeply corrupt below it. It was a time of robber barons, scandals and corporate greed run amok. Remind you of a certain… eh, right here and now?

So as we exit what many have called the “Gilded Age 2.0”, I hope to enter the Second Progressive Era. And hopefully a much better and more inclusive one. Because we need it bad.

Progressivism after the Gilded Age is credited for many of the rights and benefits we take for granted. Here are 4 examples of Progressive Era successes that prove the importance of Progressivism to American history. and how those same fights look today.

Progressive Era Labor Rights

Then

Labor Unions grew rapidly in the Progressive Era. However, mixed race unions did not find much support. And before long, the American Federation of Labor, which only represented skilled labor, swallowed up many unions, leaving unskilled workers to fend for themselves. Howver, the union did find successes. During the Progressive Era, child labor was limited and eventually stopped. Regulations eradicated workplace diseases like Phossy Jaw. States passed workplace safety laws and commissions investigated dangerous factory conditions and accidents.

Moreso, President Theodore Roosevelt espoused the ideals of a progressive modernization of America. And labor leaders like Eugene Debs and Mother Jones rose to prominence delivering fiery speeches advocating for the rights of all workers. Efforts that eventually led to the New Deal policies of the 1930s.

Fighting for Labor Rights

Labor leaders of the Progressive era were real badasses too. One particularly ugly situation developed at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead steel works outside of Pittsburgh, PA in 1892. Literal open warfare occurred between strikers and Carnegie’s hired guards. Rifles and actual cannons were used in real battles between strikers and guards. In total, 10 people died. It should be a movie.

homestead strike battle 1892
Homestead Strike Battle, 1892

The work of Progressives and Labor activists of the Progressive Era culminated with the Norris–La Guardia Act of 1932. The Act banned “Yellow Dog Contracts” which made employees promise to not join a union. The Act also strengthened workers rights to protest and grew the definition of “labor dispute” to include more types of issues. However, it was quickly replaced in 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act, which established policy in favor of collective bargaining and union organizing. The period also saw the establishment of the National Safety Council in 1915 allowing committees to inspect and regulate working conditions.

Now

Today, we must fight for the Amazon workers who have to pee in bottles and are meticulously tracked by an all-seeing Big Brother of data and KPIs. We need our unions standing with us in the fight for increased wages. We must stand with Bernie Sander’s campaign workers who unionized, a first in Presidential campaign history. And we must stand with the workers in the ongoing dispute between Southwest airlines and their mechanics. And most importantly, Progressives and labor must find a compromise on the Green New Deal that keeps people employed, keeps wages high, and gets us the clean energy we need to survive as a species.

Suffrage and Rights for Women

Then

Women have only had a constitutional right to vote for 99 years. 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. And though it’s taken far too long, we finally have a full slate of women running for President. Shoutout to the groundwork laid by Shirley Chisholm.

But during the Progressive Era, the fight for women’s right to vote was in full swing. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the movement when it began in the 1840s and 1850s. Support for the movement grew significantly during the Progressive Era. This was due in large part to the dual efforts of the moderate NAWSA and the more radical-for-the-time NWP pro-women’s-suffrage groups.

Amidst the women’s’ suffrage movement, the Progressive Era also saw a sharp increase in the number of women working outside the home. It also saw the professionalization of homemaking through home economics curriculums in public schools, and in preparing women for careers outside the home. The dominant feminist perspective of the time was one that advocated for separate but equally important responsibilities for men and women. Thus, the idea of raising a family was made professional, efficient and respectable.

Rights for Widows and Working Moms

Progressives helped enact legislation that granted welfare to working mothers in eight states by 1913. And nearly all of them by 1930. Progressives also pushed for public accident insurance plans. These plans provided widows and their families with a monetary payment to offset expenses. Such plans were enacted beginning in 1910 and were present in nearly every state by 1920.

Most important of all Progressive Era accomplishments, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified. After a long fight, the amendment gave women the right to vote across the country. It was the greatest success of the Progressive Era. It is also the largest extension of voting rights in US history.

Now

Donald Trump is president and that’s not great for women. Especially since he’s an admitted sexual assaulter who regular attacks women on Twitter. Especially women of color. The GOP is doing everything they can to overturn Roe v. Wade and women are still being paid less than men for equal work. Worse yet, there’s a faction of losers called Incels who have commit acts of terrorism to spread their idiotic and misogynistic ideas. We have a long way to go. Luckily, more and more support systems are developing and more allies are stepping up.

From #MeToo to #BelieveWomen to AOC and the young progressives in Congress and the diverse field of candidates running for President, progress is being made every single day. And we need just ONE MORE STATE to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

Fighting Corruption with Smart Government

Then

The Progressive Era won its first major victories with the election of Robert M. La Follette to governor of Wisconsin in 1900. The Progressive Governor implemented a railroad regulatory commission, set fair freight rates, passed food safety laws, moved primary elections away from the control of party bosses, levied progressive tax rates, and introduced what became known as the “Wisconsin Idea”. The idea involved the utilization of experts in science, education, politics and economics in the government’s decision making.

In essence the idea was:
Experts + Anti-corruption = Better Government.
Pretty simple, right?

La Follette

La Follette’s anti-corruption and pro-expert successes took the nation by storm. In fact, Future President Woodrow Wilson put La Follette’s ideas into action shortly after becoming Governor of New Jersey in 1911. And in California, Governor Hiram Johnson followed suit.

The progressive “Wisconsin Idea” way of governing led to early workers compensation programs, the break up of corrupt political machines, progressive taxation, basic safety regulations and eventually the 17th amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment took power from party elites and handed it to the people by calling for the direct election of US Senators. Up until that point, Senators had been appointed.

Now

Today, the GOP is a political party that completely denies the scientific consensus that climate change is real and humans contribute to it. They also take a whole lot of money from the oil and gas lobby. They are the exact opposite of the pro-expert and anti-corruption values of the Wisconsin Idea.

However, it’s not just climate. All reports suggest more guns lead to more mass shootings. But the GOP would rather take the NRA’s blood money than listen to the experts who know how to solve gun violence issues. Research – even Koch Brother backed research – suggests single-payer health care would save the US money. But the GOP (and plenty of Democrats) takes insurance company bribes to ensure their reelection campaigns are well-funded, rather than work for their voters. And let’s not even get into the GOP anti-vax reps who deny reality and defy logic everyday.

Like the original Progressive Era, we’ll be fighting back against corruption and willful ignorance to scientific consensus in this one too.

Progressive Era Education Successes

Then

During the Progressive Era, the number of schools in the nation increased dramatically. So did High School graduation rates. The curriculum also changed thanks in large part to Progressive education activist John Dewey.

Activists like Dewey advocated for civics, Democracy, pragmatism and the use of public schools as institutions for social change.

High school graduation rates progressive era to 2010

Additionally, Enrollment in public schools for children rose from 50.5 percent to 59.2 between 1900 and 1909. Enrollment in public secondary school increased from 519,000 to 841,000. School funds also increased substantially. The Progressive Era was the time period where “school” began to become a regular thing for American kids.

Now

The fight for public education is once again raging. Across the country, teachers are walking out in protest. They are demanding higher wages and smaller classroom sizes. It is not an exaggeration to say American public schools are a complete failure. And I watched the erosion myself, attending public school as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind erased funding to every school I attended.

The fight for public schools is a fight for funding dollars. We must support striking teachers, demand more funding, and refuse to let public dollars go to private schools.

Progressive Era Failures: Racism, Prohibition & Jim Crow

To say the Progressive Era had issues is a massive understatement. The Progressives and labor leaders of the era were racist and held racist views.

To many white Progressives of the time, racial integration was a problem to be solved, not a goal to be achieved. Wikipedia sums it up:

As white progressives sought to help the white working-class, clean-up politics, and improve the cities, the country instated the system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow.

Early labor unions were aggressively anti-immigrant. Some progressives even supported eugenics-based birth control for lower class and minority families. These ideas are and were gross. Luckily today, Progressives – including groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution – are deeply invested in racial equality and equity.

Prohibition was another failure for Progressives. However, Progressives learned a lesson. Today, we push for marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform.

Conclusion

In conclusion, for a Progressive Era 2.0 to exist, we must learn from the past. Progressives must fight the same fights we fought over 100 years ago. But we can not succeed without fixing the problems of the original movement. In short, a Progressive Era 2.0 must be inclusive, with intersectional justice and faith in experts at its core. That means all races, religions, genders and skill levels must be included at every stage.

The next Progressive Era will be fair, it will be smart, and it will be diverse.

Ryan Black is a documentary filmmaker, political consultant, and digital media professional who writes about Progressive Politics.

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