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The Dark Heart of Progressivism

A conversation with Thomas C. Leonard, author of Illiberal Reformers.

Thomas C. Leonard epitomizes Richard Hofstadter’s definition of intellectualism. The intellectual’s mind, wrote Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, is “sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.” Leonard, an economist and historian at Princeton University, seems to fit this description to a tee, which is why it’s nearly impossible to discern what ideological stream the professor swims in from his book, Illiberal Reformers.

The book, a surprise hit for Princeton University Press, is an intellectual tour through the dark heart of the Progressive Era, particularly the elitism and prejudices of the political economists who forged the modern “science” of economics and created and staffed the regulatory state. As Malcolm Harris wrote in his favorable review of Illiberal Reformers in The New Republic, the book “is hard to classify politically,” and “Leonard’s personal politics are hard to read.” But discerning readers will take note of Leonard’s clear disdain for the “administrative state” that the Progressives conceived of and built, his use of certain terms (e.g., “welfare statism”), and his concern for marginalized groups, and conclude that in the marketplace of ideas he’s most clearly attracted to what’s known as “bleeding heart libertarianism.”

When I visited Leonard at his Princeton office on a hot, sleepy afternoon in late August, I asked him where he is on the ideological spectrum. He answered he’s a “Humian.” My ears heard “human,” and I thought he was having a bit of fun with me. But as he continued to explain his answer, it was clear Leonard meant that he had kinship with David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher who embraced radical skepticism.

Leonard brings that habit of inquiry to the Progressive Era, which is commonly remembered as a time in U.S. history where democratic reformers pushed back against the pernicious effect of the robber barons in favor of the average person. But as Leonard shows, many Progressives believed they were doctors of the body politic, taking it upon themselves to protect its Anglo-Saxon purity. Threats to the social organism’s health included immigrants, the mentally disabled, and women who wanted to be more than breeders for Anglo-Saxon supremacy. The Progressives, far from champions of working people, were eugenic collectivists who believed the state had the right to privilege Anglo-Saxon men above all other groups. Whether you’re on the left or right, if you have a civil-libertarian bone in your body, the history Leonard excavates should fill you with revulsion.

After I met with Leonard, we carried on our conversation over a few weeks via email, discussing his book, why it has struck a chord, and what policies illiberal reformers push today. The following interview is based on our email correspondence and has been lightly edited.

Why do you call the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly the Progressive political economists, illiberal reformers? What exactly makes them illiberal in your book? 

When “liberal” became a political term in America just after the Civil War, it described a person committed to individual freedom and the institutions judged necessary for its maintenance, such as a market economy and laws protecting individual rights against the state.  

The progressives disparaged 19th-century liberalism as laissez-faire and led a crusade to dismantle it, remaking American economic life with a new instrument of reform they blueprinted and built, the regulatory welfare state. The progressives were reformers, to be sure, but they were no liberals. Indeed, they disdained individual liberties—not least those enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights—as archaic impediments to their reform project of improving American society’s health, welfare, and morals. Woodrow Wilson, among many others, dismissed talk of individual rights against the state as “nonsense.”

There is an additional sense in which in the progressives were illiberal. Before “liberal” entered the political lexicon, it described a person who was open-minded, tolerant, and free from prejudice or bigotry. As Illiberal Reformers painstakingly documents, a shockingly high percentage of the progressive economists were close-minded, intolerant, and bigoted. Indeed, they campaigned to exclude the disabled, immigrants, women, and other maligned groups from the U.S. workforce, on the grounds that the economic competition of hereditary inferiors threatened the American working man and Anglo-Saxon race integrity.

I found that one of the most striking aspects of the book. You really indict many Progressive economists by simply quoting them. It left one reviewer for The New Republic stunned at the “dark history of liberal reform.” Considering Progressive economists’ elitism and prejudice, why do you think so many modern-day progressives look back at them as their ideological ancestors? Is it historical ignorance, or is there a kinship between the Progressives of yesterday and the progressives of today?

The original Progressives were not that progressive. Many promoted race science and eugenics, ignored or even justified the brutal reestablishment of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South, asserted that immigration of inferiors caused “race suicide,” advocated an imperialistic manifest destiny, and portrayed themselves as an unbiased technocratic elite who not only served the public good, but also identified it. They were, moreover, public moralists, impelled by their evangelical Protestantism to create a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

At a glance, there is not much here for 21st-century progressives to claim kinship with. Today’s progressives emphasize racial equality and minority rights, decry U.S. imperialism, shun biological ideas in social science, and have little use for piety or proselytizing.

On the other hand, the original Progressives got things done. They helped pass four constitutional amendments in only seven years. They founded academic economics, the modern American research university, and the think tank. They blueprinted the American regulatory welfare state, and created entirely new professions—the expert economist, the professor of social science, the scholar-activist, the social worker, and the investigatory journalist. These Progressive Era institutions and professions remain at the heart of American civic life.  

So what have today’s progressives carried over from their namesakes of a century ago? I would highlight two areas of kinship. First is the notion that free markets are intrinsically unjust and wasteful. Capitalism, for progressives, requires the visible hand of a vigorous state empowered to surveil, investigate, and regulate economic life. Second, while today’s progressives (unavoidably) have a less heroic conception of expertise in the service of the state, I would argue that they still hold to the original Progressives’ core faith, which is: if smart, well-intentioned people are put in charge, then economic and social progress will inevitably follow.

The original Progressives were, unquestionably, elitists who looked down their noses at “ordinary” folk. How come the conventional wisdom associates the progressives with championing the rights and liberties of the people?

The original Progressives were deeply ambivalent about the poor. This is, I think, the great contradiction at the heart of Progressive Era reform. Progressives felt genuine compassion for “the people,” which is to say, those groups they judged worthy of American citizenship and employment. The deserving poor were offered the helping hand of state uplift. Yet Progressives simultaneously scorned the millions of ordinary people who happened to be disabled, or of an “inferior” race, or female. The so-called undeserving poor were offered the closed hand of state exclusion and restraint.

This amalgam of compassion and contempt helps explain why Progressive Era reform at once uplifted and excluded, and did both in the name of progress. Only Anglo-Saxon men escaped the charge of being a threat to American racial health, and even members of this privileged group were maligned as inferiors when they, as with the Jukes and other “white trash” families studied by eugenicists, were judged deficient in intellect and morals.

Jonah Goldberg, in a quick blog post at National Review, is happy that your book is getting traction in places where his book, Liberal Fascism, didn’t. I understand why people like Goldberg link the progressives to fascists, particularly when you read the progressives’ embrace of eugenics and racial health, but I find it ultimately unconvincing. What’s your opinion of the progressives as a form of American fascism?

In many circles, “fascist” is about the worst thing you can call someone, so I get why such a word might be useful for polemical purposes. As a matter of history, however, I don’t see it. The progressives were illiberal, but not all illiberal impulses entail a violent nationalist overthrow of liberal democracy in its entirety.

I think modern-day progressives would be aghast if they knew that the original push for the minimum wage was explicitly designed to raise the price of labor so that employers would only hire the right kind of worker, namely white Anglo-Saxon men. Can you explain the eugenic argument for minimum-wage laws? Also do you think this history should give pause to the Fight for $15 movement, which is campaigning for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour?

The original Progressives feared that if firms were permitted to hire whomever they chose to, the work would necessarily go the lowest bidder, an argument that was first racialized when applied to Chinese immigrants, who were stigmatized as Coolies. Ultimately, the disabled, Catholics, and Jews from southern and eastern Europe, and women, were also accused of undercutting the American (read: Anglo-Saxon) working man. Worse, Progressives said, the American working man refused to lower his living standard to the Coolie level, instead opting to have fewer children. Thus were inferior groups allegedly outbreeding their biological betters, a notion known as “race suicide.” Theodore Roosevelt called race suicide “the greatest problem of civilization.”

For economic reformers, a minimum wage improved heredity by stopping the race to the racial bottom. A minimum wage ensured that only the most productive immigrants, presumed to be Anglo-Saxon, would be admitted, and it also identified inferior workers already in the work force, by idling them. Only the most productive, deserving workers kept their jobs, and could afford to support larger families.

This history should give pause to Fight for $15 activists—not because of eugenics or racism per se, but because a minimum wage set too high will harm the most vulnerable. American minimum wages (adjusted for inflation) have never been as high as $15 per hour, a level as yet unsurpassed in the United States or, indeed, in any peer country.

Today’s activists discount fears that a $15 minimum will cost some low-wage workers their jobs. I don’t, and it is no small irony that those put at greatest risk are people of color, immigrants, the disabled, and women. There are better ways of helping the working poor (e.g., wage subsidies) than by making their labor more costly.

With a book like yours, it’s hard not to connect it to current events, particularly when there is a present-day, self-described progressive movement. For the sake of balance, pick a policy—proposed or implemented—from each party that exemplifies illiberal reform today.

When I set out to write Illiberal Reformers, I had no inkling that when the book was published, the troubling assumptions about race and nationality that plagued Progressive Era thought would rise to national prominence again, continuing to shape American (and international) political debate. The West is now facing a crisis of rising illiberalism, represented in the United States by the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump.

Trump seems never to have met an individual right he would not be pleased to trample upon. He has rashly proposed to bar Muslims, to intensify torture, to order extrajudicial killings, to punish women, to round up and deport millions of undocumented people, and to muzzle the press. These proposals are only part of what is a spectacularly illiberal agenda.

On the Democratic side, I would instance excessive land-use regulation and occupational licensing, which may sound inconsequential but, in fact, damage economic growth and income equality. That said, the idea of “balance” presupposes a kind of rough equivalence between the two parties with respect to illiberalism, and there is no such thing today.

I think it’s a credit to your writing style and marshaling of evidence that I can’t really get a bead on your politics or ideological affinities, though I have my suspicions. If you don’t mind me asking, what do you consider yourself?

Thank you. If you insist on a label, how about bleeding-heart cosmopolitan market liberal?

There’s no disguising the fact that Illiberal Reformers is revisionist, but I tried my utmost to be fair to the original Progressives. The Progressives were not the saints their hagiographers pictured, but neither were they the villains some detractors supposed. Indeed, part of what makes the Progressives so compelling is their combination of the admirable and the reprehensible, which is strange to us but was not to them.

George Orwell said that we all write as partisans. But he did not mean that we deliberately bend history to our present ideological purposes (which is why a scholar’s politics are thought to be revealing). Orwell meant that we cannot get outside our own values and perspectives any more than we can get outside our own skins, and that our individual knowledge is always partial. The lesson for scholars is, proceed with deep intellectual humility. I think Illiberal Reformers gets the Progressives right. But those very Progressives thought they had it right, too.

Matthew Harwood is a writer living in New Jersey. His work has appeared at AntiWar.com, the Guardian, TomDispatch, Reason, Salon, and War is Boring, among others.



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