When historians fight about Progressivism — and fight they do — they are not just arguing about events of a century ago. They are also struggling over the basic meanings of American democracy. If we could face this fact more directly, and begin to come to grips with the stakes involved, we would not only advance the study of the past but, even in some small and indirect ways, we might improve the practice of our current politics as well.
Politicians standing at the center of our nation's democratic dramas recognize, even if often without nuance, the value of reclaiming the Progressive Era. Cheerfully blurring historical distinctions, Bill Clinton announced as he left office, “I always felt that the work we did the last eight years made us the heir of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.” In turn, Al Gore's communications director saw his candidate's “message more in the tradition of progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt, who confronted powerful trusts, rather than the populists who railed broadly against elites of all stripes.” Several years earlier the vice-president's main Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley, wrote, “I've always admired the progressives, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who enabled the private sector to flourish but in a way more responsive to national purpose.”