Published: Dec. 17, 2020

In 2020, the folks on the left flank of the Democratic Party are called “progressives.” For the progressives of 2020, racial justice is an urgent priority.

In the years around 1900, the Progressive Movement rearranged many aspects of American governance and life. New laws regulated many aspects of the economy, with a particularly lasting impact with the designation of public lands. Many of the Progressives’ achievements still enrich and enhance our lives.

But there’s more to that story.

The Progressive Era registered, by many measures, as the low point of American race relations. Jim Crow segregation ruled the South, and de facto segregation characterized other regions. The exploitation of Mexican and Asian workers was a common arrangement of power and profit in the West. American Indian people were at their nadir of population and also at the nadir of their powers of self-government.

And then there were the Progressive presidents.

An enthusiast for eugenics, President Theodore Roosevelt was alarmed by the reproductive energy of minority and immigrant families. And so he exhorted white women to have more babies so that the white population would not be overwhelmed. President Woodrow Wilson was a Southerner convinced of the superiority of white people; one of his undertakings, as president, was to segregate the federal government’s civil service, closing off an arena of opportunity that had given Black Americans a pathway to professional achievement and middle-class incomes.

Do the people who are called “progressives” today know this history?

Have any of them ever taken a moment to notice that their adoption of the term “progressive” aligned them with a historical movement that was, in some of its dimensions, absolutely antithetical to the principles and convictions that left-leaning Democrats today see as preeminent?

But here’s my eccentric conclusion: in a time when hard-and-fast lines of opposition and division are very, very popular, there is something hopeful in the implausible stretching of the word “progressive” to bring together such incompatible human beings.

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