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Progressive Politics: Definition, Reforms & Amendments

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  • 0:05 Progressive Politics
  • 1:24 Local Reforms
  • 3:34 La Follette
  • 4:41 State Reforms
  • 7:01 Constitutional Amendments
  • 8:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

During the Progressive Era, from around 1900-1917, political reformers pushed for an end of abuse of power in politics and government. Learn how political reforms of the Progressive Era helped make government more responsive to the people, prompting changes at every level of government.

Progressive Politics and Calls for Reform

What does it mean to be a Progressive? Simply put, Progressives advocate change or reform. Politically speaking, Progressives believe that the government should be responsive to the needs of its citizens in order to improve conditions in government and society. During the Progressive Era, from around 1900-1917, reformers sought to end abuses of power in politics and government.

Calls for reform originated with muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens, who revealed the widespread corruption of city politicians and urban political machines. Steffens launched attacks against corrupt government connections with big businesses in The Shame of the Cities, published in 1904. Steffens urged the American people to save their cities from corrupt politicians and for the people to take back government for themselves.

Big business also held a large amount of influence over state and national legislatures through the bribing of politicians and buying of votes. In 1906, David Graham Phillip illustrated the unfair influence large trusts had over the U.S. Senate. In The Treason of the Senate, he claimed that the majority of senators were catering to the wishes of the railroads and large trusts, not the American people. Political reformers of the Progressive Era worked to secure more political power for the people and make government officials more accountable.

Local Political Reforms

Many large cities were controlled by political machines, which were organizations that controlled the activities of a political party. Under city bosses, political machines were able to corrupt the city governments by bribing judges, providing contracts to businessmen in return for favors, and filling city jobs with political supporters, regardless of their qualifications. Special interest groups, such as labor unions and trade associations, lobbied for reform and stood up to the power of the political machines. Sometimes the political machines took on reforms themselves in order to maintain influence and keep their organizations in operation.

Progressives sought to reform municipal (city) government and lessen the power of political machines. Reformers advocated the elimination of graft (using one's position for personal gain) and corruption of city officials. They supported citywide elections, nonpartisanship, and professional city administration. Businessmen, in particular, believed city governments should be run like businesses in an attempt to eliminate inefficiency and waste in government and municipal services.

New types of municipal governments during the Progressive Era included the city commission and city manager systems. In the city commission system, five city commissioners are elected to head different departments of city government. The commissioners come together to enact legislation. One of the drawbacks of the city commission system is that it gave considerable power to individual commissioners.

In the city manager system, a council or commission is elected to make policies that are then carried out by a city manager, including the hiring and supervision of city departments and employees. Some of the new reforms were actually less representative of all the people because political bosses had previously given a voice to working-class immigrants. Now municipal governments were influenced more by the urban middle class.

Monopolies of public utilities, such as water, gas, electric, and transit systems, also came under fire by political reformers. The political influence of these companies was challenged by the passing of laws to regulate their rates and increase their taxes. Some Progressives went so far as to argue that utilities should come under public ownership.

La Follette and the Formation of the Progressive Party

One of the most well-known Progressive politicians was Robert La Follette, also known as 'Battling Bob' La Follette. He served as a congressmen, senator, and governor of Wisconsin. He was a key player in mobilizing Progressive reforms at the state level. Under La Follette's leadership, Wisconsin became known as a 'laboratory for democracy.' He worked to curb the influence and power large trusts had over the government. He quickly gained national attention and became a leader of the National Progressive Republican League, whose goal was to open up the Republican Party to Progressive reforms.

Some Republicans, unhappy with President William Howard Taft's conservative approach, split with the Republican Party and created the Progressive Party in 1912. The Progressive Party refused to support Taft as the Republican nominee for the 1912 presidential election. Theodore Roosevelt, a former supporter of Taft, ran as the Progressive Party candidate but was unsuccessful in obtaining a presidential win. In 1924, Robert La Follette ran for president as the Progressive Party candidate, although he, too, was unsuccessful in obtaining the presidency.

State Political Reforms

Several key electoral reforms were created at the state level in an effort to increase the power of voters and make government more responsive to the people. Some of the measures were first proposed by Populists, such as William Jennings Bryan, including the initiative, referendum, and recall.

  • Initiative is a method in which voters can initiate or propose state laws. If enough people sign a petition, the proposed laws can be voted on by state legislatures or directly by the people through a popular vote.
  • Referendum is the process in which a legislative body can submit a proposed local or state law to be voted on directly by the people. If a person believes an existing law to be bad, they may use the referendum process by circulating a petition asking that the law be submitted for popular vote.
  • Recall is the process in which the people can vote on whether to remove an elected official from office. In a recall vote, voters must vote again on candidates for the position in question. If the incumbent (official currently in office) wins, he or she stays in office. If he or she loses, they are recalled, or removed from office. A notable recall election that gained national attention occurred in California in 2003. Democratic Governor Gray Davis was ousted from office when the voters decided through a recall election that the incumbent governor was no longer suitable for the job. The voters replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who then became the governor of California.

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