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Cuyamaca College Successes and Failures of Progressivism Discussion Paper

Cuyamaca College Successes and Failures of Progressivism Discussion Paper

Question Description

I’m working on a history writing question and need an explanation to help me learn.

Progressives sought to reform problems at home and to support democracy abroad during the Great War.


  • two areas where reform efforts were successful
  • two areas where they failed or did not go far enough

In conclusion: idealism has played an important part in our national identity. What do you think? Is our idealism/values still important today? Do Americans still believe in expanding democracy and protecting the public interest?

Here is an explanation below if you need help writing

Historians and Progressivism

  • Contemporaries: at the time, some said progressivism was an urban type of Populism.
  • Hofstadter: the first historian to really analyze the Progressives, Hofstadter said that they were WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who felt displaced as the leaders of traditional American society. Their influence was being diminished by new rich millionaires on one side, and by huge numbers of immigrants on the other. These progressives had status anxiety, and sought to limit the influence of the wealthy and immigrants in America.
  • Wiebe: this historian argued that progressives were searching for order in a chaotic time. They were college educated reformers who used scientific methods to impose order in society and the economy.
  • Consensus: these historians saw Progressivism as an umbrella under which many types of reformers would be found. Today we see reformers coming from many different regions, ethnicities, races, economic levels. They did not all agree on what the goals should be or how to achieve them, but they all became conscious of various problems in America and wanted to be part of the solution. They didn’t sit home and complain; they got out there and did something!

Development of Consciousness: many reformers became aware of problems by the Depression of 1893, economic problems, being exploited consumers, etc. Realizing that there is a problem is the first step towards a solution.

Nature of Movement: Conservative. Progressive reformers did not reject capitalism, as did many reformers in Europe. Rather they sought to reform capitalism’s worst aspects in order to save it. They understood that unregulated capitalism in the modern industrial economy was producing great income inequality, monopoly, and other unforeseen problems. So they saw regulation as a way to fix the problems while keeping capitalism.

Sources of Progressivism

  • 19th century reform movements: many continue into the 20th century. Black rights, women’s rights, and temperance/prohibition are the largest. Also educational reform and others.
  • International progressivism: we draw ideas from Europe as Europeans respond to the problems of industrial capitalism, particularly from England and Germany.
  • Universities: their emphasis on rational scientific methods to solve economic and social problems produced many trained professionals armed with new skills to combat the problems in America.
  • Reform Darwinism: a reaction to Social Darwinism, Reform Darwinism argued that the poor and “unsuccessful” did not need to be abandoned in order for progress to occur. Rather, they saw society as an organism, a body. Anything that affected the hand couldn’t be ignored–it would eventually end up affecting the whole body. So to with society–there would be costs to ignoring the poor. We could use reform to help these people to succeed through education, rehabilitation, etc.
  • Churches & Social Gospel: Liberal Protestant churches began to reach out into the community to help those in need, a kind of practical Christianity. New types of churches developed to meet the needs of the urban poor, like the Salvation Army. Fundamentalist Protestants kept their focus on doctrine and belief, however.
  • Literature: reading literature from this period tells you about the real life conditions and problems of society. Realism rather than escapism was the focus and many readers learned about problems outside of their own experience through reading.
  • Expose journalism: the same is true for expose journalists, muckrakers. This was not trashy tabloid stories that you see standing in line at the grocery store! More like 60 Minutes tv journalism, muckrakers were investigative reporters and writers who wrote books and articles to inform the public of problems that affected large numbers of people. Below are two of the most famous authors and their books.

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