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  • Still Searching for Progressivism
  • Colin Gordon (bio)
Eldon J. Eisenach. The Lost Promise of Progressivism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994. x 291 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95.

The search for progressivism is the American historical profession’s version of the snipe hunt: we watch those engaged in the pursuit, even participate ourselves on occasion, but never fail to shake our heads ruefully at those who claim to have “seen it” or “found it.” My own skepticism was both confirmed and challenged by Eldon Eisenach’s tightly argued The Lost Promise Of Progressivism. This is a complex and engaging pursuit of progressivism; an attempt not only to identify a notoriously elusive historical subject but to stuff and mount it as a lesson in contemporary civics. Yet, to exhaust the metaphor, I was never fully convinced that Eisenach’s quarry really existed. This confused and undermined both the object of the hunt (an intellectually coherent set of “Progressive” ideas) and the contemporary relevance of displaying the trophy (the “lost promise”).

Its nuances aside for the moment, Eisenach’s argument is relatively straightforward. This is both a historical analysis of Progressive thought and a fan letter for a certain strain of it. Eisenach focuses on a small cohort of Progressives who shared the conviction that “[t]o link personal freedom to national democracy — a substantive and inclusive public good — not only placed issues of rights within a framework of national institutions, it redefined the idea of citizenship as well” (p. 221). This is presented as both the intellectual center of progressivism and the lost mooring of the modern liberal tradition, which instead adopted the “rights consciousness” of the Progressives’ critics. Progressives, in Eisenach’s view, laid the intellectual foundations for a more meaningful political culture — a sort of public-spirited, interest group liberalism resting on both state institutions and an array of secondary associations. The promise of this public spirit, however, was lost after 1920 in the ethical anarchy of democratic individualism. In the end, Eisenach’s Progressives were unable to displace the pursuit of negative liberty (freedom from the state) with a sense of positive liberty (obligation to the state). This is at once a fresh reading of Progressivism, a distinct historical echo of the communitarian critique of modern liberalism, and a ringing indictment of a [End Page 669] political culture whose fascination with “disembodied claims for liberty” (p. 190) has perforated the American social contract with loopholes and escape clauses. “Now that enthusiastic defenders of New Deal liberalism are hardly to be found in the academy,” argues Eisenach, “we could do worse than seek to reappropriate some features of Progressive public doctrine that later liberal doctrine never understood or forgot. We might at least conclude that it was no small achievement to connect pride in one’s country to mutual obligations and a national ideal of social justice” (p. 258).

For Eisenach, the confrontation between the Progressives and their critics was nothing less than a battle for intellectual, institutional, and cultural hegemony in American politics. The Progressives raised civic obligation against the electoral individualism of Jacksonian politics, legal activism against a passive rule of law, nationalism against “states’ rights” regionalism, and the social gospel against denominational conservatism. This multifaceted challenge drew its energy from a variety of (largely familiar) sources, all of which eroded the authority of parochial party politics: political reform, presuffrage feminist organization, the social gospel, the universities, and the emergence of independent mass magazines. Progressive efforts, in this respect, were challenged not only by the status quo — a “state of courts and parties” — but by the weakness of national state institutions. Accordingly, the reformers were pressed to simultaneously build the institutions of national democratic life, and legitimate those institutions through “the creation and articulation of [an] institution-legitimating discourse” (p. 19). This necessary ideological flourish was provided by a Protestant reform tradition which, as Eisenach suggests, not only gave progressivism its almost spiritual sense of obligation and duty but also marked the sharpest contrast between progressivism and modern liberalism: “to say today what they said then... would be a profound embarrassment to the audience — perhaps the result of some booking error” (pp. 46–47).


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