A 21st Century Version of the Progressive Movement?

Back to Summer 2021: Volume 110, Number 2

By Daniel Kemmis

The subtitle of Robert Putnam’s book The Upswing is “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.”1 The earlier coming together that Putnam and his collaborator Shaylyn Romney Garrett allude to was essentially the Progressive Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among the lasting legacies of that era was the National Municipal League, founded in 1894 and eventually renamed the National Civic League in 1986.

Most of Putnam’s book is devoted to a thorough analysis of the variety of ways that the Progressive Era unfolded into several decades of generally shared national purpose. This analysis is followed by an even more detailed description of the pathways by which that public commonality so thoroughly disintegrated from the 1970s through to the present day. The hope for another “upswing” of shared purpose has now become widespread, and has no doubt produced in many of Putnam’s readers a wish that he had provided a more detailed list of practical suggestions about “How We Can Do It Again,” as promised by the subtitle.

Putnam and Garrett have, however, performed a very considerable service with their detailed analysis of the downswing, and they can hardly be blamed for not undertaking what might be the impossible task of an equally minute prescription for how to reverse course. In fact, the inherent impossibility of such a prescription is one of the first lessons we are likely to learn if we look to the Progressive Era for clues about how a 21st century version of that movement of democratic renewal might be brought to pass.2

Not only did the Progressive Movement emerge without a pre-ordained blueprint, the unpredictability of its various trajectories may be understood as integral to its remarkable productivity. The energy behind Progressivism popped up in multiple, often seemingly unrelated arenas of American life. Theodore Roosevelt stands forth as a one-man instantiation of that multi-faceted dynamism. He was a leading figure in endeavors as disparate as civil service reform and conservation, and of course he was one of the founders of the National Municipal League. This almost dizzying array of reform activities helps to explain why Maureen A. Flanagan organized her 2007 book America Reformed around “four major ideas of progressivism: social justice, political, economic, and foreign policy.” 3

The point here is not to revisit specific vectors of that historical reform movement but to remind ourselves of the way that those various strands of reform developed synergy among themselves – to the point that the movement eventually became powerful enough to put in place not only dozens of state constitutional amendments but also the largest batch of amendments to the U.S. Constitution since the Bill of Rights itself. Women’s suffrage, the direct election of U.S. senators, the legal basis for the income tax, and the ill-fated prohibition amendment were all added to the Constitution against determined resistance. What made this remarkable and enduring set of reforms possible was, above all, the organic coalescence of various strands of democratic energy.

For those who might now be hoping for another “upswing” in democratic reform activity, where might they look for signs of its emergence? More important yet, what might they themselves do to help it along? The good news is that there are quite a number of serious reform efforts already afoot, many of them guided and fueled by credible, indeed venerable organizations. Some of those organizations, like the National Civic League, trace their own roots to the Progressive Movement.

The League of Women Voters, for example, is a leading voice in redistricting reform in our own time which celebrated in 2020 the centennial of its founding. That same year, Common Cause turned 50 and joined the League of Women Voters in redistricting reform work along with serious efforts to enact campaign finance reform laws. FairVote, founded in 1992, has worked relentlessly for election reform. It has succeeded in steadily gaining traction for ranked choice voting, which is now in place statewide in Maine and Alaska as well as in a growing number of cities across the country (including New York City).

This very superficial tour of the reform arena is not meant to provide an exhaustive list of democracy-strengthening organizations and activities, but rather to suggest one concrete way in which any of us can contribute to the long-term work of democratic revitalization. In Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy, I have put forward the concept of a “democracy tithe.”  The basic idea is that, alongside the contributions that we already make to worthy candidates or substantive causes, the time is right for citizens (and for organized philanthropy) to attend seriously to the cause of democracy itself.

What we know is that a weakened body politic is much less able to deal with any of those crucial substantive issues than a healthy democratic body would be. So, while continuing to devote time, attention and money to our chosen candidates and causes, we might consider setting aside some standard percentage of our civic contributions for the hard work of restoring democracy. We might at first feel that we are getting less return from a dollar contributed to a reform organization than from the same dollar contributed to a proven or promising candidate or substantive cause. But if the pattern of the Progressive Movement is any guide, the strengthening of any one strand in the fabric of democratic reform is very likely to produce, synergistically, a strengthening of the whole.

What seems inescapable is that no one else is going to save our democracy for us. The “upswing” is in our hands, and each of us is positioned to contribute to it. 

Daniel Kemmis is the author of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy. A former Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives and mayor of Missoula, Montana, Mr. Kemmis is a senior associate at the Kettering Foundation.

1 Robert D. Putnam (with Shaylyn Romney Garret), The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020.

2 Readers seeking an overview of the Progressive movement will find an accessible and informative source  in Walter Nugent’s Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

3 Maureen A. Flanagan, America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms 1890s – 1920s New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), vii.

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