By John Stang
Tiffany Jones Miller, a historian at the University Dallas, writes a piece for William F. Buckley’s old publication of conservative thought that tries to say how Progressivism was a racist belief system:
But this was no coincidence. “In the South,” Woodward observes, “the typical progressive reformer rode to power . . . on a disfranchising or white-supremacy movement.” The very same reformers who championed minimum wages, maximum hours, social insurance, and other labor reforms not only generally opposed extending the suffrage to blacks, but also promoted a “policy of segregation” for blacks and various “degenerates,” including the feeble-minded, epileptics, and “unemployables.” And they did so not in spite of the principles animating their economic reforms, but precisely because of them. The progressives’ support for disfranchisement and segregation, in other words, was but one practical expression of their philosophically inspired drive to revolutionize the moral basis of American government — to redefine the very meaning of human freedom and the rights to which individuals are, as a consequence, entitled.
She outlines examples:
The progressive redefinition of freedom also inspired a humanitarian but frankly “colonial” foreign policy. Leading progressive politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Beveridge, and Henry Cabot Lodge, promoted such a policy in the wake of the Spanish–American War. In a speech delivered in the Senate in 1900, for example, Beveridge — the keynote speaker at the Progressive-party convention of 1912 — argued that American withdrawal from the Philippines would amount to an abdication of “our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” America was obliged to promote the development of the Filipinos, Beveridge argued, and its obligation to do so was in no way dependent upon their consent: “Self-government is a method of liberty — the highest, simplest, best — but it is acquired only after centuries of study and struggle and experiment and instruction and all the elements of the progress of man. Self-government is no base and common thing to be bestowed on the merely audacious. It is the degree which crowns the graduate of liberty, not the name of liberty’s infant class, who have not yet mastered the alphabet of freedom. Savage blood, Oriental blood, Malay blood, Spanish example — are these the elements of self-government?”
The progressives’ treatment of blacks domestically mirrors their treatment of the Filipinos. On the one hand, the progressives widely regarded the 15th Amendment — which barred the federal and state governments from denying the right to vote on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” — as an egregious error. Progressive economist John R. Commons, Ely’s student and colleague who personally trained many leading New Deal figures, complained that, following the Civil War, the “Negro” race, “after many thousand years of savagery and two centuries of slavery, was suddenly let loose into the liberty of citizenship and the electoral suffrage. The world never before had seen such a triumph of dogmatism and partisanship. It was dogmatism, because a theory of abstract equality and inalienable rights of man took the place of education and the slow evolution of moral character.” It is foolish, Commons insists, to confer rights upon men as men: “The suffrage must be earned, not merely conferred.” In his view the legal right to vote should not be extended to blacks until they acquired sufficient “intelligence, self-control, and capacity for cooperation,” which fitness could best be determined by “an honest educational test” — that is, a literacy test.
She’s trying to say that Progressivism was founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment and that government is what drives policy because technocrats have the ability to scientifically engineer society. Miller’s arguing that this “scientific” approach to government led to explicit racism, and she’s correct. There is no doubt that Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were racists, but so were most people during that time period. At a time when imperial expansion was occuring and the white race was considered superior, it was not controversial to believe in this notion of “better races.” Democrats and Republicans also had different political constituencies to play to, some that were more racist than others. It’s also one reason eugenics could thrive in the early 20th Century.
Since then, these arguments have been set aside and for the only the people on the fringe to believe. This does not discount all Progressive ideas as bad ones, just like some in the Republican Party during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln included, did not want to end slavery right away and sought practical compromise on the issue. The Founding Fathers were also not for African American equality or the ending of slavery, unless you are Michele Bachmann, since many of them owned slaves themselves. Racism is part of American history, no matter what political party you analyze. People can’t be separated from the beliefs of their time periods, as ugly or backward as that belief might seem in the present. History is about learning the lessons from those erroneous ideas and moving forward for a brighter tomorrow.