Sunday, December 13, 2015

The racist roots of the progressive movement

Progressive and Racist. Woodrow Wilson Wasn't Alone. - Bloomberg View - Virginia Postrel:

December 8, 2015 - "Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era, by Thomas C. Leonard, reveals the largely forgotten intellectual origins of many current controversies, including disputes over tightening voter identification laws, raising the minimum wage and restricting immigration....

"Early 20th-century progressives transformed American institutions, and the movement’s premises continue to inform thinking and policy across the political spectrum. 'It was the progressives who fashioned the new sciences of society, founded the modern American university, invented the think tank, and created the American administrative state, institutions still defined by the progressive values that formed and instructed them,' writes Leonard, a research scholar at Princeton’s Council of the Humanities.

"The progressives believed, first and foremost, in the importance of science and scientific experts in guiding the economy, government, and society. Against the selfishness, disorder, corruption, ignorance, conflict and wastefulness of free markets or mass democracy, they advanced the ideal of disinterested, public-spirited social control by well-educated elites. The progressives were technocrats who, Leonard observes, 'agreed that expert public administrators do not merely serve the common good, they also identify the common good.' Schools of public administration, including the one that since 1948 has borne Woodrow Wilson’s name, still enshrine that conviction....

"In the early 20th century, the progressive definition of the common good was thoroughly infused with scientific racism.... Leonard argues [that] eugenics and scientific racism fit particularly well with progressive thought: 'Eugenics was anti-individualistic; it promised efficiency; it required expertise, and it was founded on the authority of science.' Equally important, 'biological ideas,' Leonard writes, gave progressive reformers 'a conceptual scheme capable of accommodating the great contradiction at the heart of Progressive Era reform -- its view of the poor as victims deserving state uplift and as threats requiring state restraint.' They could feel sorry for impoverished Americans while trying to restrict their influence and limit their numbers.

"Take political participation. Nowadays, people argue about whether stricter voter identification laws are good-government protections against fraud or discriminatory attempts to deter minority and low-income voters. A century ago, leading progressives happily embraced both goals. 'Fewer voters among the lower classes was not a cost, it was a benefit of reform,' Leonard writes. After progressive reforms, including Jim Crow restrictions sold in part as anti-corruption measures, voter participation plummeted. In New York State, turnout dropped from 88 percent in 1900 to 55 percent in 1920, while national turnout fell from 80 percent in 1896 to 50 percent in 1924.

"Advocates similarly didn’t deny that imposing a minimum wage might throw some people out of work. That wasn’t a bug; it was a feature -- a way to deter undesirable workers and keep them out of the marketplace and ideally out of the country. Progressives feared that, faced with competition from blacks, Jews, Chinese, or other immigrants, native-stock workingmen would try to keep up living standards by having fewer kids and sending their wives to work. Voil√†: 'race suicide.' Better to let a minimum wage identify inferior workers, who might be shunted into institutions and sterilized, thereby improving the breed in future generations....

"Although they generally assumed black inferiority, progressives outside the South didn’t worry much about the 'Negro question.' They were instead obsessed with the racial, economic, and social threats posed by immigrants.... So restricting immigration was as central to the progressive agenda as regulating railroads. Indeed, in his five-volume History of the American People, Wilson lumped together in one long paragraph the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act as 'the first fruits of radical economic changes and the rapid developments of trade, industry, and transportation' -- equal harbingers of the modern administrative state. With a literacy test and ban on most other Asian immigrants enacted in 1917 and national quotas established in 1924, the progressives bequeathed to America the concept of illegal immigration."

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  1. The trouble with these ideas is that you just have to take Leonard’s word about people’s motives being what he says they are.

  2. Sorry, just saw this comment. That's not really true. Of course, there's just a summary here, but the book itself should be full of cited evidence (letters, conversations, diary entries) for what he's saying. It wasn't as if people had to hide racist and anti-immigrant beliefs in those days.