Bradley C. S. Watson’s new book Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea points scholars in new and productive directions regarding the political thought of the Progressive Era. Watson writes with vigor and verve, making the book of great appeal to anyone trying to take the true measure of the legacy of Progressive political thought in American history.
Much ink has been spilled over whether the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a pivot point in the development of American political life. It is a debate on multiple levels. On one, it is over whether the federal government’s new undertakings were really major interventions in the economy and society that cleared the path for the New Deal. Historians and political scientists have argued over whether the new regulatory agencies, laws, and political institutions of the period transformed American government. On another level, scholars have examined the philosophical ideas of the period and disputed the degree to which they challenged prior political thought in America. On yet another level, there is a normative aspect, with scholars either praising or blaming the results of the Progressive Era.
Bradley C. S. Watson’s ambitious and rich new book, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea, is an intervention into the debate on the level of ideas. Watson, a political theorist at Saint Vincent College, examines the historical scholarship regarding the political thought of the Progressive Era. He claims that Progressive thought represented a “radical” challenge to the Constitution and the Founders’ views, and that historians have downplayed and obscured the challenge due to their sympathies with Progressive ideas. Watson seeks to set the record straight. In doing so, he advances a hard-hitting critique of the American historical profession.
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