Summary: Led by Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party made the 1912 campaign a passionate contest for the soul of the American people. Promoting an ambitious program of economic, social, and political reform—”New Nationalism”—that posed profound challenges to constitutional government, TR and his Progressive supporters provoked an extraordinary debate about the future of the country. Milkis revisits this emotionally charged contest to show how a party seemingly consumed by its leader’s ambition dominated the election and left an enduring legacy that set in motion the rise of mass democracy and the expansion of national administrative power.
Milkis depicts the Progressive Party as a collective enterprise of activists, spearheaded by TR, who pursued a program of reform dedicated to direct democracy and social justice and a balance between rights and civic duty. These reformers hoped to create a new concept of citizenship that would fulfill the lofty aspirations of “we the people” in a quest for a “more perfect union”—a quest hampered by fierce infighting over civil rights and antitrust policy.
Milkis shows that the Progressive campaign aroused not just an important debate over reforms but also a battle for the very meaning of Progressivism. He describes how Roosevelt gave focus to the party with his dedication to “pure democracy”—even shoehorning judicial recall into his professed “true conservative” stance. Although this pledge to make the American people “masters of their Constitution” provoked considerable controversy, Milkis contends that the Progressives were not all that far removed from the more nationally minded of the Founders.
As Milkis reveals, the party’s faith in a more plebiscitary form of democracy would ultimately rob it of the very organization it needed in order to survive after Roosevelt. Yet the Progressive Party’s program of social reform and “direct democracy” has reverberated through American politics—especially in 2008, with Barack Obama appealing to similar instincts. By probing the deep historical roots of contemporary developments in American politics, his book shows that Progressivism continues to shape American politics a century later.
Sidney Milkis is the White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics and Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the American presidency, political parties and elections, social movements and American political development. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate students, he regularly gives public lectures on American politics and participates in programs for international scholars and high school teachers that probe the deep historical roots of contemporary developments in the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party Campaign, and the Transformation of American Democracy (Kansas University Press, 2009) is his latest book.