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The Birth of Direct Democracy: What Progressivism Did to the States

Abstract

The Progressives’ impatience with the Constitution, their antipathy for checks on government, and their longing to delegate power to administrative experts have had a lasting impact on American politics as Progressivism has gradually been carried forward in successive liberal waves throughout the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Yet Progressivism, for all of its impact on national government, had much more immediate and radical effects on state and local government. In many states and localities, Progressives were able to push through sweeping structural changes, many of which pertain to the common ways in which most Americans interact with government and have become such a familiar part of Americans’ political participation that their departure from our constitutional principles is hardly noticed.

It has been well documented, both in Heritage Foundation studies and in the scholarly literature of the past several years, that the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century had profound effects on American national government.[1] The Progressives’ impatience with the Constitution, their antipathy for checks on government, and their longing to delegate power to administrative experts all have had a lasting impact on today’s politics, as Progressivism has gradually been carried forward in successive liberal waves throughout the 20th and now 21st centuries.

The original Progressives did not provide a detailed road map for the development of 20th-century liberalism as much as they laid the intellectual foundation for the concrete advances to be made by those who would follow them. As Charles Kesler has demonstrated in his recent book I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of American Liberalism, the governing agenda of the Obama Administration was made possible by ground that had been prepared through the liberal advances of the Great Society, the New Deal, and some victories of the original Progressives themselves.[2]

Yet Progressivism, for all of its impact on national government, had much more immediate and radical effects on state and local government. Indeed, while Progressive Presidents, especially Woodrow Wilson, oversaw significant policy achievements—the national income tax, the Federal Reserve Act, and the Federal Trade Commission Act to name just a few—the Progressives were unable to achieve much formal structural change in American government itself beyond the direct election of Senators in the Seventeenth Amendment, as significant as that was.

In many states and localities, however, Progressives were able to push through sweeping structural changes. Many of these changes pertain to the common ways in which most Americans interact with government and have become such a familiar part of Americans’ political participation that their departure from our constitutional principles is hardly noticed.

This essay will address itself to these changes by examining what Progressivism did to state and local government: what happened in those states and municipalities where Progressivism effected the most profound changes in government and what the consequences of these developments have been for republican liberty. For constitutional conservatives, the fact that some Progressive mechanisms have been used to achieve conservative policy ends makes a principled examination of these mechanisms all the more necessary.

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