Progressivism was a diverse reform movement that emerged in the 1890s and early 1900s and would profoundly influence the next century of American political thought. Whereas conservatives believed that restricting the size and power of the government was the key to liberty, the Progressives believed that certain government regulations could promote efficiency and social justice. Although their critics accused them of starting down a path that would lead to Socialism, Progressives believed they were charting a middle course between complete government control over industry and the laissez-faire practices of the past.
Progressives regarded private property as sacred, but they also believed that some measure of government intervention was necessary to prevent monopolies and protect the vulnerable. They also had a tendency to view the issues they supported in moral and/or religious terms. In some instances, they carried their faith in a particular reform to the point of believing it might be a panacea that would cure most of society’s ills. At their best, they selflessly dedicated their lives to causes that provided little or no tangible benefit for themselves or members of their social class. At their worst, they looked down upon those in need of charity and failed to consider the perspectives of the working class and impoverished masses for whom they claimed to speak.
Many business leaders appreciated the Progressive Movement’s opposition to radical doctrines, especially when compared to other reform philosophies and the political upheaval of other industrial nations. These conservatives also preferred mild government regulation and stability that the Progressives promoted, if it could prevent the social unrest and radicalism that had occurred during the Populist revolt of the 1890s. However, business leaders still feared that some Progressive reforms might lead toward the creation of powerful government entities that might someday challenge their ability to act with relative impunity. Furthermore, social conservatives feared that these reformers might create a government that would be more progressive in enforcing economic, racial, and gender equality.