“Illiberal Reformers” is a book attacking the Progressive Era in American history, usually associated with the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. The author is a libertarian who supports unrestricted mass immigration, sweatshop wages and limited government. He makes constant attempts to front as a “progressive” himself by defending immigrants, Jews and Blacks, while attacking the historical Progressives. I assume such a maneuver is necessary in today's political climate at American colleges (which are often dominated by “liberals”).
The author argues that most Progressives were racists and supported eugenics, opposed immigration (except from Western Europe), called for continued segregation of Blacks, and wanted to exclude women from the workforce. Even apart from this, the Progressives were often authoritarian, in effect calling for a kind of top-down social engineering through “the administrative state”. Woodrow Wilson, the future president, openly questioned the division of powers enshrined in the U.S. constitution. It was also common to explicitly attack individualism and individual rights, instead looking at society as an organism, with the citizens in effect being cells within a greater whole. The author claims that many future Progressives and reformers were educated in Germany by the “socialists of the lectern”, the Kathedersozialisten much maligned by Marx and Engels. There was also a connection to the social gospel preaching, the two movements being interpenetrated. This evangelical background also gave the Progressive movement its strong missionary zeal. More ironically, the author attacks the Progressive scholars for simultaneously being political activists – this is presumably an attack on his leftist peers today.
While the authoritarian streak in social engineering is well known (in Sweden, the Social Democrats supported the Institute for Racial Biology and sterilization of the feeble-minded), I admit I had no idea it went so far. It seems that the “illiberal” aspect of the Progressive politics wasn't an unfortunate aberration or prejudice, but a central point of the entire enterprise. Excluding Blacks, most immigrants, the unemployable, the mentally handicapped and (in some versions) women were integral to the Progressive agenda. The agenda was to uplift or protect the mostly Anglo working classes, and through this route avoid “race suicide”. Black and women activists naturally demanded inclusion of their groups, while accepting the general framework. Thus, Black leader W E B Dubois attacked the lesser gifted, while feminist leader (and anti-abortionist) Margaret Sanger supported eugenics. Sometimes, Progressive reform proposals were extremely ingenious, such as the demand for a minimum wage. The Progressives conceded that a federal minimum wage would increase unemployment, but said that this was the *point* of such proposals! They were tailored to exclude unskilled workers from the workforce, most of such workers presumably being Black or recent immigrants. Another ingenious proposal was to portray the minimum wage as a “tariff on foreign labor”, thereby directly connecting agitation for such a wage with opposition to open borders.
There are two problems with “Illiberal Reformers”. First, the reforms advocated by the Progressives could be extended to cover Blacks and women, which they indeed were during the super-progressive New Deal of the 1930's and the war economy of the 1940's (in the case of Blacks, “Northern” Blacks mostly). The rhetorical attempt to smear all “liberals” with the tar of racism therefore fails. Second, the author pretends as if all of the illiberal proposals were simply wrong. That's entertaining, coming from a libertarian. Of course, it's well known that immigrants from outside the Anglo-sphere habitually vote for the Libertarian Party…not!
That being said, still a fine study. Deserves five stars.