What Democracy’s History Tells Us About Its FutureHistorians in the News
tags: political history, democracy, capitalism, populism, business history
Rebecca Henderson: I think of the Progressive Era — the 1890s to 1920s — as one of the high points of American history, and one of my goals in advocating for strengthening democracy is the belief that a stronger democracy would be much more likely to respond to the kinds of pressure for progressive reform that we are currently experiencing.
My question to you is this: “What can we learn from the rise of the Progressives that might be relevant to our own time? If I were a progressive businessperson interested in advancing this agenda, with whom should I be partnering? What should I be thinking?”
Jill Lepore: Progressivism, in the Progressive Era, was bipartisan. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican, before he founded his own party, and Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, but their vision of progressive reform was nearly identical. As Wilson put it, “When I sit down and compare my views with those of a Progressive Republican I can’t see what the difference is.” When you read Roosevelt saying things like, “The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being,” or when you watch what he did, busting the trusts, you can see why Wilson said that.
This reform movement — breaking up trusts and regulating railroads — worked because it didn’t pit the parties against one another. Sure, the giant corporations didn’t like it. But pretty much everyone else agreed that it was necessary.
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