Review Essay: Illiberalism Unbound: America’s Progressive Legacy

perspectives_on-politicsIlliberalism Unbound: America’s Progressive Legacy

by Desmond King, University of Oxford

Is there any meaningful way in which leaders of the Progressive Era can be labelled ‘progressive’? Their racism and illiberalism are overpowering, and for scholars of this period, reek like chloroform. The notionally radical economist John Commons dismissed African Americans as “indolent and fickle.” The august American Economics Association published and promoted John Hoffman’s vile diatribe entitled Race Traits of the American Negro adumbrating on African Americans’ “utter worthlessness.” The leading eugenicists such as Charles Davenport and Madison Grant advocated the energetic exercise of illiberal state coercion to cleanse America by ruthlessly sterilizing, segregating, deporting, and preventing marriage amongst the unfit and inferior, while Irving Fisher’s tract National Vitality demanded curbing the reckless humanitarianism which misguidedly permitted the “survival of the unfit and their perpetuation in the next generation.” And it goes on, with crude dismissals of fin de siècle immigrants—a familiar trope in the progressive gallery of the undesirable and inferior. Eugenicists drove exclusionary immigration reform and the surge in Americanization of those who made it into the country past the restrictions (King 2000).

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 / September 2016, pp. 784-787