Thomas Leonard, a research scholar at the The Council of the Humanities and a lecturer in economics, led a discussion on his new book on illiberalism during the Progressive Era, eugenics, and the presidential election. The discussion was held in conjunction with Christine Rosen, senior editor at The New Atlantis, and William Schambra, senior fellow at Hudson Institute.
Leonard began by setting the historical stage, noting that the progressives permanently altered the course of American economic and public life. From the late 19th century through World War I, there was a vigorous national debate on where and how the government should respond to economic crises, according to Leonard, and the progressives were able to institutionalize their views, even on race and heredity.
He moved on to discuss why he characterizes the progressives as “illiberal reformers” in his book. In contrast to liberals in the late 19th Century, who were “committed to individual freedom... free soil, free labor, free trade,” progressives were "close-minded, intolerant, and bigoted," Leonard said.
“Progressives called this laissez-faire, said it was unjust, and led a crusade to dismantle it,” he said, adding that they were dismissive of individual liberty in the process.
The progressives promoted racial science and eugenics, he said. Woodrow Wilson himself advocated the reestablishment of Jim Crow and segregation.
“They portrayed themselves as unbiased technocratic elite that served the public,” Leonard explained, “but they were public moralists. They preached... a social gospel.”
Leonard noted that we find some of the progressives’ ideas repugnant, but not all were. Even the bad ideas are significant because they were most likely considered good ideas at one point.
"We will look barbarous in our views 100 years from now, I promise. Progressives thought they had it right, and they thought they were the best and the brightest.”
The progressives made the world we live in, he said, not metaphorically, but literally. They turned economics and other social sciences into academic institutions, invented think tanks, and created new professions such as muckrakers, social workers, and management consultants.
“Americans can’t understand ourselves and our place in the world without understanding its authors,” he said.
These authors were mostly white, middle class, and Protestant, and wanted to redeem America and the world through economic and social reform.
“There was a moral and intellectual dissatisfaction of the suffering of others,” Leonard said, but progressives “romanticized a brotherhood they would never consider joining.”
He went on to explain what the progressives looked like in practice.
“Progressives got their economics from Germany,” he said, “and that was historicism. The way the world works is specific to time and place.”
Back in the United States, progressives convinced Americans that free markets needed to be regulated by the visible hand of an activist state.
Progressives believed in scientific management, believing they could make humans more efficient, but they possessed more of a technocratic attitude on how to achieve their goals than a coherent agenda.
“They believed the chief task of government was to settle unruly economic life,” he said, “They wanted to uplift immigrants, women, and African-Americans.”
But they were also disciples of eugenics, racial science, and evolutionary science, he said, describing how the progressives revived the notion of “race suicide.”
Progressives proposed the minimum wage in response to their eugenic beliefs, according to Leonard. “Inferior races” like the Chinese, the progressives thought, could live inexpensively and would also take lower-paying jobs. This would keep white men out of work, who in turn would have fewer children. Without a minimum wage that allowed the deserving superiors to make money, the progressives reasoned, the inferior groups would outbreed them.
Leonard went on to describe the progressives’ racism towards blacks, citing Wilson’s resegregating the federal government once in office. He closed his talk by discussing the progressives’ deep ambivalence about the poor.
“The deserving poor were seen as victims,” he said, “but poor immigrants, blacks, and women were not seen as victims, but as threats. In the name of progress, they uplifted and excluded.”
Rosen took the podium to respond.
“His book has nuance,” she said, “it’s not so simple.”
She went on to highlight themes she found compelling in his book. First, she noted that Americans love the sheen of science.
“The road to hell is paved by good policy intentions. The history of progressivism is the history of unintended consequences," she noted.
Another compelling motif, she said, was how public policy becomes a vehicle for morality.
“If you have science on your side and the benefit of all in mind, of course you’ll do some things that are illiberal,” she said.
Rosen noted that the computer engineers in the Silicon Valley are the progressives’ modern-day counterparts.
“We aren’t confronting anything new when we confront the idea of solving the world’s problems,” she said.
She ended her remarks by commenting that we still have a deficit in our civic education.
“You don’t learn about the history of eugenics and forcible sterilization,” she said, noting that the US had forcible sterilization before Germany did and that some states continue to have these laws.
“We haven’t reckoned with the history [Leonard] lays out in his book,” she said.
Next, Schambra took the podium, announcing he intended to be fully presentist in his discussion.
"Leonard undersells his own book as a way for understanding this past election,” he said.
“The world consists of two classes — the educated and the ignorant — and it is essential for progress that the former should be allowed to dominate the latter," said Schambra, quoting progressivist Irving Fisher.
Schambra then asked if Fisher’s distinction has vanished in modern thought? No, he said.
“Illiberal educational elitism has become more pervasive,” he said.
Think tanks formulate, advocate, and implement public policy that enforces the divide, according to Schambra.
“Progressives are ever more convinced of their monopoly on science, more disdainful and contemptuous of the untutored masses,” he said.
He went on to discuss how the election brought this distinction to light.
“Educated supporters couldn’t understand how Trump won,” he said, “so they fell back upon Fisher’s dichotomy.”
Schambra said he could identify eugenic echoes in the elite contempt, pointing to liberals who tried to find “mental deficiencies” to explain Trump supporters.
Leonard “provides an easy out for modern progressives by focusing on women, blacks, and immigrants,” Schambra said, instead of “white trash.”
Leonard took the podium to respond, noting that his book, a “cautionary tale of intellectual arrogance,” as a review described it, is cautionary in both directions.
“The irony of this election is it reminds us of the influence of white protestants in the small town,” he said, “This time in a different garb.”
Leonard noted that the discourse of inferiority includes both race and class.
“It’s very revealing that they’re all white people,” he said, referring to Trump supporters.
Leonard closed by addressing “a deep tension in our history” between civic nationalism, which can be inclusive, and racial nationalism, which is necessarily exclusive.
The panel, entitled “Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era,” took place on Dec. 7, 2016 in Lewis Library, room 120. The event was sponsored by the James Madison Program as part of America’s Founding and Future lecture series.