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The Legacy of Progressivism

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There is some histographical debate concerning the legacy of the California progressives. More pessimistic historians are inclined to believe that subsequent conservative administrations wiped out most progressive gains. Corporate domination of state politics, banished under the reign of Johnson, returned. During the 1930s and 1940s, corporate lobbyist Arthur Samish dominated state politics, at one point publicly posing with a ventriloquist's dummy to gleefully demonstrate that he was the puppet master who manipulated the hapless legislature. Governor Earl Warren admitted “On matters that effect his clients, Artie unquestionably has more power than the governor.” 1 Although Sammish was eventually imprisoned in 1953 for tax evasion, Thomas Mowry, leading scholar of the progressive movement in the 1950s, acknowledged that the Southern Pacific and other corporate interests still dominated the state thirty years after Hiram Johnson left for Washington. 2

However, Mowry noted with optimism for the future, if corporations dominated state politics it was because the people were too apathetic to alter the situation, not because they were helpless to do so. He believed direct democracy to be the progressive's greatest legacy: “the people, if they are concerned enough, can claim their own by the effective use of the primary, the initiative, the referendum, the recall, and the free and honest ballot. Corporation influence, the power of the press, public opinion polls, and all the paraphernalia to the contrary, the people still rule in the United States and in California.” 3 On this, even Art Samish agreed, telling a legislative committee investigating his practices that “The people must take more interest in the men they elect.” 4

In addition, the progressives installed a framework for activist government that remains with California to this day. The Public Utilities Commission, State Board of Control and Industrial Welfare Commission, all progressive creations, remain active commissions. The progressive system of worker's compensation has endured and been expanded into a statewide network of worker's insurance.

Criticisms continue to be raised about the sacred direct democracy measures of the progressives. The initiative amendment requires that 8% of the voters in the last gubernatorial election sign the petition to place the measure on the ballot. In 1911, when roughly 400,000 people voted for governor, collecting that number of signatures was a relatively easy task that could be accomplished by dedicated citizens' advocacy groups. However, as California's population has skyrocketed in the 20th Century, gathering the requisite 8% has become a monumental task, one that frequently only corporate special interests can afford. Some critics of the initiative have further argued that direct legislation hurts minorities, noting a string of initiatives generally disadvantageous to California minority groups, such as Proposition 187 (1994) barring benefits to illegal immigrants, Proposition 219 (2000) banning affirmative action in the University of California system, Proposition 211 (2000) which ended bilingual education, and Proposition 22 (2001) which effectively ended the possibility of homosexual marriages in California. Californians however in general remain direct democracy enthusiasts.

If anything, the progressives gave California eight years of good government, no minor feat considering the administrations of the past. Corruption in California politics would never return to pre-progressive levels of bribery, embezzlement and general felony that characterized pre-progressive machine politics in the state.6 Likewise, the progressives raised public consciousness about corporate domination to a level that corporations in California (and the nation at large) could never operate with the prior degree of blatant directness. Never again would there be a corporate body as powerful as the Southern Pacific's political bureau.

Historian Jackson K. Putnam, writing in 1992, has identified four major progressive ripples upon the lake of California politics. Namely, legacies of:

  1. Pragmatism
  2. Activism
  3. Nonpartisanship
  4. Moderation 7

Putnam notes that after the progressives, lawmakers increasingly sought pragmatic solutions to California's various problems, rather than relying as they had before on the dogmatic planks in their party platforms.(Ibid.) Likewise, political parties became less important, machine politics were largely purged, and the skill and beliefs of individual candidates overshadowed partisan ideologies. California retains this non-partisan streak, in 1998 attempting to institute an Open Primary (allowing voters to vote for candidates from either political party, irregardless of their party affiliation), only to be defeated by the legal actions of the political parties.

The Republican Party itself managed to retain a strong progressive flavor despite the attempt of conservative Republicans to reassert their dominance. The Republican administrations of Frank Merriam (1934-1939) and Earl Warren (1943-1953) exemplified the “neoprogressive” Republican. 8 Merriam, after beating socialist Upton Sinclair, went on to incorporate many activist programs into the state, paving the way for the arrival of Federal New Deal programs. Merriam himself was a staunch conservative, but his administration could not escape the progressives' activist trend or refuse the offer of federal New Deal funds. Earl Warren dramatically increased the size of state government, using wartime budget surpluses, funding higher education, state hospitals and a revamped mental health system.9 In the 60s, the Republicans became increasingly conservative, but the Democrats, heirs of the New Deal increasingly molded themselves in the Progressive image. In particular, Governor Pat Brown's (1959-1967) efforts to create the California Water Project was in keeping with the progressive goal of state-run utilities but on a scale the progressives themselves could have hardly imagined.10

Finally, the activist policies of the progressives, who believed that the actions of government could make a difference in people's everyday lives, remained. It soon merged with New Deal liberalism, creating the permanent bureaucratic structures of an expanded government. The slew of commissions that the progressives were so fond of creating to deal with problems have not been diminished, rather their numbers have increased dramatically, almost all of them devoted in some way or another to the progressive goal of corporate regulation.

In the progressive movement lie the roots of a strong liberal tradition in California, a liberalism that would no doubt horrify some of the rather conservative progressives. At the same time, the hopes of some leftist progressives, such as John Hayes and Myer Lissner, both of whom hope progressivism would be the first step on the path of evolutionary socialism, seem to have been disappointed. However, the expanded activist government initiated by the progressives was a prerequisite for the welfare state, despite the fact that progressives concerned themselves primarily with moral and political reform and not with the economic issues that would define liberalism during and after the New Deal.

Many progressive policy goals though have come to naught. Temperance, after a disastrous 14-year experiment, was ended in 1933, with California voters overwhelmingly approving the 21st amendment to end prohibition. Many progressive vice laws were overturned, such as the prohibition on track-side gambling; although the ban on other types of gambling has been maintained even in the face of a casino boom in Reno and Las Vegas. The Calvinist morality of the progressives certainly failed to hold its ground. San Francisco remains as free and loose as it was at the turn of the century, and Los Angeles, once a bastion of midwestern Puritanism has been infused with the more permissive attitudes of Hollywood. The Alien Land Act, undoubtedly the most shameful action of the progressives, was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1952.

While the reforms of 1911 were sudden and dramatic, the impact of the California progressives was long-term and subtle. In addition to altering the already much tampered with California constitution, they succeeded in altering the political mind set of the state. They succeeding in transforming the way politics is conducted in California, reducing the cliquish nature of political parties, encouraging governmental activism and reinforcing the notion that the government exists for the benefit of the governed.

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