Walter Lippmann and the Roots of 20th Century Progressivism
Early 20th century journalist Walter Lippman exemplified the attempt to combine capitalism with “the social question” in opposition to both socialism and laissez‐faire.
In 1970, historian Peter Filene wrote “An Obituary for ‘The Progressive Movement’” for The American Quarterly. He believed that historians had debated to death the contours of American progressivism, but he went a step further, arguing that a cohesive progressive “movement” had never existed in the first place. It was an era, perhaps, but not a movement. Nonetheless, and despite Filene’s post‐mortem, it is undeniable that progressivism, both as a historical era of study and as a present‐day political adjective, has not died. Even though the Progressive Era ended around 1920, we continue to have calls for “progressive” reform from self‐professed progressive politicians, a full century after the era’s close.
One is sometimes left with the impression that no proposed legislation passes muster with the Left if it’s not framed as “progressive.” As recently as last year, The New York Times has published pieces about the progressive policies of the Democratic Party, including Medicare‐for‐all, student loan debt forgiveness, and a Green New Deal. There was speculation that the far‐left Bernie Sanders variety of progressivism is the future of the party, though Joe Biden’s presidential victory perhaps indicates otherwise. Nonetheless, “progressive” continues to be a buzzword in American politics.
Though the progressivism of the early twentieth century was multifaceted, its basic agenda was reform: the Social Gospel, the settlement house movement, the push for Prohibition, municipal reform, and muckraking journalism. That reformist spirit is perhaps most evident in the general push for expanded state powers to address what was called the “social question.” The idea of a “social question” crops up repeatedly in late Gilded Age and Progressive Era literature, and, despite lacking a clear definition, it referred broadly to the rapid changes wrought by industrial capitalism. The “question” was how to solve what seemed like unprecedented disparities in wealth, differences which, according to reformers, affected not only the economy but also society at large as well as self‐identity. Dorothy Ross, in her noted study on The Origins of Social Science, essentially describes the social question as “the fruits of capitalist inequality – class conflict, labor organization, and industrial violence.”
Walter Lippmann: The Budding Progressive
One such progressive was the well‐known journalist Walter Lippmann (1889–1974), once a wide‐eyed idealist reminiscent of today’s progressive politicians and activists. In fact, knowingly or not, today’s self‐proclaimed progressives, such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez, evince sentiments shared by a young Lippmann. We might better understand both the roots and deeper implications of today’s calls for progressive reform by revisiting an original progressive such as Lippmann.
Born in 1889, Lippmann was the perfect candidate for a progressive transitional figure, bridging the gap between Victorian antecedents like William James (a sometimes mentor of his) and the post‐war relativists that would shatter the American cultural consensus after 1920. Indeed, as Lippmann would write in Drift and Mastery (1914), for his generation older truths and conventions had been “blasted,” including “the sanctity of property, the patriarchal family, hereditary caste, the dogma of sin, [and] obedience to authority.” Lippmann believed that for progressives there was no remaining “rock of ages.” And without such a foundation, the possibilities for complete social transformation seemed limitless.
Lippmann attended Harvard where, besides James, he was most influenced by George Santayana and the visiting Fabian socialist, Graham Wallas. Despite moving in socialist and pragmatist circles, it would be incorrect to wholly classify Lippmann as either, though both schools of thought influenced his conception of liberalism. Though it had (and has) many meanings, we might simply call Lippmann a progressive, a big tent ideology that the historian James Kloppenberg defines in Uncertain Victory as those who “discarded the idea of possessive individualism, broadened their political allegiance to include the working class along with the bourgeoisie, and embraced the ideals of equality and community to supplement the customary liberal commitment to individual freedom.”
This new school of thought, according to Kloppenberg, “traveled uneasily along the border of socialism.” Though Kloppenberg sees these thinkers—who in addition to Lippmann included L. T. Hobhouse, Max Weber, Herbert Croly, and John Dewey—as the successors to turn‐of‐the‐century social democrats (Richard Ely, Walter Rauschenbusch, et al.), he overstates the distinction. These men and women lived around the same time and, whether “uneasily” or not, they all traversed the borders of collectivism. As Lippmann himself said, “The real problem of collectivism is that difficulty of combining popular control with administrative power.”
Additionally, nearly all social democrats and progressives conceived of a “new morality” where the whole was bigger than the parts, and where the state would be the new leveling institution, curbing the excesses of the atomism induced by industrial capitalism. This was especially embodied in something like Jane Addams’s notion of “social ethics.” These progressives appealed to, in the words of Lippman, the “larger demands of civilized life.” According to Kloppenberg, the holy grail of progressive reform was the graduated income tax, “which represented the ability to pay as the legitimate measure of the individual’s responsibility to the common good….” Ironically, then, where there once was an ostensible distinction between social democrats and progressives, today’s progressives often call themselves democratic socialists.
After Harvard, Lippmann cut his teeth as an assistant to the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. A few years later in 1914, he, along with Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl, founded the progressive organ The New Republic, coinciding with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, a man who Lippmann thought initially showed great progressive promise. It was in this same year that Lippmann would publish a book that is representative of what Richard Hofstadter called the progressive mood: Drift and Mastery. Although it is a follow‐up to Lippmann’s first major work, A Preface to Politics (1913), historian William Leichtenburg notes that Drift and Mastery is more mature than Lippmann’s earlier writing and bears the mark of his turn to science as the ultimate test of programmatic feasibility. Though only in his mid‐twenties when the book was published, Lippmann had already become disillusioned both with the gradualism of “gas and water socialism” and with the more ambitious Marxist socialism whose utopianism failed to take into account a real understanding of human nature, an ironic critique considering the propositions put forth in Drift and Mastery.
To Lippmann’s dismay, President Wilson was proving to be the product of a past age, trying to shape the world for “the man on the make,” as Lippmann referred to the rising industrial class. While conservatives and libertarians often rank Wilson as among the worst of the progressive presidents, Lippmann’s primary critique was that Wilson wasn’t going far enough with his progressive agenda. Wilson’s “New Freedom” campaign, Lippmann demurred, is only “a freedom for the little profiteer, but no freedom for the nation from the narrowness, the poor incentives ….” As Leuchtenburg writes in the 1961 preface to Drift and Mastery, Lippmann believed that the flaw in the New Freedom was “its failure to recognize that the profit motive was a poor incentive for creating the good society.” Indeed, “profits” continue to be the bête noire of modern progressives. All things considered, we might read Drift and Mastery both as a contemporary criticism of Wilsonian liberalism and more broadly as representative of radical progressivism as a whole.
Lippmann’s saw the “profiteer” as a money‐focused aspirant who clung to old notions of private property and earned profit. Those continuing to defend private property are “pilgrims to an empty shrine.” In Drift and Mastery, then, Lippmann set out to chart a progressive path forward, in what will sound all too familiar to modern readers. Though later critical of the public’s political competency, from the outset in Drift and Mastery Lippmann envisions a more robust democracy: “Democracy,” he says, “is a weapon in the hands of those who have the courage and the skill to wield it….” Even more than voting rights or political influence, Lippmann refers to democracy as a “way of life,” a sentiment he shared with contemporaries like Jane Addams and John Dewey. Lippmann later says that utopian democracies are those “where the citizens vote,” belying his conception of democracy as some metaphysical system of cooperation.
On Democracy and the New Expert Class
Much like today’s progressives, Lippmann couched many of his proposals as embodying true democracy; but this transformation wouldn’t happen without effort. Dismissing tradition, Lippmann writes, “We can no longer treat life as something that has trickled down to us. We have to deal with it deliberately….” Representing most progressives (such as Dewey and Richard Ely), Lippmann believed in the power of the new “specialists”: the educated, scientifically literate experts who would lead the way forward. Recalling his pragmatist influences, he believed that this new democracy could only be arrived at through experiments, especially “experiments conducted by experts in the new science of administration.”
Sounding much like his progressive German contemporaries, the young Lippmann had a near religious faith in the ability of science to lead the way, “for the discipline of science is the only one which gives any assurance that from the same set of facts men will come approximately to the same conclusion.” For example, while debating the ideal size of the twentieth‐century firm, he declared that it would be “whatever efficiency demands.” Efficiency, in this sense, takes on a life of its own, and its facilitators need only to trust the experts at the top. This sentiment abounds today in progressive claims that “the science is settled” on whatever topic is at hand, such as the recent warnings that “the world has 12 years left to avoid disastrous climate change.” The solution? Trust the specialists.
What becomes apparent in Drift and Mastery is that Lippmann had little trust in the wisdom or capability of the common man; hence his progressive agenda would be overseen by the new specialist class, presumably himself included. (Indeed, he eventually served as an advisor to Woodrow Wilson toward the end of the First World War.) “Our time, of course, believes in change,” Lippmann wrote. “The adjective ‘progressive’ is what we like, and the word ‘new.’” Forsaking the “infinitely pathetic” appeal to the past, Lippmann was concerned about the present, not about all of “the thinking done by troubled dead men.”
In this way Lippmann preempted today’s progressives by appealing to the present rather than to America’s fascination with the past‐as‐precedent. But for him, the twentieth century would be different: the government would be “a protector from economic tyranny and [a] dispenser of the prime institutions of democratic life.” This reform agenda, ostensibly carried out by an enlarged state on behalf of a morally minded public, would be the eschatological fulfillment of a progressive millennium.
Lippmann assumed that the unenlightened public would simply follow his and other technocrats’ lead. For example, stockholders—a group he especially disliked for their attempt to earn a profit through the “inscrutable myster[y]” of the stock market—didn’t even “know the difference between puddling and pudding.” This class, as he saw it, was as bad as the old absentee landlords, and “the most incompetent constituency conceivable.” Another group—the scabs who cross the picket line to go to work—were “traitor[s] to the economic foundations of democracy.” And yet another, the general consumer, doesn’t know what’s best for himself and is “almost entirely at the mercy of advertising.” Consumers are a “fickle and superstitious mob, incapable of any real judgement as to what it wants or how it is to get what it thinks it would like,” and they display a “disastrous incompetence.” Lippmann says consumers aren’t even capable of making a fair bargain since they lack the knowledge to calculate cost and trade‐offs; instead, “these things have to be done for him by the experts backed with authority to enforce their decisions.”
Here Lippmann preempts Bernie Sanders who complained in 2015 that consumers “don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.” The use of experts to achieve “fairness” is the watermark of progressivism, both then and now. Indeed, especially in our digital age, today’s progressives are obsessively concerned that the American public is constantly being led astray by social media companies who put “profits over people.” Thus, we see calls for government regulation of Big Tech and for more “fact checking,” the latter of which Lippmann envisioned in Public Opinion (1922).
For Lippmann, the new expert class would look out for the public. They would facilitate sweeping changes such as “the cultural basis of property,” dignified work not performed strictly for profit, and a new incentive and moral structure in general. A tall order, no doubt. But Lippmann trusted that science and the specialists could sufficiently educate the public and control industries to achieve these results.
One thing was certain, according to Lippmann: the “old‐fashioned business man so impervious to new facts,” with his “primitive ambitions,” must be reformed. Lippmann writes, “Modern industry was created by the profiteer, and here it is, the great fact in our lives, blackening our cities, fed with the lives of children, a tyrant over men and women, turning out enormous stocks of produce, good, bad, and horrible.” This was a common motif in the political cartoons of his day, which depicted “Big Business” tycoons sitting on piles of money. According to Lippmann, the problem with industry lay with incentives: “The business man may feel that the scientist content with a modest salary is an improvident ass. But he also feels some sense of inferiority in the scientist’s presence.”
By contrast, for Lippmann the scientist pursues a more noble calling, one that will benefit the public; he has “a dignity which the scramble for profits can never assume.” Indeed, these educated specialists will be part and parcel of the “new morality,” who needn’t concern themselves with the undignified business of dollars and cents. They would “have something more than a desire to accumulate and outshine their neighbors.” Much like progressive thought today—which is paradoxically skeptical of money while also viewing the state as a kind of Santa Claus—Lippmann envisions reaping all of the benefits of industry absent the incentives that actually motivate industrial formation.
The New State
The new state in Lippmann’s vision is the medium by which the specialist class is educated, who then, in turn, operate the governmental apparatus for maximum “efficiency” and for the benefit of all. Indeed, he argues, “When governments are willing to pursue that course”—that is, investing the state with autocratic power like that of the corporate trusts— “they can be just as efficient as private management.” This sentiment perfectly embodies the progressive mood of the twenty‐first century: that if just given more money and power, the state could operate more efficiently than private businesses, and do so without the base desire for profit.
We see this claim today in areas like public schooling and health insurance. Sounding very modern, Lippmann admitted that “politics is becoming the chief method by which the consumer enforces his interests upon the industrial system.” Through the government, he writes, consumers are seeking the best quality at the lowest price. And how would the state become so efficient as to ensure this? It would do this through “the infusion of scientific method, the careful application of administrative technique, the organization and education of the consumer for control, [and] the discipline of labor for an increasing share of management.” These administrative techniques of which he speaks would not only be more efficient but also purer in spirit than the “egotism of some little business.”
In sum, Lippmann writes that his vision entails doing a “great variety of things to industry, invent[ing] new ones to do, and keep on doing them … For some industries you may have to use public ownership … for others the regulating commission.” And beyond this, there is the problem of the indiscriminate consumer who is apparently duped at every turn. Lippmann’s specialists would be responsible for “educating his taste and civilizing his desires.”
In brief, Lippmann’s new state would attempt to ensure what has since been called a social safety net: “To create a minimum standard of life below which no human being can fall is the most elementary duty of the democratic state.” However, he assures readers that he’s no idealist; he has a plan for how to pay for this safety net. The funds will come from what Lippmann calls the “Social Surplus,” which is “made up of all the leaks, the useless payments, the idle demands, the inefficiency, the extortion and parasitism of industrial life.” This Social Surplus is essentially comprised of a graduated income tax, an inheritance tax, and the surplus profits that will come from government ownership of some industries.
Ironically, most of this plan—which was at the time considered by many to be utopian and socialistic—has since come to fruition, championed by contemporary progressives who favor further reform. As Representative Ocasio‐Cortez said, in response to the claim that the government couldn’t fund Medicare‐for‐all, that nobody asks Republicans how we’re going to pay for unlimited war: “Why is it that our pockets are only empty when it comes to education and health care for our kids? Why are our pockets only empty when we talk about 100 percent renewable energy that is going to save this planet and allow our children to thrive?” Indeed she, like Lippmann a century before her, has faith that money is not a problem, and that the only obstacle is scientifically reconfiguring the budget.
And like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Lippmann too had a plan to tax “unearned wealth” and to use that money for “social purposes.” He is quite blunt: “The state may encroach continuously” if done in the name of efficiency. Asking whether or not there are better uses for Andrew Carnegie’s fortune than how Carnegie chose to spend it, Lippmann concludes that if there are better uses, “the government is entirely justified in substituting itself for Mr. Carnegie as a dispenser of libraries and peace palaces.” Nearly word‐for‐word, we have within the last few years heard progressive demands to curb the excesses of a Mark Zuckerberg or a Jeff Bezos. In both cases, progressives felt entitled to the “unearned wealth” of industrial leaders so long as it served a social purpose.
Progressivism: More of the Same
Lippmann concludes that in this pursuit for efficiency and the new morality we “cannot question everything radically at every moment.… I have to follow the orders of my physician. We all of us have to follow the lead of specialists.” And yet this unquestioning modus vivendi sounds eerily like “we know what’s best for you.” Though Lippmann appeals to a perfectible democracy, he shows disdain for everyone but the experts. He denigrates the selfish “profiteer” businessman, the unwitting consumer, and the incompetent shareholder. And yet, his progressive vision centers on a reformed business spirit and a “civilized” consumer base. This paradox belies the social and intellectual disdain that most progressives have for the very classes they aim to uplift. Thus, William Leuchtenburg refers to Lippmann as a “detached man who sought involvement.” Indeed, most progressives over the last century have been far too detached while seeking far too much involvement.
Ironically, Lippmann was adamantly opposed to “State Socialism.” Seeing his version of a liberal democracy as more cooperative than state socialism would imply, he writes that self‐government is the collective preference, and that a central authority should be rejected since “no authority is wise enough.” But then again, he later writes, “Men will do almost anything but govern themselves,” instead opting for a benevolent guardian. Lippmann condescends to this reliance on Platonic guardians, and yet the entire book is a vision for a new specialist class who will educate and guide the masses, much like his follow‐up book, Public Opinion.
The contradictions abound. Lippmann calls state socialists utopians who attempt to “impose a benevolent governing class on humanity” and who ignore the benefits of cooperative democracy; “oh, for wise and powerful officials,” he writes sarcastically. In the end, these state socialists envision “a ruling class, inspired by [them], as a short‐cut to perfection.” But if anyone comes out of Drift and Mastery seeming utopian, it is the author, who imagines a world where economic incentives can be remade, where profit is of little concern, and where individuals will see the whole as bigger than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, this process doesn’t happen organically; it is directed by experts who correctly perceive the “larger demands of civilized life.” In short, the new experts are the new moralists; the progressives are the enlightened class.
Underlying progressivism, both then and now, is the quest for power. Though dated, Richard Hofstadter conceptualized the original progressives in The Age of Reform as middle‐class Americans with “status anxiety” about their changing role in the world. They were losing power to the new industrial class and had to confront what Henry Adams called twentieth‐century multiplicity. Thus, we might rightly conceive of past and present progressives as seekers of status and power. If they could attain the industrial success of the “egotistical” businessman, they would likely do so; but they cannot, or at least have not, and thus they use the power of the state to remake the world in their own image. They envision new morals, new incentives, new plans and regulations and committees and commissions, and a new role for themselves at the top: the “experts in the new science of administration.” Fittingly, Lippmann concludes that “to the creative imagination, fact is plastic, and ready to be molded by him who understands it.”
All quotes attributed to Walter Lippmann are taken from Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice‐Hall Inc., 1961). The biographical information in this essay has largely been informed by William Leuchtenburg’s preface in the 1961 edition of Drift and Mastery, as well as from Uncertain Victory (1988) by James Kloppenberg.