Pragmatist Progressive Ideology


Throntveit, Trygve. “Philosophical Pragmatism and the Constitutional Watershed of 1912.” Political Science Quarterly 128, no. 4 (Winter 2013-14): 617-651.


Trygve Throntveit discusses the election of 1912. Woodrow Wilson emerged the winner between different strands of Progressivism (represented in both parties) and socialist. Throntveit highlights the different forms of Progressivism; the players involved, the philosophical foundations of Progressivism, and how the election of 1912 laid the ground work for the New Deal and the modern welfare state. Above all, Throntveit explores, in-depth, how Pragmatism (especially the philosophy of William James) underscored the politics of both the Republican and Democratic Parties during this period.

To understand the Progressive aims and goals and the election of 1912, is to understand what has come to be called the Pragmatist Progressive Tradition. The philosopher William James established a theory called “Will to believe.” Ideas shape and drive human action and what shapes these ideas are experiences, hence, James’s theory of Pragmatism. James believed the world and morals were in a state of flux. Since everything was constantly changing, so too must politics, institutions, and morals. Pragmatist believed what constituted a “moral” was based on the collective body. In other words, what the majority says is moral is true. Therefore, experience and activity determines what humanity should believe – to the extent, it shapes politics and every facet of life.

James influenced many important people: John Dewey, Louis Brandies, Jane Addams, W.E. Du Bois, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. In turn, they influenced Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and many other powerful people. Armed with James’s philosophy and others, they were against laisse-faire economics, big business, constitutional structures (checks and balances) that stood in the way of progressive goals. What Pragmatist Progressives advocated for was a large National Government, control over the monetary system, politics to become scientific, and an ever increasing majority rule, just to name a few. The theory behind the Pragmatist was for the culture to engage almost as one voice to fix problems and achieve ends – everyone must engage. Not all Pragmatist agreed but they all embraced James’s core beliefs. The National government must be increased but at the same time the popular will of the people must be heard. Therefore, the National Government had to set national policies and control major institutions and industry. To illustrate, in 1913 the Federal Reserve Act and the Federal Income tax was passed. These measures were to control and redistribute wealth. The aim and goal, over all, was a stronger National Government to control business and to maximize popular rule. At the same token to diminish individualism and create a more collective mind-set that would be “more loyal to government,” yet maintain personal liberties.

Throntveit also brought out some of the failures of the Pragmatist Progressive movement. The “demise of locally rooted parties” only created “direct primaries and causes have replaced national party conventions as the means of nominating presidential candidates.” [649] Moreover, the individual is not represented, the focus is now on interest groups and their relation to the state.

In conclusion, the major themes of Throntveit’s paper was to shed light on the election of 1912 – in that it changed American politics. He showed how both parties embraced a Pragmatist Progressive ideology that laid the ground work for the New Deal. In addition, the author explained James’s philosophical theory and who it influenced. Throntveit’s tone is scholarly. He appears to be unbiased; but at the end, he seems to have a sympathetic tone towards the Pragmatist Progressive ideology and there is a sense of longing to see its principles revived.

James Booker

December 6, 2014



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