Its that time again when Americans are going to the polls to vote in the primaries for their favorite party nominees. Many unaware that this process came about due to the Progressive movement which existed largely during the turn of the twentieth century. This group not only lead to changes in the way in which we vote on the national level, but also effected the way in which we run local government. The lasting effects of this group are seen all around us even today.
At the time in which the Progressive movement really gained traction, politics were very different than what they are today. The secret ballot system we have come to expect did not exist and primaries were not a thing. A party system before these bribed the poor and helped the rich, which led to many middle-class citizens to join together and form the Progressive Movement in order to create change. Those in this movement were not limited to one party, but instead existed across the political spectrum. The main ideas of the progressives were to create a ‘good government’ which would be efficient, bureaucratic and neutral. This was centered around the idea that politics should be more logical.
In local government the Progressives had many changes they desired to make. The first way they changed politics in this area was forbidding special legislation. This would stop laws that the legislature passes that affect only a single city or even a list of named cities. This would stop the constant switching of charters based on those in power in order to create an advantage or disadvantage. The Progressive movement also supported home rule, pushing for local governments to have more power since they felt smaller government had a better idea of what their people need. Progressives also believed another part of politics needing reform was the people in it. This was achieved through civil service reform which calls upon municipal bureaucrats to be professional, careerist and neutral. Involvement in electoral politics is frowned upon within this reform. After changing all of these aspects of local government, the last step was to change the way local government was structured. The first attempt at achieving this was the commission form of government. In this system, commissioners were elected as heads of departments and had both legislative and executive functions. This in theory seemed great but in execution, did not work out. Commissioners were overstretched and often commissioners were elected department heads even though they had no knowledge of the department they were overseeing. In addition to this, having the department heads trying to determine resources, led to bickering as each department head wanted more resources. This was remedied with the city/town manager system. Through this an elected city/town council is the legislative branch of the municipal government while an appointed mayor is given the executive functions. As long as the city managers can stay neutral, this system works far better than the commission form of government.
Along with all of the successes of the Progressive movement, they also had some ideas that (in addition to the commission form of government) were unsuccessful for the Progressives. This is largely seen with the implementation of Prohibition in the 1920’s. This idea was centered around the thought that with alcohol comes many different issues in society. This may be true but the way they went about it (making all alcohol consumption illegal) was not the way to go about it. They also ran on the platform that there should be less minority involvement, largely focused on Italian and Irish immigrants. This is likely a result of the time and how many of these minorities were gaining jobs as the party bosses bribed the poor for their vote by giving them a job. The Progressives were definitely not perfect, but the ideas that they introduced led to many pivotal changes in the way the United States government works.
Many of the changes the Progressives made were aimed at larger cities but in turn actually worked best in midsized cities. The changes they made in local government are just as important as those they made in the national election. Local government has far more of an impact on the daily life of citizens and so changes created on this level effect the daily lives of United states citizens far more. Although existing a hundred years ago, Progressive ideas have continued to shape politics well into the beginning of the twenty-first century.