Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive. But the progressive era truly got underway when in 1912, ex-professor and Princeton president Woodrow Wilson won a three-way presidential contest with 42% of the (all-male) vote. Progressive Wilson didn’t disappoint--vastly expanding federal executive power, moving government toward his vision of “expert,” intellectual rule. Wilson’s presidency marked the arrival in Washington of our now-dominant meritocratic elite.
Conservative Noemie Emory, writing in the Washington Examiner, draws from Manhattan Institute scholar Fred Siegel’s book, The Revolt Against The Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all wanted the middle class to thrive and enjoy prosperity, but a dissident strain of progressives developed a “contempt for the middle class, for commerce, and thus for most of the American culture.”
Siegel says the “road to perdition” was paved around 1920 when intellectuals
depressed by the Great War and the funk that came after, decided all was not well in the world and the nation, and the great middle class was to blame. In rant after rant, book after book, play after play, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Sinclair Lewis, and the editors of Nation and the New Republic heaped scorn on the bourgeoisie and on business as peasants unworthy of those who would lead them and who always knew better than they.According to Siegel, “In the 1920s ... what looked like freedom and progress to most white Americans was an affront to liberals and intellectuals." Siegel quotes one of the intellectuals, Malcolm Cowley, later saying, "It wasn’t the depression that got me. It was the boom." These progressives believed that the leader’s role was not to shape public opinion but to govern against it, “fighting the crassness that governs the herd”--the “Babbitry” of the Roaring ‘20s.
Siegel believes this anti-bourgeois strain of progressivism now dominates under Barack Obama.