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What is progress? What do progressives want? We Americans surely ought to know, especially after the comparatively strong showing of the progressive wing of contemporary American politics in the 2022 midterms.

And besides, we have been dealing with self-labeled progressives of one sort or another since the early decades of the previous century.

The assumption, of course, is that progress is a good thing. And sometimes it's presented as an inevitable thing. Former President Barack Obama seemed to lean that way whenever he invoked what he liked to call the "arc of history." It's an arc voices on the left always see bending in a progressive direction, by which they mean their direction.

But our two questions remain: What is progress and what do progressives want? Actually, the answers have been very different, depending upon which generation of progressives was being asked.

The original progressives of the early 20th century invariably answered both questions by first looking backward with a skeptical eye. Progressive presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, presumed that "progress" demanded moving beyond the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The principles embodied in these founding documents were not up the demands of the modern industrial age, the progressive icons believed.

While trying to settle a massive coal strike in 1902, a frustrated Roosevelt bellowed "to hell with the Constitution; the people need coal."

Speaker of the House (and fellow Republican) Joe Cannon was neither pleased nor surprised by such rhetoric. "Roosevelt," he fumed, "has no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license."

Wilson resegregated the federal government, in contrast to Roosevelt's slightly more liberal views and actions on race (sometimes even progressives of the same generation didn't agree). Wilson trained his skeptical eye on the Declaration of Independence, not least because of his considerable doubts that men of all races really were created equal.

The early progressives were in agreement that a bigger and more active federal bureaucracy was the answer to many of America's problems. Government by expert was the progressive formula, whether on the state or national levels. The assumption, of course, was that the empowered experts would be politically neutral, even disinterested. Operating above, beyond and against any and all special interests, these social managers would focus on simply doing what was right and prudent, ignoring political expedience and ideological doctrine. They would follow the science.

Never did it occur to the original progressives that government itself would gradually become a large and powerful special interest, which surely it has become today.

Differences in degree eventually do become differences in kind. Today's progressives aren't content simply to follow the example of their predecessors, skirting or ignoring the Constitution. Many would seem to prefer starting all over again.

The original progressives, for their part, did try to make the political system much more democratic, even as they envisioned an ever larger administrative state. They enacted people-power reforms such as initiative, referendum, and recall, as well as the primary election and the direct election of senators.

So what in the end was the original progressive solution: government by expert or government by the people? It seems the early progressives were never quite certain. Similar indecision bedevils today's progressives.

Some early 20th-century progressive initiatives would horrify today's progressives. Roosevelt, for example, was enamored with eugenics, the "science" of racial hierarchy and selection. He was known to pore over census data, worrying that white America was committing "race suicide" by having fewer and fewer children.

The equally progressive Margaret Sanger, founding mother of Planned Parenthood, was also attracted to eugenic schemes, even if she was not exactly disturbed by declining birthrates.

Near the top of the social reform agenda of many early progressives was controlling, even eliminating, the use of alcohol. That wish was eventually realized with the passage of the 18th Amendment, Prohibition. The modern progressive campaign against smoking might be seen as comparable. But progressives of our day would not touch alcohol prohibition and are often advocates of drug legalization.

Searching for a major issue about which progressives old and new would be in full agreement, protecting the environment arises a possible candidate. Yet the original progressives would likely be appalled at being linked with today's progressive environmentalists.

Roosevelt's memory is often conjured by Democratic progressives to tut-tut Republican conservatives for abandoning the example of their illustrious conservationist forbear. Surely TR would have endorsed the current "green energy" campaign to combat climate change.

But would he? The Rough Rider was a preservationist who rode roughshod over anyone who opposed his dramatic expansion of our national park system. But he also favored aggressive economic growth and robust use of our natural resources. Roosevelt's chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, could say out loud that whenever he saw a forest he also saw the "making of prosperous homes." The key was forest management and reforestation. The conservation concept that was most appealing to Roosevelt and Pinchot was "maximum sustained yield."

As a progressive, Roosevelt railed against what he called the "lunatic fringe." Chief among these "fringers" were socialists. He favored building a federal bureaucracy that would simultaneously help manage capitalism and blunt socialism. Today's progressives seem bent on deploying a much enlarged administrative state to blunt capitalism itself and manage a transition to an ever more comprehensive welfare state.

The most significant difference between TR progressives and today's progressives concerns America's role in the world. American progressives of the early 20th-century were unabashed nationalists and patriots; today's progressives are undisguised post-nationalists.

Roosevelt's unspoken arc of history envisioned a U.S. that was a rising world power, meaning, not least, military power. This was the Roosevelt of the Great White Fleet, the Panama Canal, and a war to take control of the Philippines en route to America becoming a Pacific power. Managing an American retrenchment would not have been his definition of progress. Nor would sacrificing American sovereignty to placate an international agency or advance an internationalist agenda.

In sum, these huge differences between progressives then and now ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us — and especially for progressives. What looks unmistakably and unalterably like progress today may look otherwise to those who follow us — and sooner than we think.

The country might still be better off adhering to the principles of America's founding documents, as Abraham Lincoln did. Unlike Wilson, Lincoln claimed never to have had a political thought that did not spring from the Declaration of Independence. And unlike Roosevelt, he regarded the Constitution as the "silver frame" around the Declaration's "apple of gold."

With Lincoln's thoughts in mind, let's work on finding our way back to our founding documents, with their emphasis on liberty, limited government and equality under law. Let's call that progress.

After all, how can there be real progress without a set of standards and goals clearly in mind? Without an enduring destination to progress toward, we are left mindlessly arcing our way to who knows where.

John C. "Chuck" Chalberg taught American history and has performed around the country as Theodore Roosevelt.