Off the Shelf: Sidney M. Milkis

November 03, 2009

Sidney M. Milkis, White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics, "Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy." University Press of Kansas.

Led by Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party made the 1912 campaign a passionate contest for the soul of the American people. Promoting an ambitious program of economic, social and political reform – "New Nationalism" – that posed profound challenges to constitutional government, Roosevelt and his Progressive supporters provoked an extraordinary debate about the future of the country.

Milkis revisits this emotionally charged contest to show how a party seemingly consumed by its leader's ambition dominated the election and left an enduring legacy that set in motion the rise of mass democracy and the expansion of national administrative power.

Milkis depicts the Progressive Party as a collective enterprise of activists, spearheaded by Roosevelt, who pursued a program of reform dedicated to direct democracy and social justice and a balance between rights and civic duty. These reformers hoped to create a new concept of citizenship that would fulfill the lofty aspirations of "we the people" in a quest for a "more perfect union" – a quest hampered by fierce infighting over civil rights and antitrust policy.

Milkis shows that the Progressive campaign aroused not just an important debate over reforms, but also a battle for the very meaning of Progressivism. He describes how Roosevelt gave focus to the party with his dedication to "pure democracy" – even shoehorning judicial recall into his professed "true conservative" stance. Although this pledge to make the American people "masters of their Constitution" provoked considerable controversy, Milkis contends that the Progressives were not all that far removed from the more nationally minded of the Founders.

As Milkis reveals, the party's faith in a more plebiscitary form of democracy would ultimately rob it of the very organization it needed in order to survive after Roosevelt. Yet the Progressive Party's program of social reform and "direct democracy" has reverberated through American politics – especially in 2008, with Barack Obama appealing to similar instincts. By probing the deep historical roots of contemporary developments in American politics, his book shows that Progressivism continues to shape American politics a century later.