Bull Moose Progressives and the liberal paradigm

by Fred Elbel

Bull Moose Progressives

When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt at age 42 became the youngest President in history. As the 25th President of the United States, Roosevelt held office from 1901 until 1909. He lead the country into the Progressive Era, and championed a "Square Deal" for Americans. The Progressive party called for major reforms including breaking trusts, women's suffrage, railroad regulation, worker's compensation, farm relief, and pure food and drugs.

Roosevelt highly valued conservation. He established new national monuments, parks, and forests with the intent of preserving America's natural resources. He began construction of the Panama Canal.

When asked whether he was fit to be president in 1912, he responded that he was as fit as a "bull moose." The name stuck.

The Platform of the Progressive Party, August 7, 1912, reads in part:

...This country belongs to the people who inhabit it. Its resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest...

The Old Parties

Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.

From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.

To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.

The deliberate betrayal of its trust by the Republican Party, and the fatal incapacity of the Democratic Party to deal with the new issues of the new time, have compelled the people to forge a new instrument of government through which to give effect to their will in laws and institutions.

Unhampered by tradition, uncorrupted by power, undismayed by the magnitude of the task, the new party offers itself as the instrument of the people to sweep away old abuses, to build a new and nobler commonwealth.

A Covenant with the People

This declaration is our covenant with the people, and we hereby bind the party and its candidates in State and Nation to the pledges made herein.

The Rule of the People

The Progressive Party, committed to the principle of government by a self-controlled democracy expressing its will through representatives of the people, pledges itself to secure such alterations in the fundamental law of the several States and of the United States as shall insure the representative character of the Government.

In particular, the party declares for direct primaries for nomination of State and National officers, for Nation-wide preferential primaries for candidates for the Presidency, for the direct election of United States Senators by the people; and we urge on the States the policy of the short ballot, with responsibility to the people secured by the initiative, referendum and recall.

Reflecting on the platform, it appears that special interests and political corruption were as much of an issue one hundred years ago as they are today.


Liberalism in American can be considered a political ideology which is framed by values that include equal opportunity, freedom of thought, individual freedom, and democratic government. Government intervention is typically embraced as the mechanism by which these values are implemented and enforced.

The Heritage Foundation notes that:

The Progressives were united in their contempt for what they called the "individualism" of the Founding. Instead of a government that protects natural rights through limited, decentralized powers, they envisioned an expansive government, a "living" and evolving Constitution, and the rule of "experts" in nationally centralized administrative agencies...

Whereas the Founders believed the government had a well-defined and limited role to play in the lives of citizens - essentially leaving people alone to lead their lives - the Progressives favored a much more active role for the government in overseeing civil society, regulating the economy, and redistributing wealth.

These two fundamentally different understandings of the role of government grow out of two different understandings of freedom. For the Progressives, freedom is not secured when government protects natural rights and otherwise leaves citizens to rule themselves. True freedom, by this view, demands an active government that provides equal means to self-fulfillment for all. It is not enough to create the conditions that allow people to pursue their own happiness - equal opportunity - since some citizens start with more advantages than others. Government must set out to level the playing field and determine outcomes...

Liberalism can be understood in two very different ways. Liberalism, or what some call "classical liberalism," is a political philosophy based on individual liberty and limited government. Over the last century, however, liberalism has come to take on a different meaning. The contemporary understanding of liberalism is based not on individual liberty, but on the use of government to grant benefits and advantages in order to give everyone the ability to achieve a certain standard of living and reduce inequalities. Therefore, modern liberalism encourages an extensive network of interest groups that receive benefits from government and organize in order to preserve those benefits.

Modern liberalism grows out of the Progressive rejection of American constitutionalism and an embrace of a new conception of freedom, anchored in big government.

The Progressive versus Liberal paradigm

Philosopher and political scientist W.B. Gallie called the terminology of "progressive" and "liberals" contested concepts:

...concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users [that] cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone.

There is no singularly accepted definition for these terms. In the article What are 'Liberals,' What are 'Progressives,' and Why the Difference Matters, Crissie Brown notes that:

More recently, cognitive linguists have explored contested concepts in the context of frame semantics... That is, we define words relative to other ideas that come to mind when we hear, read, or think about them. Those other ideas form the "frame" within which we find meaning for a word. Both "liberal" and "progressive" exist in the POLITICS frame and - in the U.S. - both imply opposition to "conservative." Add to that the fact that conservatives have for decades used "liberal" as an epithet, and many people have come to believe that "progressive" is simply a euphemism for "liberal." But those two terms have different histories and hallmarks.

Brown points out that:

Liberalism is a set of ideals grounded in the social contract (rule by consent of the governed for mutual benefit), both negative liberty (freedom from unreasonable interference) and positive liberty (access to basic resources to pursue one's goals), and both equality in law (legal rights and privileges), and equality of opportunity (social mobility). Liberalism is an ideology, and over three hundred years of history have shown that it can be robust and successful. Indeed the past three centuries can reasonably be summarized as the rise and spread of liberal ideals.

Brown notes that not all progressives are liberal:

Progressivism is a problem-solving method. Historians generally date Progressive Era as 1890-1920, but the progressive method did not end with that date. The progressive method is not an ideology but a pragmatic search for solutions that work, grounded in a healthy skepticism.

Thus, for example, Prohibition was a progressive project and was based on the social science of that era , but 'The Great Experiment' of Prohibition failed in practice and progressives also worked for its repeal. The 20th century can reasonably be summarized as the rise and spread of the progressive method.

In support of Progressivism, Brown observes that:

In short, it's not enough to practice the progressive method. That method must be applied toward goals grounded in liberal ideals, and it we must recognize when it's time to 'fish or cut bait' and be willing to advocate the best solutions we can find with confidence, even as we recognize that we will need to adapt to new information and changing conditions.

Liberalism is intolerant of liberty

In the essay The Sinking Ship Of Liberalism, Xiang Yu aptly observes that liberalism can not tolerate liberty, because liberty enables inequality of outcome:

.. But it must be said: the very freedom of the liberal society allows for the destruction of that liberal society, especially via the ballot box. In a liberal democracy, after all, the majority (or rather those who influence the passions of that majority) has absolute power over state and society, and there is no ironclad rule that the majority must vote for liberal ideals forever, making it inevitable that charlatans or fanatics will seek to use the masses to realize their own ideologies...

This growing chasm between liberalism and democracy has been expounded upon, in different forms, by many thinkers far more eminent than myself...

It is through these disparate analyses of conflict that we can make out the form of one liberalism’s most determined and fanatical adversaries, not that of reaction, but rather, leftism. Leftism is not a new phenomenon and has reared its head in countless nations and epochs throughout human history, from ancient Chinese Agriculturalism to the English Diggers to the Jacobins to Lenin, with the common theme of doing away with any inequality by any means whatsoever. The leftist’s claim to legitimacy in all of this is essentially democratic in nature: only he really cares about the people’s well being, only he knows their best interest, even if they themselves have been deceived as to just what that is; he represents the majority. He is the General Will.

For the leftist, liberal buzzwords about civility, merit, moderation, and limited government are just constructs created by an immoral class seeking to preserve its privilege in the face of the leveling that is the only just way to order the world. The liberty the liberal so cherishes cannot be allowed by the leftist to persist in any form because it might be used to perpetuate that most odious of sins, inequality....

Thus liberalism is incompatible with America's form of government - a Constitutional Republic which presupposes equality of opportunity but allows for inequality of outcome. For example, individuals are allowed the freedom to work diligently at a chosen profession, but some may succeed magnificently while others may fail.

Liberalism (which is sometimes called leftism) demands equality of outcome, and therein lies the inconsistency.

Three Dimensions of Ideology: "Conservatives View Things Along A Civilized/Barbaric Axis…", by John Derbyshire, 20 January 2013:

Conservatives view things along a civilized/barbaric axis, liberals along an oppressed/oppressor axis, and libertarians along a freedom/coercion axis. Conservatives will thus favor things that correlate well with (in particular, Western) civilization, while opposing things that correlate with poorly civilized societies or that would directly contradict salient features of civilization. Progressives, on the other hand, don't care about civilization - they care about defending the oppressed and opposing the oppressors. The "civilized" side can be the wrong side if it's taking on the role of an oppressor. And Libertarians don't see civilization or oppressors - they only want to know if someone is being coerced to do something - that's the wrong side.


1. Theodore Roosevelt, Wikipedia.

2. Bull Moose Party - The Progressive Party of 1912, American History.

3. Platform of the Progressive Party, 7 August 1912.

4. Progressivism and Liberalism, The Heritage Foundation

5. What are ‘Liberals,’ What are ‘Progressives,’ and Why the Difference Matters, Crissie Brown, PoliticsUSA, 15 June 15 2013.

6. How to tell the difference between a progressive and a liberal.

7. What is Progressive?, Andrew Garb, Alternet, 25 July 25 2005.

8. Yes, the Left Stole Liberalism & Sold Out the West, by Ilana Mercer, Unz Review, 16 August 2018.

9. The Sinking Ship Of Liberalism, by Xiang Yu, Social Matter, 8 November 2018.

10. Video: The Left Ruins Everything, by Dennis Prager, Prager U, 25 March 2019.

11. The Cultural Divide, by F Elbel, 12 October 2022.