“He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government.” The writer H. L. Mencken’s quip about Theodore Roosevelt came uncomfortably close to the mark for many Progressive advocates of an empowered state. Most Progressive thinkers were highly uncomfortable with the real world of politics, which seemed to revolve around the pursuit of narrow class, ethnic, and regional interests. Robert M. La Follette’s reliance on college professors to staff important posts in his administration reflected a larger Progressive faith in expertise. The government could best exercise intelligent control over society through a democracy run by impartial experts who were in many respects unaccountable to the citizenry.

This impulse toward order, efficiency, and centralized management—all in the name of social justice—was an important theme of Progressive reform. The title of Walter Lippmann’s influential 1914 work of social commentary, Drift and Mastery, posed the stark alternatives facing the nation.

A staff member greets an immigrant family at Hull House, the settlement house established in Chicago by Jane Addams.

“Drift” meant continuing to operate according to the outmoded belief in individual autonomy. “Mastery” required applying scientific inquiry to modern social problems. The new generation of educated professionals, Lippmann believed, could be trusted more fully than ordinary citizens to solve America’s deep social problems. Political freedom was less a matter of direct participation in government than of qualified persons devising the best public policies.

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