Building Democracy 2.0: The Progressive Movement and the Decline of Parties in America

This is part 7 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.


We have seen that political parties were a natural outgrowth of democracy.  They arose quickly soon after the nation’s founding to solve key challenges.  In particular, parties play an important role in managing conflict central to a well-functioning political system.  Parties offer a framework for candidates and officeholders to present voters with choices in the marketplace of ideas.  They help create majorities and advance agendas in the legislative arena by exerting discipline over party members.  As such, parties provide a structure that helps translate individual preferences into societal ones.  In addition, political parties engage and mobilize voters in elections through a variety of techniques. By directly addressing the calculus of voting, political parties drive up turnout, tapping the collective mind of the electorate. These activities by parties bring greater efficiency to society by affording people a voice that gets translated into policy and legislation.

By 1840, the United States had two strong parties operating in a competitive system.  From that time through the end of the century, turnout among eligible voters approached or exceeded 80%.  Most citizens strongly identified with one of the two national parties.  It was the pinnacle for parties in America in terms of their role in the democratic process.  The highwater mark for parties came to an end with the reforms of the Progressive Movement early in the 20th century.  This essay will examine the conditions that gave rise to these reforms, why one key aspect of the reforms was misguided and how other democracies took a different path.  That fork in the road had a profound effect on the role of parties that can be seen today.  The fork taken by the U.S. weakened political parties while that taken by other countries assured parties would remain at the center of a well-functioning democracy.

Prelude to the Progressive Movement

As part of the human condition, we tend to see today’s problems as paramount.  Such implicit bias propels us to tackle problems rather than rest on past accomplishments.  Looking back on earlier periods offers a sobering reminder of the capacity of humans to overcome massive challenges.  Such is the case when considering the late 19th century.  Historians refer to this time as the Gilded Age for a reason.  It was a time of “Robber Barons.”  Titans of emerging industries, including steel and rail, asserted monopolistic power, distorting markets as well as governmental policy to favor them.  An enormous disparity in wealth separated American society.  Agriculture, the dominant industry and way of life, was undergoing radical change through mechanization.  Those taking jobs in new industries faced low wages and poor working conditions.  Immigrants arriving in urban areas experienced horrible living conditions and an anti-immigrant backlash.  The nation experienced booms and busts, including depressions in the 1870s and 1890s that produced widespread poverty.

The narrative surrounding the Gilded Age largely overlooks the South, a region slowly recovering from the devastation of the Civil War.  While most of the nation grappled with the impacts of rapid industrialization, the South retreated to an economic and political backwater.  It is one of the great tragedies in American history.  Following the Civil War, Congress enacted a series of constitutional amendments that dramatically expanded the scope of American democracy.  The 13th Amendment banned slavery.  The 14th amendment conferred birthright citizenship on African Americans and created rights of due process in life, liberty and property as well as equal protection under the law.  The 15th Amendment prohibited states from denying anyone the right to vote based on race.  These amendments ushered the way for major political advances for African Americans in southern states where they comprised a majority or near majority of the population.  Aligning with the Republican Party, African Americans exercised the right to vote at very high rates and quickly gained hundreds of seats in state legislatures and dozens of seats in Congress.

These gains proved short-lived.  In addition to the new rights afforded African Americans, Reconstruction permitted Southern States to rejoin the Union on equal footing.  Most white southerners aligned with the Democratic Party and quickly restored it as a national political force.  Following Ulysses Grant’s two terms as president, the election of 1876 produced a deadlock.  Like 1824, no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes.  Democrat Samuel Tilden received the popular vote but was one vote shy of a majority in the electoral college.  Republican Rutherford Hayes needed 20 electoral votes to overtake Tilden.  After months of deadlock, Congress reached a compromise.  In return for granting all disputed electoral votes and the presidency to Hayes, Hayes promised to remove federal troops from the South. This action marked a quick end to the expansion of democracy for African Americans.  Between 1876 and 1898, the number of African American registered voters fell more than 90% in the South.  Places like Wilmington, North Carolina witnessed the violent overthrow of an African American led government.  By 1900, the veil of Jim Crow had descended on the South.

Fighting Bob La Follette and the Wisconsin Idea

With African Americans effectively disenfranchised, debates over voting and democracy shifted to other terrain.  Outside of the South, the effects of industrialization and concentration of wealth shaped politics.  Wisconsin was at the epicenter of these forces.  By 1900, 80% of the population owned only 10% of the wealth while 1% of the population owned half the state’s property.  40% of the farms were mortgaged. A few corporations, which paid almost no taxes, controlled the political and economic power in the state.

Bob La Follette rose to power in this environment.  He grew up on a farm at a time when rural areas were relatively prosperous.  He attended the University of Wisconsin and entered politics soon after being admitted to the bar.  Elected to the U.S. House in 1884 as its youngest member, La Follette supported most of the Republican Party’s agenda, including high tariffs, compulsory education and anti-discrimination measures in the South.  He lost reelection in 1890 in a national landslide election for the Democrats.  It was during this time that La Follette became disillusioned with the Party establishment.  He went public after a Republican leader tried to bride him to influence the outcome of a case before his brother-in-law.  That case involved malfeasance by the Republican Party.  Over the next two election cycles for governor, party leaders chose an incumbent over La Follette even though he enjoyed widespread grassroots support.

An intense campaigner and great orator, La Follette found a receptive audience by speaking against corporate interests and “the party machine.”  He adopted much of the reform agenda advocated by the Populist Party.  In 1890, the Populists won a number of local and state elections in the Midwest.  In addition to its anti-corporate policies such as government ownership of the railroads and free coinage of silver to stimulate the economy, the Populists advocated several reforms to make politics more responsive to the electorate.  These measures included the direct election of senators, a single-term presidency, ballot reforms and citizen initiatives.  Like many other third parties, the influence of the Populists came and went, but its ideas carried on.

La Follette adopted much of the Populist’s reform agenda.  That agenda conformed to his view of party politics.  Importantly, La Follette seized on one other reform proposed by an academic at the University of Wisconsin:  direct primaries.  This concept proposed giving voters the power to select a party’s candidates for the general election in a primary instead of party leaders selecting them in a caucus or convention.  La Follette hit the speaker circuit and gained widespread attention for his speech, “The Menace of the Machine.”  Echoing the words of Lincoln, La Follette concluded, “If this generation will destroy the political machine, will emancipate the majority from its enslavement, will again place the destinies of this nation in the hands of its citizens, then ‘Under God,’ this government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

La Follette tied his critique of the political machine to the powerful influence of business.  In another speech entitled “The Danger Threatening Representative Government,” La Follette warned “The existence of the corporation, as we have it with us today, was never dreamed of by the fathers … The Corporation of today has invaded every department of business, and its powerful but invisible hand is felt in almost all activities of life … The effect of this change upon the American people is radical and rapid.”  He continued, “Do not look to such lawmakers to restrain corporations within proper limits … No, begin at the foundation, make one supreme effort … to secure a better set of lawmakers.”  To do so, he urged voters “elect men who will pass a primary election law which will enable the voter to sell the candidate of his choice without … the domination of the machine.”

By pulling direct primaries into a broader crusade to expand American democracy, La Follette planted the seed that would ultimately weaken the role parties play in democracy.  Even La Follette’s critics at the time understood the flaw in his logic:

“You have been speaking in many parts of the State as against the Machine in Politics.  Why, my dear sir, even your own modesty will not permit you to deny the fact that you and your friends have … built as good a Political Machine, and in less time, than was ever known to be built in this State by an Party.  It is downright hypocrisy for you or anyone to talk against the Machine in Politics, for without it you or anyone else cannot succeed politically.”

In his third try for governor in 1900, La Follette succeeded.  He had made direct primaries a cornerstone of his campaign, and he remained committed to the cause.  By 1904, Wisconsin adopted this measure. La Follette became a national figure of reform, speaking throughout the Midwest.  He captured the mood of a disgruntled electorate, looking for ways to blunt the domination of powerful corporate interests.  Other states soon followed.  Within a decade, direct primaries were used for congressional and state races throughout the nation.

The fire ignited by La Follette – later known as the Wisconsin Idea – spread across the nation.  Other reform measures soon gained traction.  By 1912, 22 states adopted some form of citizen referendum or initiative, allowing people to vote directly on laws.  States began passing initiatives for the popular election of U.S. Senators.  Congress finally followed suit, passing the 17th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913.  Congress also banned corporate campaign contributions and later required disclosure of all campaign contributions.  Remarkably, partisan leaders such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson overcame polarization to advocate many of the Progressive Movement’s reforms.  With the passage in 1919 of the 18th and 19th amendments (Prohibition and women’s suffrage, respectively), the reform movement largely came to an end.

In sum, the Progressive Movement advocated a number of reforms to make government more responsive to the people.  Those reforms were an extension of a broader reaction to the concentrated power of a few dominant industries and political gridlock at the time.  Reforms focused on giving voters a say in different ways:  in the selection of candidates for the general election, the right to vote for candidates of either party on a secret ballot, direct action on laws, the election of U.S. Senators and extension of the franchise to women.  The major parties acceded to these reforms since the proposals did not threaten the two-party system.  Instead of questioning the lack of competition endemic to our system, reformers looked to give voters more say within the two parties.

Today, direct primaries are a unique feature of American democracy.  States employ several types of direct primaries.  About a dozen states hold “closed” primaries.  To vote in this primary, voters must register as a Democrat or Republican prior to the election.  They receive a ballot with only that party’s candidates on it.  Other states have “semi-open” primaries.  There, voters can decide their party affiliation at the polling site and then vote for that party’s candidates.  The remaining states hold “open” primaries.  Here, voters receive a ballot that allows them to vote for either party’s candidates regardless of the voter’s registration.  All of these approaches show how little control parties have over the selection of their candidates.  In essence, voters decide a party’s slate regardless of voters’ commitment to a particular party and its principles.

The Path of Other Democracies

It is useful to consider the path taken by other democracies in the early 20th century.  Those choices had deep and lasting implications for the role of political parties.  Other industrializing countries faced similar social and economic problems at this time.  Wealth inequality, loss of agricultural jobs and worker unrest coursed through many European nations.  While these countries did not have to contend with the aftermath of a Civil War, they could not escape the growing pains of the industrial revolution.  Powerful corporate interests dominated politics and violently suppressed workers trying to organize and strike similar to the U.S.

Jonathan Rodden’s How Cities Lose recounts the reform movement in European countries at the beginning of the 20th century.  Like the U.S., most of those countries had a two-party system – typically a more liberal party situated in urban areas and a conservative party based in the countryside.  Unlike the U.S., many European countries still required voters to own property or have a certain income in order to vote.  Therefore, efforts to make democracy more responsive to the people focused on extending the franchise to all adult men.  The energy for this movement largely came from workers in urban areas.  Consequently, the roots of the reform movement in Europe differed from the U.S., where energy initially came from rural areas fighting economic dislocation.  And as a result, politicians reacted differently to the unrest.

Political parties in Europe faced a unique challenge.  The same people agitating for the right to vote were aligning with the emerging Workers or Socialist Parties.  The existing parties of the left supported new voters’ rights but understood the threat posed to their existence by new parties capable to winning a majority of votes in urban districts.  Liberal parties urged newly franchised workers to join them rather than backing new Workers or Socialist Parties, arguing that such division would allow conservatives to win more seats.  It was a classic coordination problem.  As in most cases, the strategic alliances were difficult to maintain over time.

Eventually, the coalitions fell apart as more workers gained the franchise.  Socialist candidates began winning seats in dense, urban districts.  However, the seat share won by socialists did not nearly match their vote total.  For example, the Social Democrats in Germany won more votes than any other party from 1890 to 1907 but never won a majority of seats.  This outcome reflected the substantial number of wasted votes (i.e., the number of votes cast beyond that needed to win in a district) in dense, urban districts.  Conservatives enjoyed the advantage of broad geographic distribution of their votes.  In other words, the plurality voting system allowed conservatives to win many more seats by small margins while workers won a few seats by large margins.

The growing disconnect between electoral outcomes and votes spurred massive social unrest.  Street violence increased and some European nations faced the prospect of civil war.  Socialist and liberal party leaders began searching for political reforms that could reverse their disadvantage.  They found inspiration from one of the great intellects of the 19th century.  In 1861, John Stuart Mills wrote “Of True and False Democracy; Representation of All, and Representation of the Majority Only.”  In it, Stuart laid out the rationale for proportional representation:

“In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately but proportionately.  As a majority of the electors would always have a majority of the representatives; but a minority of the electors would always have a minority of the representatives.  Man for man, they would be as fully represented as the majority.  Unless they are, there is not equal government, but a government of inequality and privilege; one part of the people over the rest; there is a party whose fair and equal share of influence in the representation is withheld from them contrary to all just government, but above all, contrary to the principle of democracy, which professes equality as its very root and foundation.”

Leading reformers in Europe seized on this idea at the turn of the century.  They advocated replacing small single member districts with larger multi-member districts.  Each party’s candidates would be placed on a list, and a party’s representation would be drawn from the list in proportion to its vote share.  In other words, a party that received 30% of the vote would win 30% of the seats.  Socialist and labor parties made proportional voting a top priority in addition to expansion of the franchise.  By the time Europe ended its “progressive movement” in 1920, most countries had adopted proportional voting.  It proved a life saver for legacy parties.  Instead of being squeezed out, as happened to so many third parties in the U.S., parties maintained relevance and a share of the seats.  Interestingly, even rural-based conservative parties such as the Catholic Party in Belgium supported these reforms because it allowed them to pick up seats in urban areas where they would not otherwise do so.

Proportional voting allowed parties to remain vital to the democratic project.  Parties choose their candidates to place on the ballot.  They discipline candidates by replacing them when they do not support the party’s agenda.  Members of parties work closely to build majority coalitions once in government.  They also run unified campaigns under the party label to drive up turnout.  Therefore, parties remain central to channeling conflict productively and solving the problem of collective action.  Voters strongly identify with parties and turnout typically approaches 70% and higher.  While European countries lagged far behind the U.S. with the adoption and expansion of democracy, the reforms they adopted happened to position them well for the future – at least after the shocks of World War I, the Depression and World War II.

Electoral Reform and Implications for Parties

Many of the reforms passed during the Progressive Era did strengthen our democracy.  The secret ballot (also known as the “Australian ballot”) helped ensure elections better reflected the private, decentralized and independent judgment of voters.  The popular election of U.S. Senators and suffrage for women meant that more segments of society would be reflected in governmental decision-making.  These steps strengthened the cohesion of society.  The citizen-led initiative or referendum allowed voters to circumvent the legislature to advance new ideas.  It provides a critical tool to overcome entrenched political self-interest and has become a hallmark for reform efforts to make politics more inclusive and open.  For example, most states that have managed to limit the practice of gerrymandering have done so through citizen initiatives.

Direct primaries are another story.  This reform aligned with a fervor to break the bond between powerful corporate interests and political machines.  However, it conflated political parties with the corrupting influence of corporations.  Its proponents did not understand that concentrated power will seek to corrupt any system before it whether it be a candidate or party.  The answer is to diminish and contain the source of power rather than the targets of such power.  More importantly, the proponents of direct primaries lacked an appreciation for the role parties play in democracy.  Parties emerged organically to operationalize the two main innovations of democracy:  turning conflict into an engine of progress and tapping the collective mind.  Weakening the control of party leaders only serves to weaken those functions.

The idea that making parties operate more democratically misses this point entirely.  Maurice Duverger recognized the distinction between the role played by parties in the functioning of democracy and democracy itself in his seminal work Political Parties:

“The organizational structure of political parties is certainly not in conformity with orthodox notions of democracy.  Their internal structure is essentially autocratic and oligarchic; their leaders are not really appointed by the members, in spite of appearances, but co-opted or nominated by the central body; they tend to form a ruling class, isolated from the militants, a cast that is more or less exclusive.  In so far as they are elected, the party oligarchy is widened without ever becoming a democracy, for the election is carried out by the members, who are a minority in comparison with those who give their votes to the party in the general election.”

In other words, parties by their nature do not operate democratically.  A party’s task is to produce an attractive product for voters in a democracy and provide structure so that its members deliver on the party’s principles once in office.  By handing over one of the most powerful tools parties have – selecting a candidate to stand in a general election – direct primaries hamper the ability of parties to perform their role.

La Follette’s personal animus toward parties proved costly for American democracy.  By including direct primaries in the agenda of reform, political parties waned in influence.  Since voters could select candidates for the parties, candidates were no longer beholden to the direction of parties.  They began to run candidate-centered campaigns. By the end of the 20th century, parties were reduced to providing a support system for candidates.  Now candidates are clearly in charge, raising the money and directing resources in campaigns.   Parties attempt to bring efficiencies to campaigns by maintaining data bases and increasing the bargaining power of candidates when negotiating for consultant services.  But candidates control the resources often viewing parties as much of a distraction as a help.

The diminishment of parties has undermined a key function played by parties in strengthening democracy.  The elimination of parties’ role in running campaigns weakened their ability to address the calculus of voting.  Previously, voters could rely on the party label in making choices.  With candidate led campaigns, the cost of voting has increased.  Now, voters must expend additional resources to learn about a multitude of candidates on the ballot.  Moreover, each candidate has to raise the resources to mobilize voters to the polls rather than a centralized operation led by the parties.  Turnout has suffered.  Once the Progressive reforms went into effect, turnout in U.S. elections dropped significantly.  As mentioned, turnout approached 80% throughout the 19th century.  Once direct primaries were adopted, turnout dropped to between 50-60% of registered voters.  No longer did voters have a unified party brand when making decisions nor did they have an organization that was laser focused on solving the calculus of voting as they did in the 19th century.


Americans generally have a negative view toward parties.  Frustration over politicians, government and elections breeds frustration with parties.  These essays have attempted to provide a deeper understanding of parties and the role they play in democracy.  Our Founding Fathers did not despise political parties.  Rather, they created a new institution that came to be known as the political party to solve certain problems.  Parties gave structure to conflict in a democracy, translating individual preferences into societal ones through legislative action.  They also helped solve the challenge of collective action by mobilizing citizens who otherwise have little reason to vote.  Unfortunately, reformers targeted parties during the Progressive Movement and reduced their effectiveness.  Such weakening of parties raised the cost of voting and participation in democracy has suffered.  When we turn our attention to contemporary challenges facing democracy, we will see even bigger problems arising from the weakening of parties.

Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.

Parts in this series:

Introduction: Building Democracy 2.0

Part 1: What Is Democracy and Why Is It Important?

Part 2: How the Idea of Freedom Makes the First Innovation Possible

Part 3: The Second Innovation that Gave Rise to Modern Democracy

Part 4: The Rise and Function of Political Parties – Setting the Record Straight

Part 5: How Political Parties Turned Conflict into a Productive Force

Part 6: Parties and the Challenge of Voter Engagement

Part 7: The Progressive Movement and the Decline of Parties in America

Part 8: Rousseau and ‘the Will of the People’

Part 9: The Dark Secret of Majority Voting

Part 10: The Promise of Proportional Voting

Part 11: Majorities, Minorities and Innovation in Electoral Design

Part 12: The Misdirected Attempts at Electoral Reform in the U.S.

Part 13: Building Democracy 2.0: The Uses and Abuses of Redistricting in American Democracy