The progressives believed, first and foremost, in the importance of science and scientific experts in guiding the economy, government, and society. Against the selfishness, disorder, corruption, ignorance, conflict and wastefulness of free markets or mass democracy, they advanced the ideal of disinterested, public-spirited social control by well-educated elites. The progressives were technocrats who, Leonard observes, “agreed that expert public administrators do not merely serve the common good, they also identify the common good.” Schools of public administration, including the one that since 1948 has borne Woodrow Wilson’s name, still enshrine that conviction.
Leonard also brings to light an embarrassing truth: In the early 20th century, the progressive definition of the common good was thoroughly infused with scientific racism. Harvard economist William Z. Ripley, for example, was a recognized expert on both railroad regulation and the classification of European races by coloring, stature and "cephalic index," or head shape. At the University of Wisconsin, the red-hot center of progressive thought, leading social scientists turned out economic-reform proposals along with works parsing the racial characteristics -- and supposed natural inferiority -- of blacks, Chinese, and non-Teutonic European immigrants. (Present-day progressives somehow didn’t highlight this heritage when they were defending “the Wisconsin Idea” against the depredations of Republican Governor Scott Walker.)
Eugenics and "Race Science"
“The ‘race suicide’ of the American or colonial stock should be regarded as the most fundamental of our social problems,” the Wisconsin economist John R. Commons wrote in 1920. His colleague Edward A. Ross, who popularized the terms “social control” and “race suicide,” called interest in eugenics “a perfect index of one’s breadth of outlook and unselfish concern for the future of our race.”
In the early 20th century, most progressives viewed as cutting-edge science what today looks like simple bigotry. “Eugenics and race science were not pseudosciences in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” Leonard emphasizes. “They were sciences,” supported by research laboratories and scholarly journals and promoted by professors at the country’s most prestigious universities.
While some socialists and conservatives also embraced them, Leonard argues, eugenics and scientific racism fit particularly well with progressive thought: “Eugenics was anti-individualistic; it promised efficiency; it required expertise, and it was founded on the authority of science.” Equally important, “biological ideas,” Leonard writes, gave progressive reformers “a conceptual scheme capable of accommodating the great contradiction at the heart of Progressive Era reform -- its view of the poor as victims deserving state uplift and as threats requiring state restraint.” They could feel sorry for impoverished Americans while trying to restrict their influence and limit their numbers.