Bradley C. S. Watson, "Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea" (U Notre Dame Press, 2020)


“Only recently have scholars outside the historical profession identified progressivism for what it was and continues to be: a fundamental rupture with the roots of American order.”

So writes the political scientist and theorist Bradley C. S. Watson in his 2020 book Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea (U Notre Dame Press). 

Watson provides an intellectual history of how historians such as Richard Hofstadter tended to underplay what a radical break the Progressive Movement was from American constitutionalism. The book shows that only in recent decades have political theorists entered the fray and rendered clear how dire the ramifications for American society and culture the views on the Constitution of such figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were and what a massive break they were from the legacy of the founders and such advocates of natural rights as Abraham Lincoln.

Anyone interested in how American political history was written in the period of roughly 1940-1980 should read this book. So should anyone interested in the differences between the views of historians and political scientists on the same developments.

And this is not just a matter of the mindsets of various fields of scholarship. These debates shaped public policy and affected a host of issues such as the rise of the administrative state and the role of expertise in governance, the place of religion (Christianity first and foremost) in American life and the ideology-dependent staffing of the ranks of college social science departments, government entities and other key institutions. All of these developments filtered out to the rest of society.

Watson helps us understand what the Progressives (including politicians, academics and theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch) of the period of roughly 1900-1930 actually said and wrote versus what historians in the decades shortly thereafter said they said.

Let’s hear from Professor Watson himself.

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.

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Hope J. Leman

Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher in the biomedical sciences. She is particularly interested in the subjects of natural law, religious liberty and history generally.

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