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Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy

Sidney M. Milkis

New in Paperback: September 2011
xvi, 362 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1817-0, $24.95

book cover imageLed by Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party made the 1912 campaign a passionate contest for the soul of the American people. Promoting an ambitious program of economic, social, and political reform—“New Nationalism”—that posed profound challenges to constitutional government, TR and his Progressive supporters provoked an extraordinary debate about the future of the country. Sidney Milkis revisits this emotionally charged contest to show how a party seemingly consumed by its leader’s ambition dominated the election and left an enduring legacy that set in motion the rise of mass democracy and the expansion of national administrative power.

Milkis depicts the Progressive Party as a collective enterprise of activists, spearheaded by TR, who pursued a program of reform dedicated to direct democracy and social justice and a balance between rights and civic duty. These reformers hoped to create a new concept of citizenship that would fulfill the lofty aspirations of “we the people” in a quest for a “more perfect union”—a quest hampered by fierce infighting over civil rights and antitrust policy.

Milkis shows that the Progressive campaign aroused not just an important debate over reforms but also a battle for the very meaning of Progressivism. He describes how Roosevelt gave focus to the party with his dedication to “pure democracy”—even shoehorning judicial recall into his professed “true conservative” stance. Although this pledge to make the American people “masters of their Constitution” provoked considerable controversy, Milkis contends that the Progressives were not all that far removed from the more nationally minded of the Founders.

As Milkis reveals, the party’s faith in a more plebiscitary form of democracy would ultimately rob it of the very organization it needed in order to survive after Roosevelt. Yet the Progressive Party’s program of social reform and “direct democracy” has reverberated through American politics—especially in 2008, with Barack Obama appealing to similar instincts. By probing the deep historical roots of contemporary developments in American politics, his book shows that Progressivism continues to shape American politics a century later.

“Taking Roosevelt seriously as a thinker, Milkis covers his protagonist’s post-presidential career with a thoroughness unmatched by previous biographers.”—Alonzo Hamby in the Claremont Review

“A must-read for students of the Progressive Era as well as the presidency. Milkis has set a standard for understanding TR and progressive reform that will ensure his book will be read for years to come.”—Journal of American History

“Clearly written and cogently argued, this book offers one of the most convincing cases for considering the Progressive Era to be a genuine age of transformation.”—Political Science Quarterly

“Filled with valuable insights and engaging vignettes. An enjoyable must-read for scholars of American political development.”—Choice

“Lively, timely, accessible, profound, this is a terrific book on the historic election of 1912 and, indeed, on the ideas which inspired the transformation of the American presidency in the twentieth century.”—Stephen Skowronek, author of The Politics Presidents Make

“Milkis shows better than anyone else how this election marked a profound and permanent departure in American politics.”—John Milton Cooper, author of The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt

“A brilliant book from one of America’s foremost social thinkers. Exciting, wise, elegant, and altogether pathbreaking.” —James A. Morone, author of The Democratic Wish and the Heart of Power

“This work is a major reinterpretation that portrays the election of 1912 as one of the formative events of American political history. It is must reading for students of electoral and policy history.”—David R. Mayhew, author of Divided We Govern

“This book is political and institutional history at its narrative and analytic best. Milkis’s foreshadowing of the New Deal and of the possible consequences of the election of 2008 for the Democratic Party shows a master drawing lessons from the history he writes.”Nancy L. Rosenblum, author of On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship

“A masterful account of a pivotal moment in American politics. Milkis persuasively shows how the Progressive conundrum—how to reconcile the ideals of democracy with the goals of effective government—took root and how it continues to reverberate throughout our public life today.”—Margaret Weir, editor of The Social Divide: Political Parties and the Future of Activist Government  

SIDNEY M. MILKIS is White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics and Assistant Director of Academic Programs at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is the author or coauthor of six books, including The President and the Parties: The Transformation of the American Party System since the New Deal; Political Parties and Constitutional Government: Remaking American Democracy; and Presidential Greatness (with Marc Landy).

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