Progressive Democracy, chapters 12–13 (excerpts)

In Herbert Croly’s view, why did America need to rely on representation rather than pure or direct democracy in the 1700s? What changed circumstances make direct democracy more feasible in the 1900s? How should government be made more directly democratic, in his view? How should a direct democracy, if it is progressive, lead to a stronger government and especially a stronger administrative branch?
How does Croly seek to reconcile the tension between more direct democracy and aggrandizement of administrative agencies? Is his solution different than, or similar to, the vision offered by Frank Goodnow (Politics and Administration)? Is Croly’s version of direct democracy the same as that of Anti-Federalists such as Federal Farmer and Brutus (Federal Farmer No. 7, Federal Farmer, No. 11, and Brutus No. 16)?  

Herbert Croly (1869–1930) was one of the most prominent intellectuals within the Progressive Movement. He attended the City College of New York for a single year. Subsequently, Croly dropped out and enrolled in Harvard several times for various reasons, including an ailing father and a nervous breakdown in 1893. Croly never officially graduated. For several years Croly worked as an editor for the Architectural Record, during which time he wrote. Nevertheless, Croly was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard for the publication of his first major book The Promise of American Life in 1909, which is often considered the manifesto of American Progressivism. The book launched Croly’s career as a leading Progressive intellectual. Five years later, he published Progressive Democracy, a book which built upon the arguments of his earlier work. In this work, Croly sought to reconcile Progressives’ advocacy for direct democracy with their support for bureaucracy. Croly believed that Congress needed to become much more democratic, in order to delegate powers to administrative agencies and oversee their activities.

—Joseph Postell

Source: Herbert Croly, Progressive Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

CHAPTER XII: The Advent of Direct Government

If economic, social, political, and technical conditions had remained very much as they were at the end of the eighteenth century, the purely democratic political aspirations might never have obtained the chance of expression. Some form of essentially representative government was at that time apparently the only dependable kind of liberal political organization. It was imposed by the physical and technical conditions under which the government had to be conducted. Direct government did not seem to be possible outside of city or tribal states, whose population and area was sufficiently small to permit the actual assemblage of the body politic at some particular place, either at regular intervals or in case of an emergency. But in the case of states chiefly devoted to agriculture, whose free citizens were distributed over a wide area, and were, in any event, too numerous for actual assemblage in any one spot, it seemed necessary for the people to delegate a body of representatives the power required not merely for public administration, but for the discussion of public questions, the adoption of public policies and the supervising of the administration itself. Some form of a responsible representative government, that is, was prescribed by fundamental economic and social conditions. The function was performed in the several states according to the method best adapted to local traditions and by the class which had proved itself capable of leadership.

In the twentieth century, however, these practical conditions of political association have again changed, and have changed in a manner which enables the mass of the people to assume some immediate control of their political destinies. While it is more impossible than ever for the citizens of a modern industrial and agricultural state actually to assemble after the manner of a New England town-meeting[1], it is no longer necessary for them so to assemble. They have abundant opportunities of communication and consultation without any actual meeting at one time and place. They are kept in constant touch with one another by means of the complicated agencies of publicity and intercourse which are afforded by the magazines, the press and the like. The active citizenship of the country meets every morning and evening and discusses the affairs of the nation with the newspaper as the impersonal interlocutor. Public opinion has a thousand methods of seeking information and obtaining definite and effective expression which it did not have four generations ago. The community is broken up into innumerable smaller communities, each of which is united by common interests and ideas and each of which is seeking to bring a larger number of people under the influence of its interests and ideas. Under such conditions the discussions which take place in a Congress or a Parliament no longer possess their former function. They no longer create and guide what public opinion there is. Their purpose rather is to provide a mirror for public opinion, to advertise and illuminate its constituent ideas and purposes, and to confront the advocates of those ideas with the discipline of effective resistance and, perhaps, with the responsibilities of power. . . .

The adoption of the machinery of direct government is a legitimate expression of this change. After centuries of political development, in which certain forms of representation were imposed upon progressive nations by conditions of practical efficiency, and in which these representative forms grew continually in variety and complexity, underlying conditions have again shifted. Pure democracy has again become not merely possible, but natural and appropriate. . . .

Increasingly direct popular political action[2] is coming to have a function in the political organization of a modern society, because only in this way can the nation again become a master in its own house. Its very fecundity, and the enormous power which many of its offspring obtain, have compelled a democratic nation to adopt a more thoroughgoing method of promoting its integrity. As yet, it is not making very much headway. It is distracted and disconcerted by its own fertility. It is terrified in particular by the capitalist and labor organizations to which it has given birth. But it will not continue to be disconcerted and terrified. It is adopting the very political instruments which are necessary for the purpose of keeping control of the increasingly numerous and increasingly power agencies of its own life. The attempt, far from being a reactionary reversion to an earlier political and social type, prepares the way, it may be hoped, for an advance towards a better and deeper social and political union, associated with direct popular political action and responsibility.

CHAPTER XIII: Direct versus Representative Government

. . . Direct government cannot be fairly condemned as reactionary unless the exercise of the broad general responsibilities, which it imposes upon the electorate, proves inimical to the delegation of sufficient and specific additional responsibilities to other departments of the government. This second aspect of the matter still remains to be discussed. . . . Will the advent of direct democracy result in any increase of the confusion and disorganization which prevails in the mechanism of American state representation? Or will the draught of self-confidence, which our local democracies are by way of swallowing, to be communicated to the behavior of the rest of the political mechanism and invigorate the whole system? Will direct popular government commit the same fatal mistake which, to a greater or smaller extent, has already been committed by the national monarchies, by parliamentary government and by democratic legalism? Will it seek to appropriate or emasculate legislative or administrative functions which need to be delegated to other human agencies?

The critics of direct democracy can hardly be blamed for considering doubtful the answers to the foregoing questions. The American experiment in direct democracy is still in its early youth. Its meaning and its tendencies cannot be demonstrated from experience. If the active political responsibilities which it grants to the electorate are redeemed in the negative and suspicious spirit which characterized the attitude of the American democracy towards its official organization during its long and barren alliance with legalism, direct democracy will merely become a source of additional confusion and disorganization. On the other hand, if, as a consequence of its rupture with legalism, the American democracy undergoes a change of spirit, if the attempt to discharge new and responsible activities in connection with its own government brings with it a positive inspiration and genuine social energy, the result may be to renovate American representative institutions and afford novel and desirable opportunities for effective political leadership. . . .

The more dogmatic partisans of direct government do not help us very much in making a decision between the foregoing alternatives. In fact, they seem not to understand that any such alternatives exist. They usually attack much the same automatic efficacy to the system of direct government that the Fathers attached to constitutionalism and checks and balances. They have not, indeed, any declared intention of substituting direct for representative government. They admit verbally the necessity in a pure democracy of some effective delegation of specific governmental functions. But as a rule they devote very little attention and thought to the problem of a more powerful and efficient mechanism of legislation and administration. They are preoccupied by the flagrant betrayal of the popular interest which took place under the traditional system, and they seem to think that the adoption of the initiative, referendum, and the recall[3] will not merely protect the popular interest, but liberate the popular will—even though the popular will lacks, as much as it has lacked in the past, the impulse of positive social purposes.

Such an attitude toward the instruments of direct government is merely another expression of the old superstitious belief in political mechanics against which progressive democracy is bound to protest. If the people in the directly governed states consider the new instruments of democracy as fundamentally a safeguard against abuse and oppression, they may succeed in abolishing one kind of abuse and oppression, but only at the price of its being succeeded by other kinds. If they do not impose limits on their use of instruments of direct government, based upon the conditions of their profitable service, it will prove to be a barren and mischievous addition to the stock of democratic political institutions. The success of the new instruments as a negative safeguards will be commensurate with their success as agencies for the realization of popular political purposes. Their serviceability as agencies for the realization of popular political purposes will depend upon the ability of democratic law-givers to associate with them an efficient method of delegating popular political authority. Direct democracy, that is, has little meaning except in a community which is resolutely pursuing a vigorous social program. It must become one of a group of political institutions, whose object is fundamentally to invigorate and socialize the action of the American public opinion.

The salient reasons which make it necessary to associate the advent of direct democracy with the attempt to realize a positive social program have already been indicated. They are derived from the profound alterations in the balance of a political organization which is substituting a positive for a negative social policy. The abstract legalistic individualism of the Jeffersonian democracy had, in theory, no need of any machinery of direct popular control. [4] The activity of government was restricted, and its organs were emasculated, in the interest of a specific formulation of individual rights. Government was considered to be merely a form of temporary police supervision. Such a political system was placed in irons by the law and lacked the power to do any harm. It really needed to operate somewhat independently of public opinion. Fermentation of public opinion and active political and social experimentation could not accomplish anything of real social value. The essential popular needs were already safeguarded in the law, which deserved vigilant protection and unquestioning obedience on the part of all good citizens. Effective popular control of such a government was unnecessary. Government was not intended to be the instrument of important popular social purposes.

In its actual historical development the government soon became the instrument of important popular social purposes, and it was obliged to develop a corresponding method of popular control. But the popular social purposes which the state and federal governments formerly attempted to realize were derived from the old individualistic social economy, and the control supposed to be exercised by the partisan organizations was ineffective. A wholly new situation was created when the local democracies came to need and possess a genuinely social policy, which threw increased burdens upon the government, and commensurately increased its power. Under such conditions, direct popular control over the mechanism of government became of essential importance. A negative individualistic social policy implies a weak and irresponsible government. A positive, comprehensive social policy implies a strong, efficient and responsible government. But a strong and efficient government, which exercises a large part of the authority of the state and which is not bound by the substantive provisions of the fundamental Law, which might well be dangerous, not only to individual civil rights, but to popular political rights. Every precaution should be adopted to keep it in sensitive touch with public opinion. A lack of responsiveness to public opinion would tempt it to become domineering and oppressive, and would in the long run make its own work abortive as well as dangerous. A social policy is concerned in the most intimate and comprehensive way with the lives of the people. In order to be successful, it must rest on the basis of abundant and cordial popular support.

The mechanism of direct government has, consequently, an essential function to perform in the organization of a social democracy. The realization of a genuine social policy necessitates the aggrandizement of the administrative and legislative branches of the government. Progressive democracy recognizes the need of these instruments, but it recognizes the need of keeping control of them. A strong government with an affirmative policy and effective popular control are supplementary, rather than hostile, one to another. The realization of such a policy will in the long run demand both an efficient system of representation and an efficient method of direct popular supervision. . . .

Our conclusion, then, is double-faced. Democracy implies and needs some method of representation which will be efficient and responsible enough to carry out a social policy, but which does not imply the delegation of its own ultimate discretionary power to any body of men or body of law. No such representative system can be found in the provisions of existing state constitutions. An organization of the executive and legislative powers, which will give increased energy to both of them and which is adjusted to their cooperation both one with another and with a sufficient measure of direct government, is what is needed and must be contrived. The new organization will be intended first, last and always to promote public education. It must be adapted to action, but the action must merely be the decisive temporary result of widespread popular fermentation. It must have the chance to be efficient, but only for the purpose of being educational. It must be able to educate, but primarily by the road of efficient action. The new system can accomplish nothing without human energy, intelligence, sacrifice and faith, but if those qualities are present, it will make the best use of them.

  1. 1. The New England Town Meeting was a form of direct democracy practiced at the local level in New England towns in the 1700s and 1800s. In these meetings, the people of the town would meet and act as a legislative body rather than authorizing elected representatives to make laws on their behalf. They are often cited as the preeminent example of American democracy at the local level.
  2. 2. By “direct popular political action,” Croly means a variety of political reforms that enable people to make political decisions directly, rather than electing representatives to accomplish that task. For instance, ballot initiatives allow citizens to make law by voting on specific measures rather than electing legislatures for that purpose. The recall, which was advocated by Anti-Federalists as well as Progressives (see Federal Farmer, No. 11), allows the people to remove a representative from office even before their terms are completed. The Progressives also advocated more direct elections, such as the direct election of senators, which was accomplished by the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.
  3. 3. The initiative, referendum, and recall were all important reforms desired by Progressives to achieve direct, rather than representative democracy. The initiative allows citizens to propose new statutes or constitutional amendments through direct vote, while the referendum allows state legislatures to refer legislation or constitutional amendments to the people for a direct vote at the next election. The recall enables the voters in a district or state to remove a representative from office, through direct vote, before the end of their specified term. While not used at the national level, these reforms are widely used at the state level in the United States.
  4. 4. The Progressives were not the first to advocate for more direct democracy. Anti-Federalists had previously argued for more direct elections, the recall of representatives, and so forth. See, for instance, Federal Farmer, No. 11 and Brutus No. 16. But Croly is arguing that direct government must be paired with a “social democracy” that will require “aggrandizement of the administrative and legislative branches of government.” Anti-Federalists were fearful of creating a stronger national government with a powerful administration, but Croly advocates marrying the two: direct democracy and a strong administrative state.
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