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What is the Progressive Party?

By Jessica Hobby
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Progressive Party is a political party in the United States that was active in three American elections in the first half of the 1900s. Nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, the Progressive Party was established in 1912 as a division within the Republican Party. Robert La Follette, senator from Wisconsin, led an opposition group against the re-election of Republican President William Taft.

After he was not able to secure the nomination at the Republican convention, La Follette and his progressive group rallied around Theodore Roosevelt and gave him the presidential nomination for the new Progressive Party. Theodore Roosevelt lost the presidential election in 1912 and the party faded away, only to resurface a gain in 1924 and 1948.

In 1924, a group of Republicans were unhappy with incumbent presidential nominee Calvin Coolidge. La Follette once again led this group of progressives. He was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee and ran against Coolidge and Democratic nominee John Davis from South Carolina. The outcome of the 1924 election kept Coolidge in the White House.

The Progressive Party surfaced again in 1948 and nominated Henry Wallace, who served in the cabinets of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Wallace ran against Truman, in opposition to many of the Democrats’ policies, such as support of the New Deal. The 1948 presidential election was between Truman, Wallace, Republican nominee Thomas Dewey and Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrat Party. Truman overwhelmingly won re-election.

Although the Progressive Party never won a presidential election, many of its ideas have been very influential in the history of the United States. The platform of the Progressive Party was based on the principle that public welfare was the first priority. Its followers wished to end corporate and political corruption and maintain a government that was, “of the people, for the people and by the people.” The party platform outlined a variety of goals intended to increase the public well-being.

Goals included legislation that safeguarded the work environment and kept it free from accidents and diseases. Additionally, the party’s goals consisted of disallowing employees from being overworked by promoting an eight-hour work day, establishing safety and health standards for certain occupations and prohibiting child labor. Ending monopolistic business practices that harmed consumers was also a primary focus. The Progressive Party supported labor unions, the public education system and the creation of social insurance, which has been divided into different categories such as health insurance and homeowners’ insurance over the years.

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Discussion Comments
By kentuckycat — On Oct 21, 2011

Whenever I hear about the Progressive Party I never hear about their platform or their politics. The only thing I ever hear about is Theodore Roosevelt being chosen as their candidate and their successful 1912 election.

I only hear that their party was created because they could not stand William Howard Taft's policies and if this is the basis of their political party, they were one that would not last the test of time.

It seems to me that each time the Progressive Party re-emerges it is to try and split the party because they are unhappy with the sitting President. Even the name of the party, "Progressive" leads people to believe that the party is looking to better the nation and progress through to make the nation better.

I simply see parties such as the Progressive Party as merely a political ploy that is used when a party splits in an upcoming Presidential election. This pattern emerges throughout history and in essence do we ever really know what their platform is or just the candidates that run?

By Emilski — On Oct 20, 2011

I will say that the Progressive Party in 1912 took advantage of having a former President such as Roosevelt as their candidate and this greater attributed to their success in the election.

Having Roosevelt as their candidate established the Progressive Party's place in history as being a very successful Third Party and probably the most successful in a Presidential campaign.

Even though people do criticize the Progressive Party's place in history as only being that successful due to having Roosevelt run, this is the same with any Third Party, they are only as successful as their candidates and the voting public ultimately decides the party's place in history.

This is similar to Ross Perot running for President and obtaining 18% of the vote in the 1992 election. This was incredible for a Third Party in that era of politics and had an outcome on the election, but this was only accomplished due to having a very charismatic and successful candidate run that ultimately became the face of the party and established the parties place in history.

By TreeMan — On Oct 20, 2011

@Izzy78 - I agree with you to an extent. Roosevelt knew as a Third Party candidate he had little chance of winning the Presidency, but had more of a chance than Third Party candidates in the past due to his prestige as being a former President, that was still extremely popular and successful enough in his Presidency that he may still have a shot of getting elected.

Despite the things going for him he knew that he would still be an underdog due to the simple fact that he was a Third Party candidate and would probably not be elected. However, he did know that if he ran he would be able to take Republican votes away from Taft and this is evident in the final voter turnout.

I believe that Taft won only a single digit number of Electoral votes, I do know it was the fewest of any sitting President in the history of United States elections and Roosevelt was able to steal enough away that he was able to get Wilson elected President, which was his realistic goal.

By Izzy78 — On Oct 19, 2011

I will say that although the Progressive Party seems to have been one of the most successful Third Parties in the history of the United States, and probably came the closest to having a Third Party candidate elected to the Presidency, I believe they did so only because they had Theodore Roosevelt running as their candidate.

The reason why Roosevelt ran for the Progressive Party in 1912 was because he was very angry at William Howard Taft, who was his hand picked successor as a Republican candidate, for not following through on his promises to continue Roosevelt's policies during his administration.

Because of Roosevelt's animosity towards Taft he accepted the nomination as a Third Party candidate.

By fify — On Oct 19, 2011

@turquoise-- As far as I know, the Progressive party believed in a very strong government. They felt that the only way to control corruption and protect the working middle class was to exercise more governmental control over industry.

So, although I haven't read about their position on the economy specifically, I'm sure they would prefer a mixed economy over a purely capitalist one.

By burcinc — On Oct 18, 2011

I've always wondered what would have happened, had President Roosevelt had won against Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

I was reviewing notes for my American History class and noticed that President Roosevelt had actually gotten more votes than the Republican Presidential candidate Howard Taft that year. Roosevelt got 27% of the votes. But the Democratic party was very strong and Wilson beat both with more than 40% of votes.

If the Democratic party had been weak in the 1912 elections, the Progressive party would have definitely won the elections. I wonder how American politics and government would be different now if the Progressive Party had a chance to lead then?

What do you think?

By turquoise — On Oct 18, 2011

It sounds like the Progressive Party was very encouraging of social welfare programs.

Historically, what has been the Progressive Party's stand in terms of state ownership of businesses or capitalist economy?

For example, did the Progressive Party also promote more government control over the economy and businesses to make sure that the worker's and public's rights were being protected?

Did they prefer a capitalist economy or a mixed one where government controls some parts of the economy?

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