Leadership and reform: Herbert Croly and the Progressive critique of the American political tradition

John David Alvis, Fordham University


This dissertation examines Herbert Croly's critique of the American political tradition and his contribution to Progressive reform. For Progressives like Croly, the primary impediment to America's ability to govern in the wake of the industrial revolution was the antiquated features of our political institutions. According to Croly, American government has not adapted to the economic and social changes of the twentieth century because its political institutions were adopted in the interest of preventing government from exercising power. Two groups, according to Croly, are responsible: the people, who do not want to be ruled by the elite, and the elite, who do not want to be ruled by the people. Croly, on the other hand, argues that American government can be made both more efficient and democratic if the people and the elite can be encouraged to work cooperatively. This examination of Croly's thought is divided into two parts. The first part of the dissertation, attempts to explain Croly's criticism of American political development up to the Progressive Era. Heretofore, America has never made a conscious effort to reconcile the interests of the elite and the people because the country's fortuitous economic and social circumstances have not required that it do so. Croly hopes that by seeing the shortcomings among the contemporary political parties, Americans will see that the historical barrier between the elite and the people can no longer serve the interests of either party. The second part of the dissertation examines Croly's proposals for the reform of America's institutions of government. Here, Croly attempts to carve a place in democracy where the elite can utilize their abilities and talents in the administration of economic and social policy. Rather than one reform, Croly hopes that a series of on-going reforms will make it possible for American government to synthesize the knowledge and skill of the elite with the interests of democracy. Croly's proposals, however, never came to fruition in America as he envisioned it. Yet his work does offer students of American politics something useful in that it forces us to reexamine the virtues of constitutional government and the possibilities of leadership within it.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Alvis, John David, "Leadership and reform: Herbert Croly and the Progressive critique of the American political tradition" (2005). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3159382.