If truth in labeling laws were applied to politics, the American left would have headed for the hills by now. Once “liberal” became a dirty word, they looked back over a century for guidance on how to redefine themselves. Yesterday’s liberal Democrats morphed into today’s “progressives.” Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first in American politics to be described as progressive, and true to form both sought to expand the scope of executive power. But “progress” had a far broader connotation at the time, even being tinged with a hint of optimism, a trait utterly lacking from contemporary liberalism.
Back then, people thought of progress as the evolution of society from the preindustrial age toward modernity. They attributed the remarkable changes they witnessed to both science and invention. One of the most publicized examples of this was Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which was tested and validated in 1919. Einstein demonstrated that gravity is not a force like magnetism, but instead the warping of space by massive objects. Few people understood the significance of this at the time, but Einstein nevertheless became the pop star of his era. General relativity had displaced one of Newton’s seminal explanations for the little-understood phenomena that made the existence of the universe possible, and its confirmation signaled the possibility that many more fundamental truths would one day be uncovered.
Of course, modernity also had its dark side. New weaponry enabled warring nations to slaughter each other’s soldiers on an industrial scale, and the harnessing of electromagnetic waves made it easier to disseminate pernicious propaganda. Nevertheless, Americans viewed the future with their typical optimism, seeing the glass as half full, rather than as half empty.