The rise of progressivism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a reform movement rooted in a new affection for science. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, there was the growing belief that scientific expertise could be applied to all societal ills – from education, urbanization, poverty, even immigration. 

Many significant American figures rose up during this period – including many influential women:  Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William James, John Dewey, and perhaps most notably, Theodore Roosevelt. And they affected change in every area of life from education to environmental conservation.

Yesterday, Gallup released a new poll revealing “widespread public uncertainty about the ‘progressive’ political label.”  Public figures like President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and most recently Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan have all described their political views as progressive, but it appears “fewer than half of Americans can say whether ‘progressive’ does (12%) or does not (31%) describe their own views.” In fact, “the majority [of Americans] (54%) are unsure.”

While a strong majority of respondents were uncertain what “progressive” means, “liberals are more likely to embrace” the label. In fact, “close to half of Americans (45%) who identify with the progressive label separately describe their political views as either very liberal or liberal.”

And there’s a reason for that.

In its most basic form, progressivism emphasized experts, specialization, and the ability of elites to manipulate public opinion. It stressed a top-down social philosophy that supported a government-run education system, eugenics, intensive government regulation of business, and Prohibition.

That’s why, in some respects, it’s surprising that Democrats, liberal political organizations, and liberal media outlets continue to adopt the word “progressivism” as a means of distinguishing themselves from conservatives.

While most Americans remain unclear about what progressivism means, those who use it do not. For Democrats like the president, Clinton, and Kagan progressivism signifies the expansion of federal power into all aspects of our lives from the “teaching” of global warming to the movement to control what Americans eat.

In contrast to the way Democrats like to make it sound, progressivism suggests that those in power – elites – know better than the public. And with just the right policy prescription, they believe they can fix all societal problems. I guess it’s no wonder such a small percentage of Americans identify with the label.