A review of A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, by Michael McGerr

It is important to get Progressivism right. The authors of its leading ideas founded the modern American university and created its disciplines and the journals that codified their thoughts. They created the ligaments of the national administrative and regulatory state, and founded and supplied a mass national journalism independent of political party and church. What's more, they witnessed and helped legitimate the creation of a national financial and industrial corporate economy, which soon became the engine driving the international economy and transforming America itself into the dominant world power. If we cannot understand and master Progressivism on these terms, we have little hope of understanding ourselves and the place of our country in the world—or of equipping ourselves to play a constructive role in shaping its future. 

Yet in "An Obituary for the 'Progressive Movement,'" his influential 1970 article, Peter Filene concluded that Progressivism had never existed as a coherent set of intellectual, cultural, political, or economic constituencies or programs. His conclusion in that early essay anticipated one result of the academy's coming abandonment of American political history and American political ideas: political history was replaced by social history structured around the holy trinity of class, gender, and race. But without an organizing political-intellectual narrative, academic historians produced such a diverse array of interpretations of Progressivism that its identity was quite lost. 

In his 1982 review article, "In Search of Progressivism," Daniel Rodgers attempted to systematize this interpretive disarray only to conclude that Progressives "did not share a common creed or a string of common values"; instead, they spoke in three incommensurable "languages of discontent."

Contrast these interpretive muddles with the clarity of the first generation of historians trained by the Progressives in the newly professionalized American universities. Their now-classic histories of American economic thought (Joseph Dorfman), American philosophy (Herbert Schneider), and American democratic thought (Ralph Henry Gabriel)—all published in the 1940s—demonstrated a clear understanding of Progressivism as a positive body of political and social thought set within, but deeply critical of, prevailing forms of American thought. Because they read American political history through the narrative of a history of ideas—including religious ideas—they helped us see Progressivism as both reform and national fulfillment. Recent studies that relate pragmatism to Progressive political economy (John Livingston) and to Protestantism and the social sciences (Andrew Feffer) recapture some of this same understanding, as does Dorothy Ross in her comprehensive study of the origins of American social science. 

The most recent histories of Progressivism, however, are not promising. Wearing their ideological hearts on their sleeves, the authors tell us more about themselves and their concerns than they do about American political culture at the turn of the last century. Jonathan Hansen's The Lost Promise of Patriotism is a thinly disguised editorial against American foreign policy since the 1980s. He isolates those few Progressives who opposed our entry into the First World War and reads back into their ideas an entire and exemplary tradition of thought—despite the obvious fact that massive numbers of Progressives who enthusiastically supported the war shared almost identical ideas and commitments and worked together for decades on the same reform projects. The fact that it was Herbert Hoover who rescued the leading antiwar Progressive, Jane Addams, from patriotic obloquy or that a proven Progressive, George Creel, headed Wilson's propaganda machine, are not considered worthy of address even as ironies. 

Other recent studies of the Progressives seem to be driven by opposition to the Reagan and Bush tax cuts or to national patriotism in general. Public intellectuals like John Judis, Michael Lind, and E.J. Dionne have joined these voices in attempts to revive the American Left by retrieving variously purged forms of Progressivism. This scholarship then produces its mirror: if the New Deal and Great Society are authentic products of Progressivism, part of the same political patterns and ideas, then we can uncover the origins of a now-discredited liberalism in the philosophies and social sciences of the Progressives.

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Against this background, what hope does a serious mainstream academic historian have to write a creditable history of Progressivism, especially one addressed to a general audience? Good liberal that he is (the book begins: "We live in a politically disappointing time"), Michael McGerr laments the end of liberalism and, indeed, the end of the "American Century," in the "Reagan Revolution." Initially at least, this study looks like another attempt to raise the morale of the Left by telling tendentious but exemplary stories. 

Having written an earlier and very influential study, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928, McGerr simply knows too much to go down that deeply-worn path. He has shaped an interesting and informed history by anchoring his story in the Gilded Age and by focusing on the northern Protestant middle classes—especially its women. Lacking a living tradition of political history in his own discipline, he nevertheless crafts a narrative that is plausible from the standpoint of political history and political ideas. This is made possible, ironically enough, because the turn to social history was most productive in its attention to women. It was they, and their religious and academic allies, who forged post-Civil War modes of political thought and action outside of the prevailing regimes of "parties and courts." 

The Progressive disparagement of electoral politics and the discrediting of patronage-driven and locally based political parties constituted not only attacks on existing political practice and its legal-constitutionalist framework, but also subversions of a certain kind of American fraternal-political masculinity. When, in 1884, Theodore Roosevelt and four other Harvard "Mugwumps" publicly broke with their party and supported Grover Cleveland, they were appropriately branded "political hermaphrodites." 

The critique of Gilded Age political practices and ideas, therefore, was at once an intellectual movement led by German-trained social scientists and a kind of "feminization," because both modes reconceived public-private and legal-moral distinctions. It was no accident that the leading proto-feminist intellectual and publicist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, wrote articles in The American Journal of Sociology, and that her Women and Economics (1898) was a gloss on the historicist and evolutionary framework that informed the writings of political economists such as Richard Ely, Simon Patten, John Bates Clark, and Henry Carter Adams, and social economists such as Albion Small, Franklin Giddings, and Charles Cooley. 

The heart of McGerr's book is an analysis of four progressive battles: "to change other people; to end class conflict; to control big business; and to segregate society." These four projects could easily be translated into contemporary political-correctness speak: extending Protestant middle class hegemony; dampening working class political consciousness; creating corporate liberal capitalism; and deepening racism. McGerr avoids this ideological reductionism by discussing all four projects in their appropriate historical contexts, that is, as battles against prevailing conditions, prevailing opponents, and prevailing alternatives. These battles are what make the discontent "fierce" and Progressive reform ideas and efforts so audacious and fresh.

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The project to change other people meant to reform the values and practices of the American middle classes and of the increasingly urban and immigrant working classes. The middle classes were urged to abandon forms of isolating individualism in religion, the economy, and the family that prevented the extension of a social ethic into the larger society. Here, the family was the crucial institution. For the middle classes, this meant that wives must look outward, translating their service to husband and children into a larger social service. This, in turn, suggested smaller families and less attention to conspicuous consumption, as well as the acceptance of professionally and politically active unmarried women, for whom society was their larger family. 

Working-class families required a living wage and sufficient leisure to make possible participation in civic life. This same project also required the suppression of activities that prevented the family from playing a formative reform role: alcohol, prostitution, and pornography were obvious targets, but so were child labor, family abandonment, substandard housing, and unsanitary conditions. Jane Addams's Hull House was both a center for middle class service and a resource for transforming working class families. It became a model replicated throughout the North and Midwest; more importantly, its programs in adult education, labor organizing, and social services became self-standing reform projects and institutions. 

Like neighborhood settlements, these projects and causes combined public and private worlds, sometimes, but not always, requiring active government intervention, and then usually at the local level. The same holds for the battles to end class conflict and to control big business. Both of these projects required more active government, but before government at any level could begin its tasks, it had first to be reformed and equipped. The virtues of the Progressive political and social economists and their Social Gospel allies included a suspicion of government, based on their experience of Gilded Age excesses and corruption. Indeed, they often placed more credence in the integrity and coherence of labor unions and corporations than in party- and patronage-driven governments and laws. Hence the attention the Progressives paid to shaping public opinion and to creating channels of information and social intelligence outside the party-political framework.

Although this skepticism of government waned as Progressive values gained in force, the legacy of reliance on voluntary, quasi-public bodies such as the National Civic Federation, or on ad hoc interventions by presidents, governors, and mayors remained strong. Another legacy of this skepticism was the creation of expert commissions and other regulatory bodies shielded from partisan and patronage politics.

A standing charge against the Progressives is their failure to address the stain of racial segregation. This charge gains force from the fact that most of the Progressive leaders came from Republican and abolitionist households and that re-segregation in the South gained momentum just when Progressive ideas were in their ascendancy. McGerr is right to make two mitigating arguments: first, "progressives turned to segregation as a way to preserve weaker groups, such as African-Americans and Native Americans, facing brutality and even annihilation." Secondly, any conceivable alternative at the time was worse. 

He might, however, have added a third and less exculpatory factor discussed by the political economists and further developed by Herbert Croly. The South was not and would not be a positive player in the reconstruction of American life. At best it was a peripheral colony that provided some measure of resources for the dynamic core economy in the North and Midwest. At worst it was a semi-feudal and backward region kept from mayhem and racial violence by adroit management of somewhat enlightened elites. 

There is another form of "segregation" that is not discussed by McGerr, but suggested by Olivier Zunz in Why the American Century? It involves the shift from "voluntarism" to "pluralism." Earlier nineteenth-century voluntarism mobilized individuals in common causes from the ground up, in a host of third-party and reform causes. Twentieth-century pluralism organizes large bodies of specialized activities bureaucratically and usually from the top down: corporations, labor unions, administrative and regulatory agencies, universities, and almost all trade and professional associations. Progressive "voluntarism" turned into institutional "pluralism" because so much of its political mobilization was from the top down, through national journalism, national universities, national reform and professional organizations, and later, even through the national government. These specialized organizations and expert-driven reform bodies tend to segregate memberships: the excluded and the marginal were forced into the older, populist modes of organizing in order to be heard at all. 

The move from voluntarism to pluralism illuminates the paradox that McGerr recognizes—ever-decreasing political and electoral participation, but the simultaneous increase of vibrant, reform-minded, and activist "publics" consciously restructuring the American family, economy, society and government.

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When did Progressivism die? McGerr cannot quite make up his mind. To say it died in the 1920s preserves much of its moral coherence but at the cost of its contemporary relevance (a point made convincingly in a recent book by Jeffrey C. Isaac,The Poverty of Progressivism). To say it lived partially in the New Deal and Great Society is to strip Progressivism of its most morally and intellectually innovative features. Perhaps the best conclusion is to say that Progressivism's morally energized publics undertook great national tasks by working through the standing, constitutionalized grid of decentralized and divided governments and party-electoral systems. In this grid, every national vision and every domestic program eventually becomes somewhat self-subverting. Wilson's income tax redistributed profits both to labor and to racist andrentier interests in the South; settlement houses became the welfare industry; Dewey's educational vision became the entrenched public school bureaucracy. 

One could plausibly argue that the Reagan Revolution recaptured as much of the Progressive spirit of national reform, national projects, and intellectual initiative against an entrenched and complacent Establishment as did elements of the New Left, now aging with tenure and looking for signs of a Left revival in every passing event.