Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2003
New book traces origins of today's political climate
The roots of the current political malaise in the United States are deeper in the past than you might expect.
In his new book released Sept. 1, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, historian Michael McGerr examines the social, cultural and political aspects of a movement that, through its early successes and ultimate failure, has defined today's political climate.
McGerr's book (ISBN 0-684-85975-0) already has received the unusual distinction of boxed and starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal and is a selection of the History Book Club.
"Our attitude toward politics and our likelihood of participating in politics were very much shaped by events of 125 years ago," said McGerr, professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. "Progressivism is really the beginning of modern liberalism, of the dream that the power of government could be harnessed to transform people's lives across the whole range of their existence. It's the spectacular failure of the progressive movement during and after World War I that I think permanently made politicians less likely to try sweeping kinds of reform. For example, in most ways the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt was more cautious than, say, the progressive administration of Woodrow Wilson, in which Roosevelt had served. It's because Americans began to develop a greater cynicism about politics at that time, and it's persisted."
From the late 19th century until the Great Depression, American progressives undertook a vast array of reforms that shook the nation to its core, from class and labor issues to vice, immigration, women's rights and race. McGerr maintains that this progressive vision of remaking America in its own middle-class image eventually sparked a conservative backlash that persists to this day.
He illuminates the origins of progressive thought, the movement's meteoric ascent in American life, and its descent into "the Red scare, race riots, strikes and inflation," culminating in the social and economic chaos of the 1960s and 1970s and the rebirth of conservatism. His conclusion: "The basic lesson of the progressive era is that reformers should not try too much."
His book argues that progressivism and therefore liberalism was born out of a reaction against conservatism's emphasis on individual freedom. "Many middle-class Americans came to believe that individual freedom in the hands of big businessmen had become a perverted thing and would destroy the country," he said. "Progressivism grew out of a belief that market forces, i.e., a society of free individuals doing whatever they wanted to do, was hopelessly inadequate and destructive. The most difficult thing for liberals and conservatives to square is the liberal insistence that a better society has to come at the cost of rejecting certain kinds of individual freedom, and also requires saying that some people ought to mold and shape others.
"I try to show in this book that progressivism was rejected not only because people became concerned about the extent to which the economy might suffer if it were regulated, but because they rejected the progressive desire to control personal pleasure and consumerism in general. Prohibition is the best example. One of the first things Franklin Roosevelt did as president was to support the repeal of Prohibition. New Deal liberalism said that government ought to make sure you're prosperous, but it shouldn't tell you how to spend your money. Progressives really believed that you ought to be told how to spend your money. They dared to do that because they believed they could produce a more utopian society," he said.
American politics oscillates back and forth between liberalism and conservatism because neither seems able to address the fundamental desires Americans have for a prosperous, ordered society in which people are as free as they want to be, he explained.
"At times Americans conclude that the price of freedom is too great and there needs to be more regulation, and at other times they say things are fine and they shouldn't be constrained. A point I try to make in this book is that even though there is that kind of oscillation over the long term, the swinging back and forth has gotten less and less, partly because neither side is prepared to promise utopia as they used to. I think that's one of the reasons why more and more commentators are saying the differences between liberals and conservatives have become insignificant. Analyzing the politics of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it's harder to say what's liberal and what's conservative."