A highly accessible survey of the Progressive Era, linking its reformist movements to their fruition—or, sometimes, repudiation—in the decades that followed.
“We live in a politically disappointing time,” writes McGerr (History/Indiana Univ.), and certainly as compared to the tumultuous half-century when progressive movements of various stripes worked to rein in corporate power and make the nation safe for democracy. McGerr elaborates: the Progressive Era inaugurated the “American Century,” a period that was resolutely liberal and that ended early in the racial backlash, social upheaval, and sour economy of the late 1960s and the conservative counterrevolution that ensued. At its origin, McGerr holds, progressivism was an economic movement, a reaction against the “upper ten”—the percentage of society as measured by wealth, that is, which really turns out to have been a mere one or two percent of the population who controlled “fortunes with few parallels in history.” Through campaigns for graduated taxation on income and inheritances, workers’ rights, a humane workday, and other measures, progressives such as Jane Addams managed to curb some of the power of this superclass, always stopping short of calling for pure socialism—for most progressives of the time mistrusted the deterministic, Marxist view of the class struggle, and in any event European socialism clashed with nativist sensibilities, which, as McGerr does not hesitate to acknowledge, lent progressivism a racist edge. (“The progressives’ . . . political weakness,” he writes, “was their willingness to segregate the ballot box, and thereby keep so many Americans out of the battle against privilege.”) The fundamental goal of progressivism, he suggests, was to end the battle between labor and capital, but the struggle spilled out in other directions, such as Carrie Nation’s campaign to rid America of the evils of alcohol (which, she argued, contributed to crime, prostitution, and the oppression of women) and Sherwood Anderson’s mission to bed as many women as he could in the name of sexual liberation—quests that would be replayed by others in the years to come.
A lucid overview for students of American history and politics.