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For H-SHGAPE, January 31, 1997
Like an unpleasant party guest, Progressivism refuses to go away. It continues to serve as an organizing concept for the public life of the early twentieth-century despite numerous complaints that it is too hazy and deceptive a term to be analytically useful. Textbooks invariably mark off "the Progressive era" as a distinctive chapter in American history while monographs and scholarly articles still accept the notion that there was something called Progressive reform, however varied, or least that there was a group of people who can safely be called Progressives. Yet while refusing to reject Progressivism out of hand, most scholars would probably acknowledge a bit of discomfort about its vagueness. Past definitions have proven unsatisfactory yet no clear consensus has emerged about how to define precisely the term denoting the inchoate ideas and initiatives fueling reform activity from the 1890s to World War I.
Progressivism's original meaning can be traced to the early twentieth century itself. Journalists, scholars, and politicians sought to explain the sudden clamor for political, social, and economic reform that emerged in that era. They detected a broad consensus among "the people" demanding the changes necessary to bring American institutions and practices in line with the needs and circumstances of an urban-industrial society. Benjamin Parke De Witt's _The Progressive Movement_, published in 1914, expressed this perspective most effectively. De Witt argued that commentators had given too much attention to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party while ignoring "the more fundamental movement of which it [was] a part" (vii). Despite his certainty about the coherence of Progressive reform, De Witt acknowledged its complexity and offered a still-useful description of its dimensions. It consisted of three widely shared "tendencies": the elimination of corrupt influences in politics, the restructuring of governmental institutions, and the belief that government activity must be expanded "to relieve social and economic distress"(4-5). From the start then, efforts to define Progressivism wrestled with difficulty of uniting many different strands of reform under a single heading.
De Witt's interpretation persisted, with only minor variations over the next several decades. Progressivism became part of a steady advancement toward a modern welfare state, culminating with the New Deal. Eric F. Goldman's _Rendezvous with Destiny_ put Progressivism in this context, presenting it as an episode in liberal reform that built upon the ideas and innovations of late nineteenth century reformers and was a precursor to the federal policies and programs of the 1930s.
The first major challenge to this interpretation came in the 1950s when first George Mowry (_The California Progressives_) and then Richard Hofstadter (_The Age of Reform_) linked Progressivism to the middle class. Although Mowry's was a more carefully grounded case study, Hofstadter's sweeping interpretation of American politics from the 1890s to the 1930s proved most powerful.
Seeking to distinguish what he saw as a pragmatic New Deal from earlier ideologically-driven reform movements (as well as from communism and fascism), Hofstadter presented Progressivism as the response of a status-anxious middle class to the changes they encountered as the U.S. industrialized. Sensing their declining power relative to both big-business and immigrant-backed bosses, the predominantly Yankee middle class pursued reforms designed to shore up their social and political authority.
Although Hofstadter's argument drew criticism almost from the start, it set the terms of the debate. Progressivism was a phenomenon that could be explained as the movement of a specific set (or sets) of people. Those who disagreed with his conclusions thought he had the wrong group, not that group-based explanations were wrong. Some of Hofstadter's challengers simply defined the middle class differently. Others found different groups that could quite reasonably be called Progressives as well.
Perhaps the strongest thrust in this work linked Progressivism to a _new_ middle class. Robert Wiebe's _The Search for Order_ described Progressives as a group of professionals and bureaucrats who helped engineer the transformation of the American society from a nation of "island communities" to a centralized, hierarchical, bureaucratic order. Progressivism was the ethos of systemization and efficiency they espoused. Others echoed and augmented Wiebe's thesis, particularly Samuel Hays, who located the source of urban Progressivism first in the upper-class elite ("The Politics of Municipal Reform") and later in a more nebulous group of "cosmopolitans" ("The Changing Political Structure of the City in Industrial America"). This work formed the basis of an "organizational synthesis" that offered a sweeping schematic for describing modern American political and social development.
Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein carried this interpretation a step further, arguing that Progressive reform was at bottom the tool of a corporate elite. Kolko's _The Triumph of Conservatism_ described the efforts of a monolithic big business to shape federal regulation to its benefit. Weinstein's _The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State_ claimed that "the ideal of a liberal corporate social order" at the core of Progressivism was created by "the more sophisticated leaders of America's largest corporations and financial institutions" (ix) to forestall more radical reforms.
Others found different sources for Progressivism. Robert Crunden, in _Ministers of Reform_, argued that a shared religious background motivated leading Progressives and explained the surge of social and political activism around the turn of the century. Following the lead of Richard Wade ("Urbanization"), Zane Miller's _Boss Cox's Cincinnati: Urban Politics in the Progressive Era_ and Michael McCarthy's "The New Metropolis: Chicago, the Annexation Movement, and Progressive Reform" locate the roots of Progressive urban reform in the demands of both middle- and working-class suburban communities.
Innovative women's history highlighted yet another fount of Progressivism. Prompted by Estelle Freedman's essay, "Separatism as a Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930," scholars focusing on female activism have noted the central role played by women's organizations in the implementation of social reforms during the Progressive era. Paula Baker's "The Domestication of Politics," Robyn Muncy's _Creating A Female Dominion in American Reform_, Maureen Flanagan's "Gender and Urban Political Reform," and numerous other studies have built on this insight, placing women activists at the center of the policy innovations and political changes associated with Progressivism.
Perhaps the most direct challenge to the Hofstadter-inspired middle-class thesis came from scholars examining the political activity of blue-collar immigrants and their leaders. J. Joseph Huthmacher's "Urban Liberalism and the Age of Reform" suggested that urban ethnics supported many social reform efforts and even some of the political reforms considered to be Progressive. John D. Buenker's _Urban Liberalism and Progressive Reform_ built on this thesis, to the point of arguing that immigrant politics, far from being the reactionary force described by Hofstadter, was in fact a progenitor of twentieth-century American liberalism. Michael P. Rogin and John L. Shover, _Political Change in California_ made a similar argument, located support for Progressive innovations among the working-class.
Along with the many attempts to revise the explanation of who Progressives were, a few challenged other elements of the prevailing view. Melvin Holli, in _Reform in Detroit_, proposed a division of Progressivism into two categories: social reform and structural reform. The former dealt with efforts to assist the urban poor, the latter aimed at reorganizing governmental institutions. J. Morgan Kousser, _The Shaping of Southern Politics_ and Dewey Grantham, _Southern Progressivism_ analyze the distinctively southern (and racist) dimensions of Progressivism. Arthur Link, in "What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920s?", succinctly suggests that at least some kinds of Progressive reform persisted into the 1920s, a point several others have made as well.
As explanations of Progressivism's social basis and intellectual character multiplied, dissatisfaction grew. The best- known statement of this discontent was Peter Filene's 1970 "An Obituary for the Progressive Movement." Defining the term "movement" carefully, Filene argued that the early-twentieth- century reform surge never had the coherence necessary to qualify as a distinctive social or political movement. He proposed abandoning the term "Progressive" and finding some other basis for a synthesis of early twentieth-century public life.
While Filene's call struck a nerve it failed to eliminate Progressivism from the lexicon of American history. Instead it sparked a new round of revisionism featuring several efforts to come up with a more flexible, satisfactory definition. Abandoning group-based analysis, they sought other explanations of the origin and nature of early twentieth-century reform. Writing at around the same time as Filene, David Thelen was among the first to propose an alternative interpretation. His "Social Tensions and the Origins of Progressivism" (followed shortly by _The New Citizenship_) depicted Progressivism as an outgrowth of the experience of the economic depression of the early 1890s, rather than as the product of contests between specific social groups. Richard L. McCormick's "The Discovery that Business Corrupts Politics" persuasively argued that Progressive reform grew out of the pressure for political change sparked by muckraking journalism.
The most successful revisionist statement has been Daniel Rodgers 1982 essay, "In Search of Progressivism." Rejecting both group-based explanations and simplistic ideological typologies, Rodgers described Progressivism as three distinct but overlapping "languages of discontent" that echoed the "tendencies" described by De Witt in 1914: antimonopolism, a rhetoric of social harmony, and demands for efficiency. In Rodgers' formulation, these categories were not systematic sets of ideas but rather ways of talking about society. The chief virtue of this approach was its flexibility: Progressives could use these languages in different ways and for different (sometimes opposing) purposes. Scholars could thus place a myriad of activities by a variety of groups under the heading Progressivism without necessarily having to resolve the contradictions and inconsistencies among them.
Not surprisingly, no clear understanding of Progressivism has emerged in the wake of Rodgers' analysis. While his three-strand approach has become standard fare in textbooks, it's impact on research is less definitive. It seems to have freed up scholars to approach the issue as they see fit. Eldon Eisenach (_The Lost Promise of Progressivism_) addressed Progressivism as a coherent body of ideas. Kenneth Finegold's _Experts and Politicians_ presented two kinds of urban reform--traditional reform and municipal populism--and defined Progressivism as the uniting of the two threads under the aegis of experts. Others simplify: Thomas Pegram (_Partisans and Progressives_) avoided the "essence-of- progressivism" question by treating it simply as an alternative to partisanship that stressed "the public interest" while Morton Keller (_Regulating a New Society_) described it succinctly as an effort to create or restore social cohesion.
Perhaps the most intriguing depictions of Progressivism have emerged from recent collections of essays, particularly Noralee Frankel and Nancy S. Dye, eds., _Gender, Class, Race, and Reform in the Progressive Era_ and William Deverell and Tom Sitton eds., _California Progressivism Revisited_. Cumulatively, they yield an impression of Progressivism as a widely available political style employed by innumerable groups for a variety of purposes. James J. Connolly ("Reconstituting Ethnic Politics") presents Progressivism in a similar fashion. Also consistent with this approach, Philip Ethington's _The Public City_ offers a provocative new interpretation. It describes Progressivism as a new political culture, emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, that emphasized a conception of public life as social-group conflict. These analyses suggest the best approach to Progressivism may be one that treats it as a formula for political action open to many uses rather than the ideology of a specific group.
Predictions of a new synthesis proceed at their own peril. Only one thing about Progressivism seems certain. However defined or explained, it is likely to remain at the center of scholarly debates over the nature of political and social development in the early twentieth-century United States. As more and more types of Progressives and Progressivisms emerge from the plethora of research on the period, the meanings scholars assign to the term will remain varied and idiosyncratic, reflecting the biases and concerns of each scholar using the term and highlighting the continued absence of a scholarly consensus.
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