“You are the heirs of one of the country’s great traditions, the Progressive movement that started late in the nineteenth century and remade the American experience piece by piece,” Bill Moyers told a throng of liberal Democrats who recently gathered in a Washington hotel to plan the defeat of George W. Bush. What made Progressivism so great, according to Moyers, was its nonviolent war on the Gilded Age plutocracy, which, aided by such clever rogues as Mark Hanna, had “strangled” the promise of social equality “in the hard grip of a merciless ruling class.”
It’s an eminently usable past. If Karl Rove styles himself a twenty-first-century Hanna, fashioning a new era of Republican dominance, then why can’t the postmodern left be the second coming of Robert La Follette and Jane Addams–those inspiring figures, in and out of office, who challenged the politics of laissez-faire cupidity and began to make the United States a fairer, more humane society?
Only a hopeless pedant would dismiss the value of history as a motivating force for the living. But contemporary “progressives” would be wise to look more closely at the white middle-class crusaders who coined the name before they rush to emulate their achievements. Michael McGerr’s consistently intelligent, superbly crafted survey, A Fierce Discontent, is a fine place to start.
The Progressives, McGerr explains, had ambitions that stretched far beyond mere crackdowns on trust-builders and graft-takers. With income and inheritance taxes and a ban on child labor, they sought to narrow the class divide that yawned between the factory tenement and the mansion on the hill. They yearned to purify the body politic through an aggressive politics of the body–which meant banning prostitution, limiting divorce and abolishing the “liquor traffic.” And behind each specific reform lay a grand desire to replace the self-serving individualism of American culture with an ethic of service and responsibility. Although the insurgency included Catholics and Jews, it always had the flavor of a Protestant crusade. Most reformers abandoned the evangelical faith of their childhood, but their messianic zeal for perfecting society could not have been any stronger if they’d founded a new church and written their own Bible.
This portrait might unsettle some of the liberals who cheered Moyers’s address, delivered at a conference that vowed to “Take Back America.” Janus could have been the Progressives’ patron saint. In their stern regulation of big business and attempts to redistribute wealth, they were the forerunners of New Deal liberals. But on cultural matters, most were militant Victorians, aspiring to reshape the nation into a well-ordered, hard-working, self-disciplined community. In one of his many White House exhortations, Theodore Roosevelt urged the “steady training of the individual citizen, in conscience and character, until he grows to abhor corruption and greed and tyranny and brutality and to prize justice and fair dealing.”
Lofty visions of self-improvement always look better in speeches than when chiseled into law. For certain white reformers (most, but not all of them, from Dixie), “taking back America” meant building the elaborate machinery of Jim Crow. McGerr realizes, of course, that segregation deprived African-American citizens of their hard-won constitutional rights. But many of its architects, he points out, sincerely believed they were protecting black people from the routine sadism visited on them by the insecure white majority. “Ours is a world of inexorable divisions,” wrote a leading Southern Progressive. “Good fences make good neighbors.” The most powerful black man in America agreed, at least in public. Secretly, Booker T. Washington was funding boycotts of Jim Crow streetcars in several Southern cities.