Wednesday, May 4, 2011

#23 A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America by Michael McGerr

380pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003

Michael McGerr's subtitle of "A Fierce Discontent" describes both the feeling in the country that created the Progressive Movement as well as the feeling that brought about its demise. McGerr argues that "much of our current political predicament was created by the Progressives. (xiv). While some may read this as a political argument from a conservative scholar, it strikes me as more or less correct. McGerr identifies four goals of the Progressives:
1. Change Others
2. End class conflict
3. Control Big Business
4. Segregate Society; this may be surprising, but it cannot be denied that the Progressive era (1870-1920) also marks what has been termed the "Nadir of race relations" by Howard Zinn. McGerr makes the argument that Progressive movements "viewed segregation as a way to protect minority groups from brutality....there were few alternatives at the time." (183). I agree with this assessment, and chapter 6 of the text provides varied voices that support McGerr's position.

It is the "changing others" and the "end class conflict" that creates most of the tension in the text. The saloon emerges as a crucial junction between these two goals. As the "true working class institution" (20) the saloon became a target for middle class reformers concerned about the consumption of Demon Rum. In 1900, Americans consumed 1.2 billion gallons of beer and malt liquor, roughly 30% more than we did in 1998. (84). As Victorians gave way to Progressives, the need to turn outward to reform others became a tool to for the Victorian need to reform the domestic sphere. I like this argument, as I think it works to explain much of what is loathed about current day "Progressives".

Directly after World War I, progressives "became out of step with the middle class." (274). The growth of films, baseball and leisure pursuits in the teens and twenties created a need for fun that the middle class chased. Why have a nattering nabob of negativity in the back muttering about the ruination of society through too many movies? Why look up to baseball players? They are just grown men paid to play a child's game. Jane Addams wrote that "youth of the 1920s went back to liberty for the individual." (316) This movement sapped their reformist urges as they focused more and more on themselves. McGerr points to FDR as thinking the task of government was to "make sure Americans can afford pleasure, and then get out of the way." (317)

Choice is not social justice, nor does individual liberty mean equal opportunity. Libertarians (such as myself) tend to think that the government has absolutely no place in my home, period. This is borne half of fear of the government (no matter who is running it) and half I-have-no-damn-business-telling-other-people-how-to-live. In this day and age, Progressives DO this constantly. They have good reasons (environmental catastrophe being the paramount one). The reforming energy that Addams saw disappearing in the 1920s has come back as a whiny, candy-ass progressives focused on lifestyles instead of the economics behind them. In other words, the goal of 1890s progressives (education, control of business, class uplift through neighborhood works, highlighting the power of thought in everyday life) has been reduced to progressives chastising the wealthy for owning large cars and living in McMansions and chastising the poor and uneducated for shopping at Wal Mart and watching bad reality TV shows.

People no matter what class need an incentive to change their behavior, otherwise they will not. To expect someone working for minimum wage to buy only organic foods at the Whole Foods market is as unrealistic as expecting a couple with 4 kids to pile them into a Prius and not a minivan when they go out. The fierce discontent of the progressives created "unrealistic expectations" according to McGerr (xiv). The biggest unrealistic expectation is for the government to protect our food and water, pave our streets and educate our kids without paying a cent for any of those things. Second only to that is to expect anyone, ugly American or not, to change their behavior because it is the right thing to do.

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