A Fierce Discontent

A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement, 1870-1920 by Michael McGerr 

Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent is a sweeping and compelling overview of the Progressive Era. In this book, McGerr takes a narrow view of the Progressive Era, generally focusing on the first two decades of the twentieth century. He also defines progressivism relatively narrowly, focusing on the middle class – what he calls “the radical center.”

This “radial center” was sandwiched between the upper and working classes. Affluent but not immensely rich (unlike the tycoons that made up the “upper ten”), these middle class people were able to partake in the bounty created by the new industrialized world but still had to truly work for a living. Thus the radical center was made up the new emerging professional classes – such as white-collar workers – and the older professions – such as ministers, lawyers, and doctors. Emerging out of the “Victorian” middling classes of the first half and middle decades of the nineteenth century, these middle class progressives both embraced and rejected their parents’ values. Still valuing work as the “Victorians” did, the progressives’ also valued pleasure – but only sort of productive pleasures that strengthened one’s character. Trips to the countryside were in; trips to the saloon were not. Chautauqua with its country strolls and lecture courses was the ideal middle class vacation.

The largest break progressives made with their “Victorian” inheritance was their rejection of individualism. Individualism, in the progressives’ eyes, had run amuck in early twentieth century America. It had allowed capitalism to develop unchecked; creating unstable disparities of wealth, broken families, and a decadent and debauched “upper ten.” Progressives sought to replace individualism with “association” – the sense of working together as a community for the common good. McGerr suggestively quotes Jane Addams arguing, “[W]e must demand that the individual shall willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity on in connection with the activity of the many.”[1] This sense of “association,” most obviously, set the progressives against the individualists of the “upper ten” – who claimed the fruits of capitalism as their own individual achievement. It also, in McGerr’s assessment, set them against the “mutualism” of the working classes. Working class “mutualism” grew out of a shared sense of identity, a common class-consciousness. Middle class “association,” on the other hand, grew out of a sense of difference – “it meant crossing class lines to bring together people of diverse identities and conditions.”[2]

What makes the progressive middle class “the radical center,” in McGerr’s assessment, is its willingness to impose values on those above and below it on the economic ladder. By brining the “upper tenth” to heel, uplifting the working class, and replacing American individualism with “association,” the progressives sought to radically reshape American society and life and create, what McGerr terms, “a middle class paradise.” This went beyond just ending class economic strife (though that was an important aspect) but to cultural reform as well. Through reform efforts like prohibition, anti-divorce, expanding education, settlement houses, and more progressives went, in their battle for America, to the political and cultural throat. When cultural reforms efforts failed, progressives were not above employing the state to force Americans into reforming themselves.

“Association” had its limits and dark side, however. The lower classes were to live reformed, yet separate lives from the middle class. Progressives were, in McGerr’s assessment, as committed to segregation as they were to women’s suffrage and curtaining corporate malefactors. Fear of racial war, acquiesce to southern racial norms, and middle class discomfort with African-Americans led progressives to endorse segregation. Indeed, segregation wasn’t just for blacks but for all “lesser” sorts – immigrants, the poor, Native Americans. McGerr quotes one reformer as noting “[w]hat is true… of the negro masses is largely true of the white masses.”[3] “The radical center’s” commitment to democracy had its limits.

Progressivism had its enemies in the cultural landscape of the early twentieth century – none more so than the culture of pleasure and modernism. By going to the movies, to the amusement park, driving fast cars, by partaking in pleasure-centered sex, by listening to jazz music, and more many Americans rejected the cultural restraint of the progressives. Modernism, with its criticism of settled values, also provided a critique of progressivism’s commitment to objective truth and a straightforward notion of the common good. Pushed from above and below, the progressives never were able to fully capture the cultural high ground – even among the middle class.

The end of the Progress Era came, according to McGerr, with the coming of the First World War. The war brought large numbers of progressives into the center of power, for they staffed all of the key war agencies. Mobilization’s need to reshape Americans allowed progressives to transform American society as never before. But here the progressives overreached. Most Americans did not want to reshaped or transformed. This led, in turn, to a backlash – a “return to normalcy.” With World War 1, the progressives had left their mark on American society and culture but they’d also undone their own movement. Future generations of reformers and liberals would not be as radical as the progressives. For all the change they sought to American life they would not seek to reform it so utterly.

Michael McGerr is admirably skeptical of the progressive movement but his book is still structured around the declension narrative that so marks much of the scholarship on the Progressive Era. Despite their deep flaws, argues McGerr, something was undeniably lost with the fall of the progressives. “The epic of reform at the dawn of the twentieth century,” suggests McGerr, “helps explain the less-than-epic politics at the dawn of the twenty-first.”[4] Never since has such a radical political movement, so willing to challenge American values and norms, gained traction in American political life. With all of the deep flaws of progressivism, which McGerr does such a valuable job stressing, one cannot help but be relieved.

TIE-IN: Agreeing with Rodgers, McGerr sees WWI as a key turning point in the Progressive Era. Disagreeing with Rodgers, McGerr does not see the New Deal as an extensive of progressivism. Agreeing with Brinkley, McGerr argess that New Deal reform was not as radical as progressive reform. McGerr and Freund both stress the racist aspects of progressivism.

[1] Addams is quoted in Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 66.

[2] Ibid, 67.

[3] Ibid, 216.

[4] Ibid, xiv.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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