Partly out of nostalgia and partly out of moral yearning, I recently picked up and finished Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform. I had wanted to move beyond foggy clichés of the Progressive Era I picked up from high school AP history: America getting its act together after the Gilded Age, recognizing the social problems of urbanization and income inequality, Tammany Hall, national parks, muckrakers, etc. Only after finishing the book did I recall other, more private associations I’d forged during my adolescence: a sixth grade book report on Teddy Roosevelt, whose principled self-reinvention from sickly invalid child to strapping warrior now strikes me as a Caucasian beta-release of Malcolm X; my love for The Music Man, whose soundtrack I spent the last month of seventh grade falling asleep to on the top floor of my family’s farmhouse; raw associations between Woodrow Wilson and my mother, both college presidents who rechanneled a youthful idealistic streak into a self-assured, WASP-y stoicism; a recent embrace of old-school pragmatism in Dewey’s philosophy and institutional reforms. For me, the Progressive Era was the American chapter of American history, when the country finally began to consider what the right parts of itself could do about the wrong parts, and thereby define its genius for the rest of the world.
Hofstadter’s summary was interesting on its own terms. I was struck by his dark presentation of the period as stridently hypocritical. This is remarkable, since his narrative is exclusively domestic (with little mention of America’s imperial adventures) and deeply negligent of the African-American experience (Hofstadter writes admirably of Jefferson’s yeoman autonomy, given his relatively small number of slaves). His broader theses, grouped within the American canon of “consensus history”, frame the Progressive Era as continuous with earlier political-economic struggles, fought over the same values and core concerns that animated the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, that forged the Era of Good Feelings, that tragically hiccuped during the Civil War, and that gorged themselves during the Gilded Age.
Frankly, I envy Hofstadter’s naïve confidence in this continuity; the book was written before neo-Marxism and the broader New Left made it impossible to imagine this kind of national narrative as something other than power paying tribute to itself. We are now in a moment where that confidence, shaken from its coziness and tempered with a heavy dose of humility, is sorely needed. Hofstadter was writing at a time when our national identity was not seriously in question, which empowered him to trace the profound moral transformations and compromises that were indeed happening in all their maddening capaciousness. He helps show that any javelin worth throwing requires reaching farther back than you can see.
Moreover, Hofstadter makes moral judgments of all the dominant players (including William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) to the point of declaring that the dominant personality trait of the period was class hypocrisy. But it was a strategic hypocrisy, as the nation wanted its leaders to tell it something that was impossible: its ideals could be reconciled with the modern trappings of urban infrastructure without compromising their integrity. It was possible, we were told, to preserve our virginal, natural integrity even as the land was made publicly available for sightseeing and recreation. This is why, consumed with fear of socialism and anarchism and swarthy immigrants, we kept voting Harold Hill’s into office. Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!
Indeed, what most troubled me was the uncanny parallels between the Age of Reform and the Age of Trump, which increasingly feels like America finally abandoning the elite consensus politics of the Cold War in favor of the more elemental appeal of the huckster. As pundits and elite opinion-makers now grapple with Trump’s significance, Progressive thinkers and representatives likewise grappled with our sense of lost innocence. I was hoping to find answers to today’s challenges, not historical ironies, but the list of analogs is overwhelming:
-A popular second-term President finds his administration mired in scandal, environmental crises, and corporate corruption, climaxing with an economic recession of unprecedented magnitude. His party is thereafter taken over by populists, signaling the end of a Gilded Age defined by growing income inequality and political impassivity.
-A younger generation of upwardly mobile “status revolutionaries” vows to overthrow the political system, but is split between nativist populism and progressive institutional adaptation. Leaders of these movements share an obsession with fighting graft and reforming the voting process, which was widely perceived as rigged or corrupt.
-Populists and progressives hate each other. The former are seen as ignorant xenophobic country bumpkins, the latter as self-righteous snobs foolishly opening the door to revolutionary social forces. Both are in fact rooted in older American political traditions (respectively, Jacksonian-Jeffersonian democracy and the New England town hall) and both enjoy a vitality that survived major upheavals: global war, market instability, immigration tensions.
-Progressives tend to pat themselves on the pack for their economic dynamism, belief in social progress, and moral purpose, and sometimes explicitly equate these factors. Populists view these stances as hypocritical or self-contradictory, but are themselves split between left-wing social democracy and right-wing white nationalism.
-Progressive support for free trade is matched by populist obsession with tariffs and trade wars with other countries in order to protect American workers. There is a sustained, unresolved debate over the cultural costs of the former and the economic costs of the latter.
-It is simultaneously a golden age and dark age of journalism: newspapers are crudely politicized, serving as mouthpieces for powerful interests and indirectly responsible for starting wars, but a new generation of muckrakers invent genres of storytelling and investigation using new media tools to reveal hitherto unacknowledged aspects of daily American life for public appraisal, laying the groundwork for social reform.
-Women rise up in unprecedented numbers to visibly challenge the patriarchal status quo. They win new rights and recognition, partly due to widespread frustration with the utterly corrosive spirit of national politics and the desire to civilize it with female comeliness and compassion.
Tthe most important political struggles are not partisan, but institutional: reformers want to rewrite the rules of politics and representation, climaxing in a series of constitutional amendments.
-Racism plays a key political role, but primarily through new immigrant waves that gel uncomfortably with the WASP culture of the Northeast and Midwest; a reckoning with the legacy of slavery is instead sublimated into nostalgia for the South as a realer, lost version of what America once was. A handful of black public intellectuals rise to prominence, but largely work on the periphery of the political conversation.
-New socio-technical infrastructures allow unprecedented numbers of people to simultaneously feel intimately connected to each other yet utterly anonymous and alone. This acts as a moral catalyst for the politicization of privacy, and while socialists and anarchists attempt to challenge the hegemony of market society, the center of political gravity moves toward developing standards of fairness by which the government can challenge big business without being totally antagonistic.
After assessing these factors, I have tried to derive lessons from that time period for the present moment:
-Populism and progressivism were each defined by self-contradictions that helped galvanize their appeal but limited their success geographically and institutionally. Their greatest accomplishments usually arose from collaborations between the two (e.g. trustbusting) or the willingness to extend political enfranchisement to a previously marginalized group (women, immigrants).
-It seems likely that the Progressive Era, and the zeitgeist we have now entered, are the “default” political setting of America: economically dynamic but morally rambunctious, culturally diverse but anxious for a common ethnic denominator, entrepreneurial but capable of collective social action, modernizing yet questioning the way technology ties us together. Trump’s presidency may be disturbing in large part because of how staid and artificially static our ideological divisions have remained since the Cold War, while his appeal forces us to confront the unfinished work of reform undertaken over a century ago regarding America’s key divisions: white vs. black, rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor. This is what America does when it is not distracted by foreign wars or debilitating recessions.
-We are now finally moving away from the form of liberalism that was captured and ossified in the New Deal, in favor of one that turns itself back on the institutions that for so long harbored its contradictions. The culture of university life, itself a product of the Progressive Era, is now under sustained political assault and may be economically unsustainable; unions, the pipe dream of socialist labor organizers, are almost dead; cities are once again the object of unprecedented economic growth and, at least from many populists, cultural scorn.
-The New Deal was historically unique. The country was reacting to unprecedented existential threats both foreign and domestic, and we cannot realistically expect Trump to be replaced by some comparable move toward red-meat social liberalism. The work to be done during the Progressive Era was actually much harder than the New Deal’s ad hoc commitments: to discover, in the emergent social forms and patterns of a new century, an emergent expression of democracy more true to our original blueprint than the timber of that time could provide.
-Barring outstanding figures, the Age of Reform was not a story of good guys vs. bad guys. The price paid by the Progressives for their idealism and social gospel was an unfiltered utopianism and unreflective sanctimony that could devolve into imperialism, state-sponsored eugenics, and unworkable international agreements like the League of Nations. The Populists are easier to vilify, but their isolationism and disdain for elites served an effective counterweight to Europe (which was working very hard to destroy itself), and their commitment to good-old-fashioned agrarianism put an intimidating future in context with an imagined past. Nations need stories, and while the Populists failed at making America great again, they at least articulated a vision of greatness that reformists, working from scratch, had to match in order to be taken seriously. To conduct their experiments, the Progressives needed a null hypothesis.