There is no denying that the great progressive groundswell of the late 19th and early 20th centuries markedly improved life for many Americans. The progressives won voting rights for women, forced the nation to rethink its views and policies on the poor, and fostered a broad sense of community-mindedness and cooperation.
But the progressives, argues Michael McGerr in this authoritative study called "A Fierce Discontent," should bear much of the blame for our "contemporary political predicament," an era of corporate scandals, conservative dissembling, and underwhelming civic debate.
"The epic of reform at the dawn of the 20th century helps explain the less-than-epic politics at the dawn of the 21st," writes McGerr, a history professor and associate dean at Indiana University. "Progressivism, the creed of a crusading middle class, offered the promise of utopianism - and generated the inevitable letdown of unrealistic expectations."
Indeed, progressivism was, to many thoughtful citizens, the most direct route to a better America - an America of equality between the sexes (though progressives had a dismal record on racial equality); an America that would temper the political, cultural, and social dominance of the rich; an America that would root out what were then perceived as the twin evils of drink and prostitution.
It was a movement driven almost exclusively by a middle-class bent on lifting up the urban poor and the agrarian class, while making the wealthiest of the wealthy, the so-called "upper 10" percent of society share some of their riches.
McGerr humanizes his subject by telling the story through a roster of grand figures - Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Baseball Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson, among others - along with a host of lesser-known immigrants, labor activists, community organizers, suffragettes, and prohibitionists.
But as McGerr tells it, Sherwood Anderson's transformation and rebellion against all that progressives stood for best represent just why progressivism failed. The personal and domestic travails of the author of "Winesburg, Ohio" were, writ small, exactly what caused progressivism to implode after World War I. Anderson was a family man and fairly successful businessman in the first decade of the century, but McGerr writes, he soon felt "trapped - in his job, his marriage, and his identity."
Anderson's entrapment was not unusual, McGerr explains. "Across America, the liberating possibilities of the 19th century seemed to give way to the confining realities of the 20th. Americans found themselves enmeshed in new institutions - segregation, big business, and the activist, regulatory state. Space and time seemed to close in on people."
Which, in a sense, is why progressivism foundered. Americans had tightened their collective belt during the war, and when it was over, progressives found themselves unable to convince Americans that a utopia based on minimal distinctions between the classes was attainable or even desirable. Also damaging to the progressive cause was the rebellion against big government and regulation that followed naturally from the wartime sacrifices imposed by lawmakers. Meantime, race relations worsened with the rise of the KKK, which had also begun to target white immigrants, inflation rose, and labor strife reached a level not seen in years.
McGerr rushes to a conclusion, and his afterword, which briefly references the war on terror, could have drawn the contemporary effects of this period more comprehensively. But the author is a master of his subject, and his book may prove to be the definitive text on the triumphs and inevitable downfall of the progressive movement.
• Kevin Canfield is a staff writer for the Hartford Courant.