September 9, 2012

Progressivism: A Look At Historiography (Part 2)

The wide variance and differences in culture, economic background, and ideology make defining the Progressives into a clean, neat group problematic. The early populist movements in the 1880’s, which grew out of what Wiebe terms “island communities” (rural isolated areas at the end of rail lines), is an excellent example of this difficulty. These farmer groups, themselves a diverse group with varying needs and demands, pushed for a series of reforms, ranging from simple changes within the system to radical sweeping changes in the system itself that altered the very nature of the government. These early protests were driven by reactionary forces as Wiebe describes, rallies against “the credit system, the fashion system, and every other system tending toward prodigality and bankruptcy”.

Such a wide array of proposals makes the discussion of a cohesive “movement” difficult. What is clear in this muddle of populist sentiment is the desire for change in the status quo of oppressive big business practices and a need to achieve this change through the use of government and law, as opposed to revolutionary violence. Dawley attempts to link both Wiebe and Painter’s work by utilizing research on the governmental system itself in a bid to highlight the need for change due to the injustice within the antiquated governmental agency.

“Given the dynamism and antagonism built into the American society, it was inevitable that state structures and ruling values would change. “The overriding historical problem of the early twentieth century hinged on the incompatibility of modern society with the old liberal state”.

Robert Wiebe’s account of the Progressive era has decidedly Marxist undertones evidenced by the import he places on class struggle and the development of a working and middle class consciousness. His narrative focuses heavily on the class struggles between the rural working class and the bureaucratizing, urbanizing professional new middle class who sought to impose a modern “order” on the last vestiges of small town “island” communities.

Wiebe places the impetus for change in the realm of a small town, rural America, itself rapidly being transformed by the encroachment of urban ideals and bureaucracy. The emergence of a “new middle class” is central to Wiebe’s thesis. According to this,

“The heart of progressivism was the ambition of the new middle class to fulfill its destiny through bureaucratic means.”

Rather than workers and common laborers, the lowest members of society, Wiebe’s “new middle class” were professionals and small time business men. Daniel Rodgers states that,

“In a nation rushing pell-mell out of its crisis-ridden villages toward new bureaucratic organizations and social values, none ran faster or worked harder than the progressives to rationalize and organize what they saw as their chaotic surroundings.”

Bent on changing the nature of rural communities by introducing bureaucratic and systemic structures, these professionals laid aside the small concrete issues, such as the eight hour work day in favor of broader social changes. By pushing for social reforms such as Prohibition, public education, and other such moralizing institutions, the fledgling Progressives (Populists) sought to impose new order on an otherwise outdated and corrupt system. Wiebe notes that while their demands were many, their solutions were few. This overwhelming desire and evident need for change led to many seeking “panaceas”, such as Free Silver, that would solve every and all problems. This Weberian focus on the educated middle class has led to dissent among other historians, such as Painter, who finds alternative sources for the beginnings of change.

Image Credit: Sunny studio – Igor Yaruta / Shutterstock

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