The Progressive Era: The Great Age of Reform
Copyright © 2010, Henry J. Sage
Overview. H.W. Brands, a widely respected historian, formerly at Texas A&M University and now at the University of Texas, wrote The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s in 1995. The decade of the 1890s as filled with tensions and problems that cried out for resolution. In the last section we discussed the exploitation of people and resources and suggested that if actions had not been taken to alleviate the more glaring injustices in American society, the nation might have been headed for rebellion. Indeed, the conflict we described as “the war between capital and labor” was filled with bloody violence and extensive property damage, a situation that continued well into the 20th century.
By 1900 America was a tinderbox. Cities were crowded with millions of poor laborers, working conditions were appalling. From the local level to the highest institutions in the land corruption darkened politics. Something had to be done, and the progressive movement was the nation’s response. Although the progressive reformers did not fix everything, little escaped their attention. Since the political powers were unwilling or unable to address the rapid economic and social changes brought about by the industrial revolution in America, the progressive movement grew outside government and eventually forced government to take stands and deal with the growing problems.
The year 1896 marks the approximate beginning of the Progressive Era, and reform peaked during the period before America’s entry into World War I in 1917. But in a larger sense, the reform impulse in America was present even in colonial times, and it continued into the modern era. Today few Americans would claim that this country provides a level playing field for all citizens and workers, or that our political system is free from corruption of one sort or another. Thus the progressive beat goes on.
AND WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
In fact, the current surge of anger — and the accompanying rise in right-wing extremism — predates the entire health care debate. The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weapons at Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.
If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.
They can’t. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.
I put more of this on FaceBook last week: Where the fun never ends...