Last Updated 25 May 2020

A Fierce Discontent

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Indiana University’ Michael McGerr chronicles the development and eventual collapse of the American progressive movement in his 2003 work, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920. He employs various literary techniques in his attempt to draw the reader into the world that was America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. More than a simple retelling of historical events, the book seeks to allow the reader to catch a glimpse of the emotions that swirled around at the time.

Not only does McGerr give an insight into the lives of all the key players in the historical drama, but McGerr allows the reader to see an image of what life was like for the people who did not make it to the cover of history books, poor farmers and inter-city immigrants. McGerr’s book captures far more angles than you would expect it to. A Fierce Discontent is filled with many of the author’s own convictions about the progressive era and the legacy it would leave.

McGerr interestingly asserts that the excesses and overly-fervent radicalism of many of the leaders of the progressive movement would be responsible for events such as the Communist scare of the 1920s, the popularity of eugenics and racial tension in the coming decades. He uses the term “coercively reform” to describe the actions some radical progressives took in trying to affect the lives of the lower classes and eventually concludes that the folly of the progressive movement was in the fact that, “reformers should not try too much.

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” Furthermore, it is interesting to learn the McGerr believes that the meteoric fall of the progressive movement is still affecting our society and government today. He sees the overreaching of the progressive movement and its consequences as foreshadowing the overly liberal policies of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and the resurgence of American conservatism. When one looks at the political reality of both situations, there seems to be a sense of parallelism.

The progressive administrations of Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson gave way to the laissez-faire conservatism of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Similarly, the “New Deal” began by Franklin Roosevelt and continued by Kennedy and Johnson set the table for the “Reagan Revolution”. There is certainly a discernible economic pattern that exists between the two situations, although there seems to be noticeable societal differences. This can be attributed to the changing nature of what being “conservative” has come to mean in America.

Whereas it was the progressives who fought so hard for prohibition and other “defenses of morality”, it would be the Reagan-era conservatives that would take up these causes a little more than half a century later. Another, and perhaps questionable, aspect of McGerr’s depiction is his vary assertion that the American progressive movement can be traced back to 1870. Most historians date the formation of the American progressive movement to the early 1890s.

No where does McGerr rationalize the decision to date the movement to 1870, as there is almost no discussion of events or people before the early 1890s. While minor in the context of the whole work, it is unusual that such a seemingly arbitrary date was given for the origins of a critical period in American history. A Fierce Discontent is thoroughly enjoyable, a fact that is greatly contributed to by the author’s deliberate attempts to draw the reader into the period of history that McGerr is describing.

Additionally, it is extremely comprehensive, covering each and every strike, “robber baron”, and anti-trust act you could possibly need or want to know about. While some of McGerr’s assertions seem to be questionable at times, He effectively brings to life the period around the turn to the 20th century, and makes the reader think about some of the lasting effects this turbulent time might have put into play. Bibliography: McGerr, Michael, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the American Progressive Movement,1870-1920, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005.

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