The July issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (13.3) features the forum, “Populists and Progressives, Capitalism and Democracy”. Four essayists take as their starting point a political phenomenon that most U.S. historians never imagined seeing: public debate, at times ill-tempered, over the Progressive Era, hitherto a live issue mainly to historians. This was the period of movements for political and social reform between the 1890s and World War I, movements intended to adapt American institutions, social relations, and attitudes to account for rapid industrialization, urbanization, agricultural expansion, and immigration, along with the tumultuous transformations of culture, technology, and much else that characterized the preceding decades, known popularly as the Gilded Age. The forum thus goes to the heart of what our journal is about.

U.S. historians long ago gave up searching for a coherent definition of progressivism, which was as diffuse and contradictory as the society and political system that progressives sought to reshape. Daniel T. Rodgers’s 1982 essay,  “In Search of Progressivism,” ratified the present-day understanding of progressivism as a loose series of movements held together not by an ideology or agenda but by particular ways of analyzing, talking about, and confronting social and political problems. In updating his landmark essay, Rodgers addresses the preoccupation with political economy in recent popular and media discussion. He stresses with a new clarity the Progressive Era’s intense discussions of the capitalist economy and the public’s responsibility to consider what limits it should place upon capitalism’s tendency to spread market-based values and practices throughout society.

Charles Postel and Robert Johnston are intrigued by how public figures from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama arrived at their versions of the Progressive Era. In the progressive spirit of open-ended deliberation, Johnston underscores what historians can learn even from versions of the past they might find wrong-headed or narrow.  In the spirit of the Progressive Era’s “New History,” Postel meditates on the background and political utility of interpretations of progressivism so opposed to one another that they seem to be talking about different countries. Catherine McNicol Stock, meanwhile, looks beyond the progressives to the populists of the late-1800s, asking more New-History-style questions. She examines what happened to the anti-militarism and isolationism that once prevailed on the Great Plains and wonders whether enough of this tradition survives to be useful in current debates over the country’s role in the world.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

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