Saturday, April 23, 2005

Progressive History of the Month

For this month's installment of history books progressives should read, I want to suggest a classic of American historical work that has recently taken on new political relevance. Robert Wiebe's, The Search for Order, 1877-1920. This book on Progressive Era America came out in 1967 but still remains one of the two most important books on the period I would say (the other being Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings, about the connections between social movements in the United States and Europe during this era). Wiebe argues that America's traditional elites (white, middle-class, Protestant) reacted to the rapid and intense changes that were happening in post-Civil War America by trying to place a sense of order upon American society and that the major Progressive movements result from this. The book has some flaws for the modern reader, not surprising given its age, but nonetheless is vital for understanding this key period in American history.

However, its importance to the historical profession is not why I list it as a vital read for progressives (very different from the Progressives) to read. I recommend it because it has played a large role in shaping the historical analysis of Karl Rove. Rove, based on his fundamentally misunderstanding of The Search for Order, believes that where America went wrong was in the Progressive Era. He thinks that these elites placed unnecessary and harmful controls upon America by regulating the natural flow of a pure capitalist society. He considers these elites to still be controlling America today, by which he means liberals. This despite all the obvious evidence that liberals have almost no power in modern America. I argue then that we need to read and understand Wiebe in large part to answer the arguments of Rove and other powerful conservatives who make these absurd claims that America is controlled by a liberal regulating elite. It's almost important to know why Americas originally decided to give government a role in regulating society. Rove has said that he wants to send America back to the Gilded Age. Any reading of Wiebe, or at least any reading by someone not as insane as Rove, will show why such a goal is reprehensible and scary.