Sunday, November 23, 2014
In the introduction to Unreasonable Men, his history of the Progressive Movement in the early 20th century, author Michael Wolraich sets an uncomfortable tone. Writing of the Republican politicians who advocated progressive policies--an eight-hour work day, trust-busting, conservation, the abolishment of child labor--Wolraich draws a direct link between the era of Teddy Roosevelt and our own times, writing that "those who identified with Roosevelt or La Follette called themselves progressives," their opponents "called themselves conservatives," and that, in reciting this era in American history "when America broke into two ideological factions, we can see more clearly what we're fighting about and better appreciate the stakes."
This is, for obvious reasons, a dangerous series of statements to make. Men like Roosevelt and La Follette did indeed call themselves progressives--the latter much earlier than the former--but rarely if ever does Wolraich actually quote any Republicans referring to themselves--or being referred to by others--as conservative. (Woolraich does that himself, and mostly when talking about William Howard Taft.) Similarly, the implication that our nation was politically and ideological homogenous until the early 1900s, when it "broke into two" for what Wolraich implies was the first time, is so ridiculous that it must be taken as little more than a poorly-stated thought that slipped by the editors; otherwise, it would be a terrifying insight into how little the author knows about American history.
These two small missteps, sheltered as they are in the book's introduction, are a pretty concise diagnosis of the problems with Wolraich's book, despite all of its positive aspects. After all, Wolraich is not a bad writer; in fact, his prose is engaging, and he quotes from both primary and secondary documents without losing the narrative flow, which can be difficult when relying on Congressional speeches and presidential correspondences. But his book lacks context and, more importantly, focus. In terms of the first, the political landscape Wolraich presents ignores almost ninety percent of the elected officials of this era, focusing on a handful of the most powerful--and often the most corrupt--senators and representatives. In doing so, he inadvertently makes this a story not about a grassroots movement against the existing social structure but about a half-dozen old congressman who stood in the way of social change because of their own vested interests. (The most important voting members of Congress came from the still-expanding Western states, where people saw firsthand the stranglehold of the locomotive industry, but Wolraich speaks of them as one collective group rather than as individuals.)
In terms of the second issue, Wolraich's claim that his book is advocating for insights drawn from the past would make more sense if the history he presents supported that claim. But the most successful years of the Progressive movement, according to Woolraich's own research, occurred not under the presidencies of Roosevelt or Taft, or even early in the senatorship of Robert La Follette, but the first term of Woodrow Wilson, which occupies the last 6 pages of the book, and only then as an abridged history. There, Woolraich's details all of the major accomplishments that were not passed into law over the preceding 250 pages--an odd decision that seems to debunk the very legacy of both Roosevelt and La Follette, foisting it instead upon a Democrat who had zero influence on progressive policy until his ascension to the White House.
The underlying reason for this choice seems to be that, rather than exploring their ratification, Wolraich wants to understand the process it took to get those specific policies and bills passed...which is a perfectly acceptable approach to history. Unfortunately, if we take the past as a guide for the future, the Progressive Era--as is the case with all past eras--does not translate well. The primary reason is that, unlike one hundred years ago, there are no Teddy Roosevelts or Robert La Follettes around to lead a movement for change; the closest figures we have who meet these requirements, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are both fantastic candidates, but even they could not rally the country to change in the way Roosevelt and La Follette did. Yes, there are similarities between early 20th-century America and early 21st-century America--the popular election of our congresspeople is controlled by the politicians themselves, money has an unprecedented influence over our elected officials, banks possess unchecked powers while labor is being stripped of its own powers, economic disparity is growing--but the average American does not understand its root cause. They've been told that any difficulties in their lives are the responsibility of the other side, and journalism--once dominated by muckrackers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell--has become a shallow circus deficient of substance and impartiality. The Fourth Estate, forever entrusted with the responsibility of keeping us informed, has abandoned those responsibilities, and there is no one around who seems able to rise above such a glowing deficiency in our democracy.
By deciding that we can learn--and must learn--from an era that passed into history a century ago, Wolraich is making it seem as though the genuine problems we face have an easy solution, one we can discover simply by consulting textbooks and turning their lessons into a checklist. This is not how progress in the United States works. The reason we are facing the same problems again as a nation is twofold--because we have forgotten the past, and because we are different people now. Those who want to consolidate money and power for themselves have learned from the mistakes and oversights of their predecessors and are now better prepared for any impending challenges to the status quo. The rest of us are not. We could be, if only there were those who could lead us there with their words and their writing. Michael Wolraich, in offering us an engaging but flawed and unfocused book, is not one of those people.