Title: Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age
Author: Daniel Rodgers
Categories: Progressive Era, Reform, Transnational History, Intellectual History, Political History, North Atlantic,
Place: United States, Europe ("Berlin to San Francisco")
Time Period: 1880s-1930s
Rodgers attempts to place the Progressive Era in a transnational context. He argues that the Progressive era, stretching from the 1890s to the end of World War II, marked a break from normal American exceptionalism and instead was an environment in which cosmopolitan ideas about reform flowed across the North Atlantic, mainly between Britain, Germany, and the US - an analysis that he stresses is not comparative, but rather looking at similarities and connections. Initial reformers in the late 19th century rallied behind the idea of decommodification and that "not everything belonged in the market," an idea was really catalyzed in German universities where intellectuals did battle with a laissez-faire ideology that tried to posit itself as "natural". Rodgers attempts to re-center the Progressive era between the Populists and TR around cities (rather than nation-states), which provided fertile laboratory for ideas about housing, health, municipal-level responsibility, social fragmentation, and a large pool of working poor. World War I brought about the challenge of transmuting the emergency war-time collectivism into peacetime reconstruction (taking many of its cues from Britain).
Before the war, the flow of ideas had been asymmetrical, as the US borrowed more from Europe than it gave back. Starting after the war, this trend slowed down - embodied with Henry "Fordism" ideology of the power of the machine age that proved especially popular in Europe. Although Europe still influenced America more than vice versa during this period (especially with housing), the asymmetry lessened. For Rodgers, the New Deal marked the culmination of Progressive social politics. At this point, economic depression and crisis created a vacuum into which Progressive ideas rushed (both European imports and American homegrown) that had been fermenting for a generation - farm cooperatives, planned rural settlements, social insurance, war collectivists' economic controls, labor housing. At this point, the asymmetry of ideas swung in the US's favor, as it exported more ideas to Europe than it imported. Interestingly, much of the reform during the New Deal revolved around housing, but specifically around the housing-related income - mortgages, rents, and wages.
The era finally drew to a close with World War II, as Rodgers points to the failure of the reconstruction-minded British Beveridge Plan to catch on with American Progressives. Rodgers sees the departure as ironic, because with peace the US seemed in more of a position than ever to continue its Progressive tradition - a strong state deeply enmeshed with Europe, a strong labor organization, etc. Instead of facing war-time devastation, however, Americans enjoyed optimism and economic growth, which led them to veer back towards the older path of exceptionalism and embrace of an "American century."
Key Themes and Concepts
- Asymmetry - Americans lag behind in sharing ideas until New Deal, when balance shifts towards them
- City rather than nation states as unit of analysis
- Blowing up American exceptionalism
- New Deal as culmination of Progressive ideas
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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