50 Book Challenge #3: Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform

Book three is Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform (hereafter, AoR), a classic history of the Populist and Progressive Eras in American politics. My purpose in picking up AoR was to learn more about Populism and Progressivism, and specifically, look for historical parallels between each movement and modern liberalism. I’m not quite ready to digest everything I learned into a review yet, but I do find it fascinating that populist movements in the late 19th century were a mix of “progressive” reformism and some fairly ugly nativism and racism. Essentially, people who were losing their prosperity and livelihoods to the industrializing economy were pissed off, and willing to blame the rich, foreigners, or minorities within the U.S. for their troubles. Throw in support from conservative religion in some regions, and Populism doesn’t look very different than conservatism in the Midwest and South.

Progressivism, on the other hand, seemed to originate in the industrializ(ed|ing) middle class, in a dissatisfaction with the corruption, inefficiency, and excessive greed displayed by giant industrial corporations, political “machines,” and what used to be called “plutocrats.” (Now, we call ’em Bush Pioneers…ok, bad joke). Progressivism was born in spite of prosperity, not because of hardship. Interestingly, the New Deal appears to grow out of a mix of each.

As I said, I’m not quite ready to draw conclusions about the relationship between populism, progressivism, and modern liberalism (but stay tuned); nevertheless, I do recommend AoR as a place to start reading about a crucial period in our democracy.


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