What is Progressivism? Name two ways it reshaped American life in dramatic fashion drawing from culture, society or politics. Was it an inspirational movement to further the nation’s democratic ideas, or was it an attempt at social control by self- important, moralistic busybodies? To what extent was Progressivism an expression of America’s old utopian tendencies? Use ideas from the books America’s Great War by Robert H. Zieger, A Fierce Discontent by Michael E. McGerr, The Search for Order by Robert H. Wiebe, and Railroaded by Richard White.  

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There are several interrelated questions here, which is appropriate, because Progressivism consisted of many different interrelated strands. The second and third questions are especially important to understanding the Progressive movement, because many while Progressives saw science and expertise as the key to improving society, they also tended to be comfortable, middle-class white people who sought to impose their morality on others, especially working-class men and women.

The best example of this aspect of Progressivism, one which embodies the different strands of Progressivism was Prohibition, what has been called "the noble experiment." Progressive doctors and public servants emphasized the very real dangers of alcohol abuse, which including health hazards as well as the negative effects that it had on families. Women were especially attracted to the movement, including such figures as Carry Nation, described by Michael McGerr as a "respectable Christian woman in her sixties." Her involvement was typical of the religious, evangelical urge to bring about a heaven on earth. This desire also typified a previous generation of reformers, those who argued for temperance and other reforms before the Civil War. Other people had an interest in regulating the behavior of working-class men, particular business owners, though as McGerr observes, for all the "big-business men who wanted to encourage more temperance and self-discipline in the workforce," there were wealthy men who made money financing the saloons and brothels decried by the prohibitionists. It was also the case that Prohibition marked an unsuccessful attempt to use the power of government to regulate the behavior of Americans. It failed because it was unenforceable and ultimately not consistent with the desires of ordinary Americans. In this sense, it can be argued that this particular aspect of the Progressive movement—and temperance was embraced by even Jane Addams, on the left wing of the movement—was an attempt at social control. Other aspects of the movement, including local government reform and education initiatives, had similar motives, combining an earnest concern for the conditions that faced American working-class people with a middle-class assumption that they knew what was best for "the people."

So, while many Progressives also sought to expand democracy, restrain the influence of corporations, and other laudable projects, they also believed that their vision of America was one to which both working-class people and industrialists needed to conform. In the end, it reshaped American society by redefining the relationship between citizens and government as well as the mutual obligations shared by Americans.

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Progressivism in the United States was a movement based on the philosophy that progress in science, technology, economics, social organization, and politics is necessary for improving the human condition. The Progressive Era in America reached its height from the 1890s to World War 1 and continued until the onset of the Great Depression. The impulses driving the Progressive movement can be seen as emerging from the desire for a Utopian society, which resulted in various Utopian communities being established in the United States throughout the 19th century.

Progressivism reshaped American life, especially in the areas of social class and business. Michael E. McGerr in A Fierce Discontent argues that the wide range of progressive impulses all revolved around the issue of class. He sees Progressivism as the American middle class’ response to extreme income inequality and the excesses of the industrial upper class. Increased regulation of business and the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson helped establish the role of the middle class within the new industrial order.

Robert H. Zieger’s America’s Great War addresses the issue of whether Progressivism was an inspirational movement or an attempt at social control, arguing that both motives influenced reforms. Zieger describes liberal Progressives who celebrated cultural experimentation and diversity while calling for order in politics and business. In contrast, control Progressives are those who hoped to bolster their own traditional white culture, military preparedness, and social discipline. The control Progressives, Zieger says, won out over their more liberal counterparts.

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