Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920.
List: 19th Century, 20th Century.
Subjects: Progressivism, Gilded Age, Politics, Organization Theory.
Excerpted from "The Search for Progress: Major Works in the Historiography of Progressivism", a final paper written for "The Literature of American History," Professor Eric Foner, Spring 2002.
Political theory also animated what is arguably the first mature work of Progressive Era history, Robert Wiebe's 1967 book The Search for Order. Drawing on the work of the then-burgeoning school of organizational theory, Wiebe's book portrays progressivism as "the central force in a revolution that fundamentally altered the structure of politics and government early in the twentieth century." (181) And, unlike many of his colleagues both before and after him Wiebe depicts progressivism as an ideology that was progressive in fact as well as in name, i.e. one that was modernizing, forward-looking, and reform-minded rather than regressive, retrograde, and reactionary.
As one might expect from a book entitled The Search for Order, Wiebe begins in an entropic world of escalating chaos -- he describes at length the social and economic disruptions that "nationalization, industrialization, mechanization, [and] urbanization," along with the experience of post-war reconstruction, placed upon the network of isolated "island communities" that comprised the United States in the Gilded Age. More importantly, he notes the "dislocation and bewilderment" these forces wrought in the minds of nineteenth-century citizens still rooted in the Protestant values of small-town community life. "As the network of relations affecting men's lives each year became more tangled and more distended," writes Wiebe, "Americans in a basic sense no longer knew who or what they were. The setting had altered beyond their power to understand it, and within an alien context they had lost themselves." (42-43)
In direct contrast to the "status anxiety" interpretation earlier offered by Richard Hofstadter in his enormously influential 1955 work, The Age of Reform (and subsequently elaborated upon by Joseph Gusfield in his 1962 book Symbolic Crusade), which argued that progressivism was a reactionary response of fading elites aiming to shore up their relevance amid this social turbulence, Robert Wiebe instead paints progressivism as the intellectual progeny of a rising "new middle class" sensing newfound opportunities in this emerging national order. "[T]hese men and women did represent a new society," remarks Wiebe in defiance of the Hofstadter interpretation. "They had enough insight into their lives to recognize the old ways and old values would no longer suffice. Often confused, they were still the ones with the determination to fight these confusions and mark a new route into the modern world." (132)
In Wiebe's casting, this new route taken by the progressives mainly involved replacing the values and mores of small-town community life, such as "frugality, promptness, foresight, [and] efficiency," with the "assumptions of a bureaucratic order", such as "continuity and regularity, functionality and rationality, administration and management." By forsaking the values that had dictated individual relationships for a "bureaucratic orientation…peculiarly suited to the fluidity and impersonality of an urban-industrial world," the progressives fashioned the political and intellectual tools, such as standardization and professionalization, that Americans needed to grapple with the increasingly interconnected industrial economy of the twentieth century. (145-146, 295) In sum, in Wiebe's argument, the progressive gift to American life was the bureaucratic worldview, a view which enabled more sophisticated responses to complex social problems than the moralistic community-centered mind of the previous era. As he puts it, "the heart of progressivism was the ambition of the new middle class to fulfill its destiny through bureaucratic means." (166)
But while a bureaucratic orientation may have presented a novel way for this new middle class to make sense of the changing landscape, such an orientation did not necessarily imply reform or progress per se. In fact, Wiebe takes pains to divorce some elements of reform previously considered progressive, such as muckraking and the fight against municipal corruption, from the movement because they did not embody this shift toward bureaucratic order. As he puts it, "[j]ust as progressivism was emerging…a rash of old-fashioned graft prosecutions spread among many of the nation's major cities…to many then and later these moral crusades seemed the finest flower of a new reform. Actually [these labors]…lay outside the mainstream of progressivism. With no purpose beyond disclosure and conviction and very little organized support behind them, they captured the headlines, then disappeared." (172) Thus, even at this early date in the historiography, a wedge has been driven between progressivism and progress -- given a choice between bureaucracy and reform, Wiebe's progressives emphatically chose the former.
Indeed, it is this valuation of bureaucratic process over reform goals that in Wiebe's casting ultimately proves progressivism's undoing, since "bureaucratic management lent itself equally to social control and to social release." In his words, progressives "had carried an approach rather than a solution to their labors, and in the end they constructed just an approach to reform, mistaking it for a finished product." (222-223) Buying into this "illusion of fulfillment," progressives and their fledgling national bureaucracy, still possessed of "a certain brittle quality that reflected uncertainty, inexperience, and limited talents," were ill-prepared for the further shocks to the system that would come with war and corporate growth, shocks that "suggested again how much of America's new bureaucracy had been resting upon a dubious, blind faith." (300-301)