A Fierce Discontent Summary

Michael McGerr

A Fierce Discontent

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A Fierce Discontent Summary

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A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 is a work of nonfiction by Michael McGerr. Published in 2003 by Oxford University Press, McGerr’s work explores the disappearing middle class in America and its failed attempts to bring classes together. The book received generally positive reviews from critics, who recommend it as a solid introductory text to the so-called “Progressive Era” in America. McGerr teaches American History at Indiana University and previously taught at both MIT and Yale.

A Fierce Discontent is in three parts: “The Progressive Opportunity,” “Progressive Battles,” and “Disturbance and Defeat.” Each part works towards McGerr’s central thesis—the Progressive Era, at the turn of the twentieth century, is responsible for the financial and political predicament the American people now find themselves in.

This theory is based on the problems with the rising middle class offering utopian ideals to everyone, and the inevitable disappointment that accompanies unrealistic expectations. The idealistic middle class seeks to achieve four things: end class conflicts, change other people, control business, and segregate society. McGerr looks at each of these four aims in turn.

Part 1, “The Progressive Opportunity,” looks at the political and social climate in America at the turn of the twentieth century. McGerr takes as his example a ball organized by wealthy socialites, which the popular press censures for costing too much money in the midst of an economic depression. The woman responsible for the ball, Cornelia, struggles to understand why it’s so badly received. She believes she’s stimulated the economy by giving business to shopkeepers who must design and sell dresses, and caterers who fit out the venue.

This demonstrates how out of touch the upper class is with the lower class—making it a ripe period for social revolution. It’s against this backdrop that the middle and educated class begins wondering what it can do about it. Because the lower and upper classes are alienated from each other, it’s impossible for them to understand each other’s predicaments, which leads to entirely different moral codes; this is what the middle class wants to change. The middle class believes it lives the ideal life—if everyone could be more like them, America would be great.

For example, the rich believe the poor are impoverished because of their own folly and lack of ambition. They have no concept of the lives the poorest Americans lead and why. There’s a growing culture of individualism and selfishness, and the rich begin to shun any Victorian morality it still has. Sons leave the family home early and are expected to make their own fortunes, and there’s a reinforced message that those who are not self-reliant end up failures.

This collection of problems leads us to part 2, which looks at how a rising middle class decides to unite these opposite ends of the social spectrum. Most of these revolutionaries are white and privileged, only furthering the disparities between ethnic groups. They don’t want to end segregation—they believe this is the best way to keep peaceful relationships. However, this is, of course, one of their biggest failures, as they underestimate how their culture of activism will encourage others of all races to protest for their own better futures. The progressives vote in favor of the very inequality they say they’re trying to end, which doesn’t sit well with many.

Another major failure of the progressive movement is its desire to control all aspects of life, from private life to alcohol regulation. With the outbreak of World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s desire to promote the United States of America as a utopian nation, everything is strictly controlled and censored. He wants everyone to focus on the war effort and promoting idealism in the face of threats to democracy. However, this, in turn, causes tensions to spill over inside America because no one feels remotely free.

Part 3, “Disturbance and Defeat,” looks in more detail at how the progressives fail to achieve their goals. Middle-class coercive attempts to reform the lower classes become just as insidious as the upper-class alienation from the working classes. There’s a feeling that no one recognizes lower-class autonomy or the importance of letting them have a say in their own futures. It’s this combination of misguided idealism and irony which causes the progressive middle class to fail in its mission.

McGerr never specifically looks at how this period shaped the economic and social problems Americans face today, albeit this is the core of his thesis. Instead, McGerr explains the shortcomings of the Progressive Era and how America will never succeed in improving the lives of all its people unless it finds a way to bridge the divides between very polarized classes.