Robert C. Bannister

Ray Stannard Baker and the Legacy of Progressivism


*latest revision 9/3/00.

For an extended version of these remarks click here.

Introduction : new popularity of the term "progressive" prompts a look at the "progressive era" (1900-1920) in U.S, history. As a top-rated journalist and best-selling author Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946) and his literary alter ego "David Grayson" provide an excellent window on changing interpretations of the nature and legacy of this era. This talk is divided into four sections: (1) recent use of the term "progressive;" (2) changing interpretations of the progressive movement over the past half century; (3) Baker's career reconsidered in light of these new perspectives, and (4) speculation, if time allows, on the prospect of a second "progressive era" in our new century. [2 minutes]

§ 1. Revival of term "Progressive"[3 minutes]

During the past decade, representative of the center, left and right have appropriated the label "progressive." Parallels between the newly nationalized economy , modern society of 1900 and our globalized, post-modern world of 2000 suggest that a need and perhaps the possibility of a new progressive era exists.

§2. Interpretations of the progressive era: three stages [5 minutes]

a. Unitarians through the 1960s sought to identify a single explanation or ethos : democratic/egalitarian sentiment coming especially from the midwest; a "status revolution" centered in middle class, urbanites in the East; the creation of a new "corporatism" led by big business or, alternately, a "search for order" emanating from a new class of professionals. Although Baker figured in most of these interpretations, he never quite fit:

* my Ray Stannard Baker : The Mind and Thought of a Progressive (1966) echoed a "status" interpretation of Richard Hofstadter's Age of Reform (1955), adding that David Grayson's post-transcendental idealism finally undercut Baker's reformism. But little or no evidence of "status" anxieties or the "souring" that Hofstadter described.

b. Pluralists . Although one historian by 1970 concluded that there was no "progressive movement," the "new" social and political history offered new pluralistic explanations.

i. Gender , (race and ethnicity). Gender studies were of three sorts: The first emphasized women's contributions to public policy and to volunteer organizations. A second examined changing definitions of gender. A third emphasized the extensive if sometimes hidden history of "social control," a term first popularized by the progressive sociologist Edward A. Ross in his book of that title (1901).

ii. Behaviorial analysis of the political process , here termed "coalitionist/transactionist"

c. Return to Unity . By 1980 there were signs of a return to unified explanations, one negative, one positive.

i. "Bringing the State Back in": political scientists and sociologists examined the mechanics of "state formation." Negative evaluation of progressives because they substituted charismatic presidency and executive commission for "state" of party, courts and local interests of 19th century.

ii. "Bringing Religion Back in": intellectual historians examined the role of religion and cultural values. Positive evaluation of progressives because emphasized ways they resolved person crises in socially productive ways.

iii. two recent volumes combine these two positions: Eldon J. Eisenach's The Lost Promise of Progressivism (1994) and essays in Progressivism and the New Democracy (1999).

Note: through all these interpretations a pervasive tension between (1) subjective/internal and objective/behavioral analysis; and (2) religious-cultural-moral and secular-scientific-organizational side of progressivism . Does this latter tension represent two sides of a "progressive mind"? a generational/class/or occupational conflict within progressivism? Or a series of unintended consequences resulting primarily from WWI?

§ 3. Baker/Grayson in light of changing interpretations. [10 minutes]

a. studies of past three decades added important new dimensions to understanding Baker/Grayon.

i. gender (report of study based on letters to David Grayson). For a draft of an unpublished study see "David Grayson and the Woman Reader: Adventures in Discontentment". [6 minutes]

ii. coalitionist/transactionist. [2 minutes

iii. religio/ideological. [2 minutes]

iv. new institutionalist

*unfortunately does not resolve the fundmental issue of moralism vs. scientism (in Daniel Rodgers' terms, why some progressives spoke language of "community," and others language of "efficiency" ), an issue that could use more study. Comparison of Baker to other "progressives " suggests it was combination of generation (those born by early 1870s vs. 1880s); background (secure WASP middle class versus geographically /class/ ethnically marginalized); and unanticipated developments primarily the result of war, of which indivividuals like Baker contributed primarily by being blind to the full implications of professionalization/bureaucracy/ corporatism, on the one hand, and consumerism, separation of work and leisure etc. on the other.

b. these same studies also suggest limits and mixed legacy of progressivism

i. although Grayson was part of Baker's successful resolution of personal and professional conflicts, his version of the good life did not really speak to the problems many readers were facing, particularly women readers, adding a minor footnote to the growing consensus that , despite the achievements of the suffrage movement, progressivism's cultural legacy for women was decidedly mixed. During the 1920s, consumerism , suburbs, and leisure pursuits provided new avenues to "contentment." In his rejection of the high pressure world of the professions and business, Grayson himself anticipated the "male flight from responsibility" of the 1960s.

ii. As a journalist Baker contributed to the coalition building that was one of progressivism's great strengths. As participant in a larger trans-Atlantic dialogue , he helped create a legacy that, as Rodgers has arguedin Atlantic Crossings, endured into the 1930s. But Baker's mediating role as journalist also had a down side in the growing manipulation of the news , as he himself discovered while trying to work with T.R, and later as Wilson''s press secretary.

iii. his emphasis on "public opinion," celebration of presidential leadership, and negative view of party politics fostered the climate in which a new type of "state" emerged, with the liabilities noted by Stephen Skowronek and others.


§4 A New Progressive Era? [If time, raise issues in minute for discussion]

Despite parallels between the newly nationalized economy and politics of the earlier era, and our postmodern, globalized order today this review of Baker and progressive historiography raises doubts as to a "new progressive era."

a. Which group or groups will supply the driving force of a new "progressivism? " Forces that shaped the "progressive personality" now work in quite different ways (religion now a source of reaction, science distrusted)

b. The political/social environment also is now quite different. Media (TV, internet) divide as much as unite, doing little to encourage coalition building. Universities no longer the source of mainstream reformism Although there may be some success in solving economic and political issues (as also was the case with progressivism), the social/life/style issues are even more divisive than a century ago. Parties do not exercise enough discipline to shape public policy in constructive ways, despite recent shows of unity at the part conventions.