Atlantic Crossings

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Daniel T. Rodgers. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. 634 pp. $35.00, ISBN 0-674-05131-9.



In Atlantic Crossings, Daniel T. Rodgers argues that between the 1870s and through the end of World War II, American Progressives were actively engaged in a trans-Atlantic dialogue with fellow progressives in Western Europe, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. His goal is to place American Progressivism and the New Deal within a larger context, namely the other industrialized democracies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, he is arguing against both notions of "American Exceptionalism" and the tendency among historians to treat the nation-state as a self-contained analytical unit. (2)

Most chapters address a different specific avenue of Progressive thought and activity; urban renewal, public transportation, public housing, workers insurance and other fields are addressed in turn, with an emphasis on how Progressives throughout the Western world sought out ideas and examples in other countries and through increasingly well-traveled routes of information and intellectual exchange. The connecting theme between these different arenas of activity and the different actors involved is the overriding concern about the consequences of rapid industrialization and capitalist growth. That the Progressive movement was a response to these challenges is not a new insight; what is notable about Rodgers' account is the insight that American Progressives were involved in a sustained enterprise which today might be known as "best practices" exploration.

This book is richly detailed; Rodgers is fluent in multiple European languages which enabled him to extend his research beyond the English-speaking world and research French and German sources as well. The areas of research are equally far-ranging: the state of Progressive politics, urban renewal and city planning, economics, and social insurance are just some of the broad reform movements he considers.

Rodgers is still forced to contend with the fact that, for the most part, Americans did not ultimately follow the same course that most other modern industrial democracies would in creating comprehensive, centralized social welfare policies and institutions. In his efforts to refute "American exceptionalism", he tends to either cast the courts, business interests, and the emphasis on property ownership as impediments or gloss over them altogether.

However, Rodgers might very well counter that he is not arguing that America followed the same path as their Progressive allies on the other side of the globe. Rather, he is simply making the case that Americans were deeply invested in a cosmopolitan project of modernization and reform. To that extent, he has succeeded remarkably.


Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Atlantic Crossings is a dense, thoroughly researched study of the Progressive Era that encompasses North America, Western Europe, and Australasia. Rodgers does an excellent job tracing the ways that ideas, people, and policy move around this world. Though his focus is on how America fits into the conversation with its three main influences--Britain, France, and Germany--he often pulls back to show how developments in places like Sweden or Australia are taking shape in relation to the larger powers.

Structurally, he takes the first two chapters to establish a sense of what social policy and progressive politics meant in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with the currents for intellectual exchange. The next six chapters deal with specific policy issues--laissez-faire economics, the "self-owned city," city planning, social insurance, wartime collectivism, and cooperative farming--and more specific examinations of the different variations adopted in the US and elsewhere.

Rodgers takes pains to show how the policies and reform actions taken (or not taken) were as much the result of timing and precedent as ideology. He chips away at the notion that the rhetoric of "American Exceptionalism" was the primary force in this period through numerous examples of similar and parallel development in Europe, and how ideology played into specific circumstances rather than acting as a blanket rationale. One example comes from the opposition to social insurance in Europe: that rhetoric closely matches the kinds of debate that occurred in Germany in the 1880s and Britain after 1918. Rodgers notes that America's laggard position gave it distinct advantages and disadvantages when it came to adopting new reforms or initiatives. The advantages were that options tended to be clearer, as the experimental work and cost had been undertaken already by others, which allows "laggards, in certain circumstances, to leapfrog over their competitors by cashing in on the advantages of delay" (265). The disadvantages were that "the territory of action may already have been preempted" (266) and the prime moment for action missed.

Atlantic Crossings covers the New Deal and WWII quickly and with far less elaborate discussion than previous chapters. The New Deal for Rodgers is the pinnacle of progressive-style reform facilitated by the crisis of the Great Depression, which he claims allowed "lurking" plans to be implemented at need. WWII represented the decline of the transatlantic connections so important to the US in the first half of the twentieth century: the weakened economic and political structures of European countries, with their emphases on scarcity and rebuilding, had far less appeal to a stronger US. Here Rodgers points to the lack of American enthusiasm for the Beveridge Plan as the key example of this sentiment, which stemmed from the view that Britain and other Western European countries had become irrelevant—the kinds of prewar exceptionalism that Rodgers elides in much of his analysis comes out in full force during and after WWII.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

Atlantic Crossings attempts to make a comprehensive case that American Progressivism was part of a larger movement throughout the industrialized democratic world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. To that effect, he is quite successful. As for his arguing against "American Exceptionalism", his success is less clear-cut but at the very least he forces a reconsideration of what "American Exceptionalism" means and how it is expressed.

One of the many strengths of this book is how Rodgers gets past ideological labels to understand how Progressivism "worked" within the economic and political realities activists, intellectuals, and politicians contended with. Many of the reforms and projects discussed in the book were products of experimentation and improvisation, not only within the specific context of whichever country they were carried out in but also in relation to similar examples in other countries. Americans could learn from the German experience with workers insurance, but at the same time had to contend with the negative consequence of borrowing ideas from Germany after the outbreak of World War I. This trans-Atlantic dialogue was never carried out in pristine isolation from political considerations. Rodgers also demonstrates the importance of building political constituencies for reforms in order to ensure their long-term viability. Americans (and others) frequently failed to grasp this important point because they came to study reforms such as social insurance or public housing after they had been accomplished--thereby missing the actual work of bringing successful projects to fruition. This tendency to focus on the final form rather than process would frequently undermine American attempts to translate their findings into an American context.

Rodgers is an excellent stylist, for which the reader will be grateful because there is a wealth of information, and the narrative tends to move back and forth across the Atlantic at a sometimes dizzying rate. Also, many of the chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically, so between that and the wealth of detail, the reader may find it a little hard to keep the various themes and narrative strands in clear focus. But Rodgers has a clear command of the material, which along with that readable, accessible style prevents the book from sagging under its own weight.

This is a fascinating, if sprawling narrative, but one of the most interesting parts is the rather sudden and relatively brief conclusion. At the end of World War II, with the United States thoroughly involved in European--and global--affairs to an unprecedented degree, with the New Deal reforms having institutionalized at least some American adaptations of trans-Atlantic Progressive innovations, the post-war era should have, or at least could have, seen a resurgence of the trans-Atlantic borrowing and communication which the war had disrupted. However, this was not to be. The Britsh Beveridge Plan, which would form the basis of much of the British welfare state constructed after the war, was ready-made for export and imitation, but the Americans were no longer listening. The disparity between economically and physically decimated Europe and the American home front where half of the entire planets' industrial productivity was now located blinded American progressives (and others) to the democratic and egalitarian premises of the Beveridge Plan. "American Exceptionalism" was back, and it shut the door on the era of Atlantic Progressivism.

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