Political Networks of the “Progressive Era” United States (1901-1920)

Project Details

Description

This project maps and analyses an ego-centric network of Theodore Roosevelt during the Progressive Era (1901-1920) to understand how political relationships, influence, and civic culture operated in a seminal period of American history. The aim of this research is to create a new understanding of the political context and learn how interconnected political actors interacted through the office of the presidency. It considers how understudied and seemingly powerless political actors (minorities, women, the poor, immigrants) found agency through the presidency. With access to massive archival databases recently digitised, this network analysis can skew our perception of American pluralism and democracy.

Key findings

Industrialisation transformed the United States. As employment moved from farms to factories, people migrated from rural and foreign lands to American cities. The railroad and telegraph connected society, and an emergent middle class gave rise to consumerism and credit. Simultaneously, the political system undertook dramatic change. The U.S. acquired colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific. Sectionalism fuelled racial segregation. Wage slavery exacerbated class divisions. Activists mobilised and petitioned for direct elections, universal suffrage, public health, environmental protection, social welfare, and labour rights.

No single person bears responsibility for reforms, although popular political history often credits the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt for instigating a “Progressive Era.” That top-down approach to political history is tired and old, if all too prevalent. Journalist Nicolas Lemann lamented that “among the cruelties of popular political history is that almost everyone below the level of president winds up being forgotten.” Despite this tendency to bestow the nation’s achievements on a president, the White House remains an important focal point for scholars. It acts as a clearinghouse for lobbyists, policy wonks, social activists, the media, and businesses. The presidency can even illustrate how those with limited or no political power (minorities, women, the poor, and immigrants, for example) can influence public policy. Rather than obscure the roots of political power, the presidency can help exhibit constituent interests and the networks of non-government activists. By investigating this network “below the level” of president it is possible to observe a dynamic and diverse political culture.

Mapping and analysing the networks of the Progressive Era (1901-1920) will facilitate a new understanding of the period’s political culture. Network analysis as a methodology has enabled sociologists and political scientists to understand how groups of people interact and operate. Historians have only started to utilise some of these approaches. Among the few presidential historians who train their attention on networks, the aim has been to understand how networks affect leadership styles or how bureaucratic systems process information. As important as this analysis is for understanding how decisions are made and the sinews of power, it cannot illustrate the broad interconnected relations beyond government and the agency of those outside the system. They do not explore how networks expand, or how administrations take on causes, evolve, and impact upon political traditions. They instead create a flowchart of communication and control within government, whereas a network analysis of the presidency can identify relationships that arise outside traditional power structures and endure beyond a single context or term in office.

The United States particularly suits an “ego-centric” network analysis that puts the president at the centre of the country’s political matrix. First, the president wears several “hats” leading the nation as head of state, chief economist, chief diplomat, head of party, commander-in-chief, and chief legislator. With the nation as a constituency, presidents connect with all interest groups. But, instead of a top-down perspective, an ego-centric network analysis can show how, for example, activists lobby from grass-roots. Second, the importance of the president’s office has led archives and individuals to maintain records relating to the existence, expanse, and evolution of networks. Several political networks existed in the Progressive Era, but few have archival records so vast and well-catalogued as presidential collections. These records reveal inter-personal relations like no other. Third, an ego-centric approach allows for comprehensive analysis of all actors in a given network. A “whole network” approach to the Progressive Era would expand beyond any reasonable parameters, and prevent a deep investigation, but using a locus like a president facilitates analysis on a manageable scale.

The project will produce three outcomes:
a monograph that examines the inner circle of 35 political actors and provides substantial details on the wider political culture of the Progressive Era

an article, entitled “Political Networks, the Presidency, and American Pluralism,” that promotes network analysis and speaks to the methodological “revolution” in presidential studies

a digital network map and database.
StatusActive
Effective start/end date1/01/2131/07/22

Funding

  • The Leverhulme Trust: £47,000.00