Thursday, April 16, 2009 Book Club--"Triangle"

Its been a long while since I've posted but I've been pretty engrossed in David Von Drehle's "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America." Like many great historical works, Triangle manages to weave a number of important threads together, all while centered around a common event. In this case its the March 25, 1911 fire at New York's Triangle Waist Company which resulted in the death of 146 people. Prior to 9/11 it was the largest workplace disaster in New York history. The book is masterful in that it uses this tragedy to illustrate how movements are oftentimes the result, or culmination, of unpredictable events.

This book came to my attention a few weeks back when I was at an event at the Center for American Progress celebrating the launch of their Progressive Studies program. During the Q&A session John Podesta mentioned the book, almost in passing, as being one of the best explanations of the birth of progressivism in this country. What Von Drehle (a reporter for the Washington Post) does so well is show us how modern liberalism was in many ways descended from this tragedy. There were a number of ingredients, all discussed at length, that contributed to the ascendancy of what he calls "urban liberalism" and ultimately the election of FDR and the New Deal. Among these were rapid industrialization and the mechanisation of production--in this case consumer apparel; the need for a low wage workforce to feed this demand; massive European immigration (mainly Eastern European Jewish and Italian) to provide this workforce; an urban political machine (Tammany Hall) initially standoffish to the demands of this new workforce but later converted by virtue of the number of votes to be gained; a rapidly developing labor movement; suffragist agitation; and a decidedly upper class reformist clique to provide resources and credibility to the demands of workers. The fire on March 25 managed to bring all of these forces together and lead, ultimately, to a more activist and regulatory government, working on behalf of the masses. Individuals such as Frances Perkins, Al Smith, and Robert Wagner play key roles in the aftermath of the fire to ensure that those issues raised by the tragedy did not recede into the background, but were rather translated into concrete policy.

Another interesting argument made by Von Drehle is that the resulting political regime--urban and liberal--by virtue of its policy implementation, managed to stifle the advancement of more radical political movements. We forget that while socialism never took hold in the U.S., many of the ingredients for its success were present--and in clear sight leading up to the fire. Also, the later rise of FDR and the New Deal managed to bring about the death knell of Progressivism. Like many other third parties in American history, the Progressives failed because a larger force (the Democratic Party) subsumed them.

For anyone with an interest in urban politics, immigration, the labor and suffragist movement, or the birth of the modern Democratic Party, this book is highly recommended.