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During the time of industrialism in the United States, economic interests governed the climate of American society. Urbanization, the rise of the corporation, and the development of conspicuous consumption all contributed to a highly impersonal and competitive environment. The problem with this new system was the loss of control that many Americans experienced with respect to their own lives. Liberalism was the transition in American thought that sought to tame the unregulated nature of industrial capitalism in order to enable individuals to live prosperously and without constraint.1 Prior to the Second World War, the federal government actively attempted to amend U.S. society with the intent of humanizing the relationship between business and labor, promoting social and economic justice for all citizens, and revitalizing capitalism and democracy. Liberalism, as it emerged in the progressive movement and the legislation of the New Deal provided a platform for the government to enact these reforms.
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Among those who articulated, interpreted, and gave focus to the anxieties that troubled Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century was a group of talented journalists called the “muckrakers.” These individuals wrote predominantly for inexpensive, popular magazines such as McClure’s, Collier’s, and Ladies Home Journal, all of which had a wide reader-base. Some of the more notable muckrakers were Lincoln Steffens, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and David Graham Phillips. Their exposés explored a wide range of topics from corruption in city government, health-threatening foods and medicines, the horrors of immigrant ghettoes, and the venality of United States senators. Convinced that education was the avenue towards social change, muckrakers made publicity a primary instrument of reform. They sought to inform the public of important affairs by laying down the clear and often shameful facts. With such knowledge at the peoples’ disposal, these muckrakers were confident that the public would take action to correct the problems caused by an inefficient and unresponsive government. Although the muckrakers did not start the progressive movement, they provided the necessary stimulus for it. These journalists raised public awareness, cultivated popular indignation, and in doing so, indicated the direction in which reform should take. Fortunately, the actions of the muckrakers coincided with the rise of a president that helped to pass forward the reform they worked to spur.
Less than six months after his inauguration as vice president, Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency as a result of President William McKinley’s death at the hand of an assassin. Despite the tragedy that brought Roosevelt to power, few Americans failed to detect that his accession to the office signaled the dawn of a new day. Unlike McKinley, who was largely motivated by business interests, Roosevelt emerged as the first modern President by virtue of his ability to consciously serve a plurality of interests. Roosevelt was the youngest of all U.S. presidents, yet he had an intellectual curiosity and possessed literacy that rivaled that of Thomas Jefferson. Along with the political prowess that his intellectualism afforded him, Roosevelt embodied positive change. His youth, moral fervor, and skill in public relations combined to make him a highly visible and often controversial spokesman for reform. During his seven and a half years as president, Roosevelt, more than any other individual came to symbolize the national reform movement known as progressivism.
The search for a way both to ensure the material success of industrialism and preserve the principles of a democratic society was the concern of the progressive movement. Unlike rural-based Populism in the 1890s, progressivism emerged and evolved in an era of relative prosperity. As compared to groups such as the Grange Movement that emerged from the Populist ideology, there was no coordinating agency for the progressive movement. As the driving force behind this movement, Roosevelt was the archetype of the progressive conscious. Additionally, the mere fact that Roosevelt continually talked about reforms that needed to be instituted meant that his presence in the White House provided progressivism with the wherewithal to have a national impact. Although Roosevelt was emblematic of the progressive ideals, the Progressive Era was primarily a function of a widespread and non-partisan grassroots movement composed of many members.4 By and large, the individuals known as progressives were middle to upper middle class, many of them college educated, and included intellectuals, politicians, social workers, and business people. Women, such as Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago and the quintessential advocate of social justice, also came to be involved with the progressive movement.
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The progressive movement functioned upon the idea that the working class needed help and the collective efforts and insights of the educated class could serve as the necessary aid. As compared to wage laborers, these were the individuals who had the appropriate wealth and social position that accommodated them the time and ability to promote reform. These reformers represented a vast number of individual interests, yet the progressive movement in time attracted the support of a broad spectrum of the population that gave them appeal across class and cultural lines. The rank and file of these Americans who joined the progressive movement were aware that the current society of industrialism was more complex and interdependent, yet more impersonal than the previous generation. Despite the high rate of employment and increasing personal income that the industrial system provided, there existed a great sense of personal vulnerability among the general public. It was a mood of uneasiness, where individuals felt as though they no longer possessed control over their own future. Trapped within this complex system, they felt increasingly subjected to these impersonal forces which worked all around them.
Of all the societal influences perceived as threats to the individual, the powerful corporation was the most ominous. The common people saw themselves as victims to this new industrial form and felt powerless to change their social and economic position relative to it. Many members of the lower class worked as wage laborers for these booming corporations. Although there were a great deal of workers in these centers of industry, due to their unskilled labor, they were easily replaceable and possessed little to no bargaining rights. Incidents such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in which roughly 150 employees were killed as a result of blocked exit doors revealed a fundamental need for labor laws which protected the rights of the worker. The public mood was receptive to reforms which promised to cut through the impersonality of modern industrial life to protect or extend the rights of individuals. Progressive reforms, which aimed to speak for the unheard members of society, held out such a promise.
Progressives believed that government alone had the power to preserve economic and political freedom by ridding the new institutional order of its flaws. In a society that was increasingly encroached upon by industry and the corporation, many reforms were made which changed the dynamic of the industrial system. The Jungle by journalist Upton Sinclair described the horrific corruption of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. In an attempt to the change the nature of American heart through its stomach, the result of The Jungle was very positive action. The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, which banned the manufacture and sale of mislabeled, adulterated, or unsanitary foods and drugs. Other industrial reforms took place during this time such as the use city commissions and city managers within urban areas, the creation of building codes to promote the public safety and health, as well as convicting corrupt political officials such as Boss Tweed. Among all of this development in public policy, the writings of muckrakers played a central role in creating these improvements.
During his presidency, Roosevelt was convinced that monopolistic corporations possessed a great threat to the welfare of the American nation. Though given the label the “trustbuster,” Roosevelt ultimately concluded that the solution to the trust problem lay in federal regulation rather than in efforts to break up large corporations. He distinguished between good and bad trusts, not on the basis of their size, but rather on the basis of their conduct. Among these bad trusts, he allowed legal suits to proceed against Standard Oil and the National Tobacco Co. Like other progressive reformers, Roosevelt had no intention of destroying industrial capitalism; rather his aim was to make adjustments to ensure that it operated more equitably, more efficiently, and conformed to what they considered were basic American principles. The progressives intended to invoke government power to mitigate and humanize some of the worst aspects of industrial life.
Progressivism has been interpreted as re-knitting the social fabric that had been separated by the industrial system. The divide between the upper and lower class with respect to social and economic justice was profound. Without the imposition of new regulation, there existed the potential for conflict between these classes. If there was an intellectual commitment more or less universal within progressive ranks, it was faith in human progress and belief in the basic goodness of individuals. The existence of evil was the result of defective institutions and oppressive environments rather than the work of inherently evil human beings. The progressive mission, then, was to reform society and institutions in ways that would allow people to live richer, fuller, and more harmonious lives.
Much of the progressive agenda had been achieved by 1917, and this was the period when a modernly recognizable United States came about. In spite of the movement’s success, however, the U.S. involvement in World War I significantly diminished the momentum of progressivism. The war effort became a normalizing agent among the American public which made it necessary to discard one’s individual voice and identity. During this time, uniformity was not being created, but was imposed. Strong press censorship reigned, and the muckrakers who made their careers off of their expositions of corruption were suddenly stifled. Citizens had to buy into the same acts of patriotism, such as volunteering and buying war bonds. There was a national need to support the American troops overseas, and in order to do so, the individual qualities that liberalism and progressivism sought to protect had to be renounced. Although many have lamented the demise of progressivism during the 1920s, it hardly disappeared. Progressivism arguably set up the necessary social and political framework for the later reinstatement of liberalism which followed the war.
In October of 1929, the American stock market crashed which heralded the onset of the Great Depression. The value of stocks held in the U.S. between October and November dropped by a third.9 What made the stock market crash so problematic was that there was nothing at the bottom to slow the economic decline. There was no safety net—no unemployment or retirement insurance and no way for individuals and families to protect themselves financially. In this time of desperation, nothing was pushing the economy forward and this sudden collapse was posed to only become worse.
As the Depression continued, more and more Americans lost work. Due to insufficient demand from firms, there were millions of individuals who desperately wanted work, but could not land a job. There was a negative stigma associated with those who received private assistance from the government during this time. Many people, especially men who occupied the economic role of breadwinner within their families, viewed unemployment as a moral failing. The suicide rate, particularly in large cities, increased greatly in response to the decline of the job market.10 In contrast with the public perception, unemployment had little to do with personal ability and was largely the result of systemic problems of industrial capitalism in the 1920s. The way in which a person’s value was intertwined with their ability to be a provider made the American population myopic. So wrapped up in their identity was their ability to produce that the ability for individuals to consume had been overlooked. It was this neglected activity within the American economy—the power of consumption—that served as the lynchpin for the New Deal.
In contrast to the election of Theodore Roosevelt, the American public felt anything but a sentiment of hope leading up to the inauguration of the new Roosevelt—Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In March of 1933, the President-elect faced a staggering unemployment rate of 25 percent. It was from the economic turmoil of the Great Depression which provided the avenue for liberalism to emerge. President Roosevelt chose to attack the depression with his so-called New Deal, a series of economic programs passed during his first term in office. These programs greatly expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government. The goal was to improve the economy for the benefit of the ordinary citizen. The New Deal focused on consumerism and government control of the economy. Many of the New Deal programs, however, had not only an economic purpose, but also a driving moral purpose behind it.
As historian Thorstein Veblen revealed through his examination of the leisure class, consumption was commonly regarded as a sign of wealth and leisure. Possessing wealth was favorable during the 1930s, but the conspicuous consumption that social elites exercised presented a demeanor of ostentation. Excessive consumption was undoubtedly an effective way of showing social status and economic power, but it did not coincide with good character in the public eye. There existed a line which stood between consuming for the sake of necessity and consuming for the sake of display. New Deal Liberalism attempted to subvert this norm regarding the appropriate level of consumption by making the consumption of goods essential to the civil liberty. The creation of the New Deal emphasized a new American liberty known as Freedom From Want—a concept that Roosevelt would later address in his Four Freedoms Speech in 1941. The New Deal sought to ground this into the American economy, not only as a means of putting the economy back on its feet, but ensuring it as a basic civilian right. This new culture based on consumption was a means to unite Americans who were separated by the class system which industrialism had created. The New Deal specifically materialized a new cultural ethic in which purchasing no longer made one appear selfish; it made you characteristically American. This reorientation of public perception provided the necessary incentive to allow the New Deal legislation to operate successfully.
As much as consumption served as a means of reuniting the spirits of Americans, this change in American values utilized consumption as an engine for economic growth. The New Deal had as its primary objective the increased purchasing power and social security of the whole population. To alleviate the suffering of millions of unemployed Americans, the Roosevelt administration initiated relief programs that took various forms, ranging from direct dole to the creation of jobs for the jobless. These programs that the government supplied allowed for the possibility of consumption and, consequently, the ultimate goal of the New Deal to be realized. The rediscovered ability for American households to consume which government spending enabled drove up the production of domestic goods. One of the causes of the stock market crash was believed to be excessive competition among firms, which acted to lower the price of goods and overall profit as well. As a preventative measure, competition between firms became more controlled. Finally, as a result of this increased production of goods, more workers were hired to meet the demand, which drove unemployment down. Regardless of the analysis behind how the New Deal functioned to drive down unemployment and strengthen the capitalistic system, the legislation imposed was incredibly successful. According to Keynesian economics, every dollar spent by the government to rehabilitate the work force during the New Deal served as a multiplier created an output of multiple dollars. Following the six years the New Deal was in operation, the unemployment rate was reduced to two percent.
Arguably the centerpiece of the New Deal’s welfare program, the Social Security Act was passed in 1935. The Social Security Act revolutionized the privileges the government afforded American citizens. In exchange for being a productive consumer, there became a basic standard of living that every individual was rewarded. Prior to the 1930s, many Americans simply worked until they died. Additionally, most of the pension plans which had been built up until the 1930s had imploded during the stock market crash. The Social Security Act was a representation of how American government disavowed the idea of unemployment as a personal moral failing. Although it was still a new and untested piece of legislation when passed, the creation of a minimum economic existence as a basic right was a novel idea for a civilized nation. Along with being a means of making amends for the assets and securities that dissolved during the Great Depression, the creation of Social Security allowed loyal citizens underneath a capitalist economy not to fade away in debt, but to carry out their lives with financial security.
As channeled by the New Deal, the government reoriented public thinking by putting power in the hands of the consumer rather than the producer. This attention towards consumption that the New Deal promoted had a profound impact for future American thought. Up until 1933, the industrial capitalism system emphasized production as a means of making profit and realizing the nation’s materialist goals. The system was slanted, however, towards those who had the economy by the jugular. Prior to the stock market collapse, 20 corporations owned almost 50% of all corporate wealth within the country. The New Deal aided the United States in recognizing a new liberty by making what Americans seemed unable to do possible. By increasing the purchasing power of all individuals, it provided for the rejuvenation of the capitalist system. The New Deal trail blazed a path for American business that was guided towards a newfound sense of prosperity, while at the same time it imposed legislation that ensured the same conditions which led to prior economic collapse would not arise. It was the newest incarnation of both capitalism and democracy for the United States, which actively created reform by providing Americans freedom from financial concern. Relative to members of the working class who possessed insufficient wages and were even more deficient in influence, this was an unprecedented source of empowerment.
Liberalism emerged as a direct response to the problems inherent in the unregulated industrial system and in amending these issues to ensure equal rights for all individuals, these corrective measures dictated the changes in the relationship which were made between U.S. government and the American people. As the most effective agent to perform these liberal changes, progressivism and New Deal Liberalism expanded the powers of the government to intervene in economic and social affairs. The progressives were largely concerned with preserving moral character through their reforms and made only slight intrusions into the economic system. When Franklin Roosevelt took up the baton of liberalism in the wake of the Great Depression, there was a fundamental need for economic reform. By reforming the country morally through a new acquisitive ethic, Roosevelt was able to uplift a nation entrenched in poverty. The success of both the Progressive Era and the New Deal contributed to the sentiment that the government must expand to take up issues of reform. Through this shift from a decentralized, formative bureaucracy, to a centralized, consumerist bureaucracy, however, the ideology of conservatism would later materialize to embody the public concern of the growing power and role of the U.S. government.
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