In what ways did American progressivism/liberalism draw from and change previous elements of American political thought, starting with the Populists and continuing through the New Left? Are there tensions within this broad movement?
Over the past century, the US has seen the stage being set for modern liberalism. This has been done by the progressive assault on the binding constitutionalism which had been set by the founders. By pin pointing the exact drawbacks, the movers have been in a position to address a number of areas that needed to be addressed. To understand the metamorphosis, one should visualize the changes that have taken place in the last century with the US government seeing the transformation from the initial federal government to the current centralized administrative unit that has been bestowed with unlimited powers in the 21st century. This is a transformation that has happened over a number of years. This has come with the need to address the issue of the limited powers that had been given to the national government in the federal structure. Therefore, the massive expansion of the powers given to the national government has steered more growth and national cohesion.
The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation. We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption ruins the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the congress, and even touches even the ermine of the bench.
This shows the problems that the people were suffering from on the wake of the 1890s economic depression. The progressives therefore used this as a platform to address the concerns of the people and clean up the mess that had been created in terms of political corruption, bribery and the rot in the judicial system.
Progressivism was and is always based on the progress. The believers and those individuals who push for progress identify the problems that need to be addressed in a quick manner and move to address them. They push for just social set ups that are favorable for all. The American democratic principles must be aligned to such a good course. This meant pushing for freedom of all people, equality regardless of race, gender and religion, and fighting for the common good of all the people in the country. Progressivism was identified as an intellectual movement with the principles that have been highlighted above. Between 1890 and 1920, there was an increasing need in the US to come up with a structure that changed or at least addressed the faulty policies that had been put in place by the founders as the country recovered from the facets of colonization. On top of this, at the time, the US industry was quickly plummeting and the growing need to have a place in the global economy needed a quick address to various concerns that were arising. So in short, the problems that facilitated the progressivism movement included the economic depressions that threatened the young American industry, the increasing level of poverty among the citizens, and the political corruption for those in power.
The political and economic reforms will form the central basis of this paper as they were the greatest achievements of the liberalists at the time addressed earlier. The problems that were to be addressed such as poor working conditions needed boldness and individuals who were not ready to be cowed by the consistent threats from those in positions of power. The political reforms that needed to be addressed and which came as a success included the shunning of the selfish interests of the political class by putting in place policies such as the senator election and the caring of the public property. Inheritance taxes and graduated income were some of the economic issues that needed to be addressed. It was evident that the policies that had been put in place were putting much constrain on the common man and favoring the political big wigs as well as the upper economical class in the society. For equality to be realized, this had to be addressed. By 1910, the economy had really recovered. President Theodore Roosevelt had another problem. Addressing the labor industry where exploitation of the workers was so pronounced. He says; -
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is superior of capital, and deserves much higher consideration, (Kramnick and Theodore, p. 1087)
This was as a measure to show that it was not a violation of rights to exploit the people who were giving the labor to the industries. He therefore steered the formation of policies that addressed the issues in the labor industry. The Great Depression came in 1929. FDR came with the new deal that addressed the problems in the economic sector as well as setting the pace for economic recovery. The New Left on the other hand came to address issues affecting the decisions made such as the Vietnam War and rights that the people were fighting for.
According to Kramnick and Theodore (2009), some of the individuals who championed for democracy included William Jennings Bryan nicknamed ‘the commoner’ (p. 809). Being among the silver democrats, they boldly expressed their dislike on the use of gold and ended up winning the contest together with other democrats. Though he came from the same political front as Senator Hill who was for the gold, he was fast to make it clear that his voice and that of other right minded democrats was the voice of the trodden common man who could not have his grievances voiced to the national platform. This was one of the reasons that earned him the title ‘the commoner’. The business arena needed the demystification that they brought. Their assertion that the an individual who is employed for wages was the as good a business man as the one who employed him came as a blow to those who viewed the business platform as a master and slave affair (p. 811). Though initially the move was viewed as a platform to get votes, right minded citizens realized the need to realize business equality if the common individual had to make his place in the field and hence boost the economic status of the country. The income tax was one of the controversial issues that were debated with the democrats claiming and making it clear that they did no wrong in passing it.
At the time, the labor issue also came up as a strong issue that called for immediate address from those in power (Kramnick and Theodore, p. 834). In the development of the modern industry especially in the fast growing US industry, the issue of slavery was slowly taking root. Workers were working in poor conditions as well as receiving unfair wages. This therefore needed to be addressed if the country was to move in the direction that it had fought for during its independence. Freedom could not be realized if some people still used others to get rich fast without considering the state of their living or the aftermath of the service that they offered. The progressivism movement had the role to initiate a change in the labor industry. The courts were shamelessly advocating or propagating the policies that ensured the rich remained rich at the expense of the poor man in the country. This had to be addressed. According to Kramnick and Theodore (2009), the courts found it in line with judicial procedure to strike every weapon from labor’s economic hand and leave it defenseless at the mercy of its exploiter (p. 836). The labor movements therefore came in line with the liberalists’ ideology which was championing for the rights of the common man and ensuring that the courts were not used as tools of oppression as it had been seen in the previous time. There is a problem when the upper social class in the society gangs up with the courts to oppress the poor and propagate policies that make them richer at the expense of the poor man.
Theodore Roosevelt pushed the wheel as a reformer and US president when he was elected in 1910. Among the things that can be attributed to his name include environmental conservation, and consumer protection. His approach to labor and capital as factors of production in an industry that was marred by injustices earned him a great reputation. According to him, labor was independent of capital since capital was just a fruit of labor. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power, he was also categorical in establishing the position of the common man in business and shunning the selfishness of the higher social class. His annual message to Congress in January 1936 was viewed as a harsh indictment of those businessmen who at the expense of the public went ahead to quench their selfish interests. In his message he also likened the state of the business field in the US to that of autocrats who could use any method no matter how selfish it was to make sure that their interests were quenched at the expense of the global peace (Pierceson, p. 1184).
As FDR argued, in any democratic nation, the biggest role that the liberalists can do is to make sure that the autocratic institutions are not the ones that are making the policies or being at the helm of the policy making process. This is due to the fact that their decisions will be selfish and geared to address the interests of the few instead of the majority in the society. This was FDR’s approach after the new deal. After World War I, it was realized that there was an emergence of a business class that was so influential on the policies that were being made and therefore leading to the economic depression that was witnessed before signing the New Deal. In his message, he cited three years earlier where he had taken it upon himself to address the power issue and make sure that the power was given back to the rightful owners. The government had to serve the people and not to be used as a vessel of propagating injustice and quenching the selfish interests of the few individuals who controlled businesses in the country.
For issues such as labor to be addressed, bold moves needed to be undertaken and break the links that could have derailed the plans. On top of that, the New Deal was a serious and delicate matter that needed serious considerations if it had to be achieved. Considering the economic depression that the US was recovering from at the time, FDR had a war to fight to re-establish the position of the common man in the business set up. The New Deal as it was enacted involved a series of domestic programs that were enacted between 1933 and 1936 and also a number of which came later during the term of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After four years of the Great Depression that started around 1929 to 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt was elected, the country had undergone a serious economic makeover with most businesses being closed as a result. Therefore, upon being elected into office, he had to address the problem which had been key in shaping the politics at the time. The main issue was to stabilize the economy.
The rate of unemployment was rising every day especially considering that the companies were succumbing to the depression every day. These were the issues that were concerning the common man that Roosevelt had vowed to represent. Therefore, he divided the tasks that he needed to undertake into two. There were those that he would accomplish in a hundred days and those that would be achieved in the second New Deal. However, as is evident in his message to the congress, he was calling upon them to make sure that the promises made to the people were accomplished. There is much debate on the success of the New Deal. Though it is evident that the issue of unemployment was not sufficiently addressed, it is evident that from what Roosevelt had inherited and the condition of the country in 1933, he did a great job. The policies he set and his determination worked positively among the people whose hopes were restored. The fruits of the New Deal were not so quick to be realized. However, the shape the US economy took after that had much to borrow from the steps that were made at the time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were heated debates on issues such as gay’s rights, equality, and abortion. It’s on these grounds that the New Left political movement was formed. The New left was a group of students who were later found to be responsible for the riots witnessed at Chicago, Columbia, and Berkeley. The New Left was dedicated to bring change through the violent measures in the American Society and also ensure that the government heeded their voice. Wright Mills was one of the key personalities in the New Left and who denounced Yankee imperialism. In 1964, Milt Rosen called for action against the Vietnam War. This was in a speech which he made at the Yale Socialist Conference. At the time, the Vietnam War had made the New Left to take a radical turn question its need and benefit. The movement therefore came as a voice of the voiceless and trying to take the place of the liberalists/progressivisms who had steered for change at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Old Left had taken their time to address issues of labor and social justice as has been discussed in the paper. In the wee years of the 19th century and the years up to the New Deal, the issue of labor was and the position of individuals in business was a lingering problem. Therefore, the liberalists had to push for reforms and ensure that social equality was established for the sake of the common citizen whose voice could not be heard. The New Left has different sections some of which had little concern about the social classes that played a huge role in shaping the politics. An important thing to note is that most of the New Left reformers were against the Old Left democrats. They viewed them as redundant and felt that it was important to instil new ideas into the Democrat. The Vietnam War was one of the controversial issues that facilitated the actions of the New Left as a way of airing their dissatisfaction to the government.
Kramnick, Isaac, and Theodore J. Lowi. American Political Thought: A Norton Anthology. New
York: W.W. Norton, 2009. Print.
Pierceson, Jason. The Political Thought of the New Deal. University of Illinois at Springfield. (2015) Print.