Monday, March 30, 2009

The Populists and the Progressives

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, New York: Random House, 1955

Richard Hofstadter examines the great American reform movements from 1890 - 1940 (the Populist Movement, Progressivism, and the New Deal) and asks: (1) What were the ideas of the participants? and (2) How did Populism and Progressivism differ from the New Deal?

The ideology of the Populist movement reflected the American agrarian myth (the virtues of the independent yeoman farmer). Urbanization and industrialization, coupled with a virtual “immigrant invasion” gave rise to the notion of an innocent and victimized rural population. Populism insisted that the federal government had some responsibility for the common welfare, “The people versus the interests, the public versus the plutocrats, the toiling multitude versus the money power….” (Hofstadter, 65) Failure at the ballot box (the defeat of the third party bid to capture the White House) led rural interests to pursue modern methods of pressure politics and lobbying within the framework of the existing party system where they were largely successful in accomplishing their economic goals. (Hofstadter, 95)

The Progressive movement was urban, middleclass and nationwide. Progressives (like the Populists) were native born Protestants. Corporations, labor unions, and political machines (which organized incoming immigrants) were aggregating and presenting unorganized citizens the prospect that they would be unable to resist the new forces. The Progressive movement was “the complaint of the unorganized against the consequences of organization.” (Hofstadter, 216) Progressivism tried to restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the great corporations and the corrupt political machines.(Hofstadter, 5)

Hofstadter argues that Populism and Progressivism were driven by moral absolutes arising from the Protestant evangelical tradition. He suggests that to some degree both the Populists and Progressives were deluded by these ideological motivations which did not align with either their true economic interests or the necessity for new organizational modes required by a more advanced technological society. He argues for example that, “The prosperity of the commercial farmers was achieved not only in spite of but in good part because of the rise of American industry and the American city”. (Hofstadter, 110) Hofstadter argues that Progressives were trying to keep the benefits of the emerging organization of life and yet to retain the scheme of individualistic values that this organization was destroying. (Hofstadter, 217) Hofstadter’s central argument is that modern organizational necessities trumped ideology, “In their search for mechanical guarantees of continued popular control the reformers were trying to do something altogether impossible…to institutionalize a mood.” (Hofstadter, 266) Neither the Populists nor the Progressives offered an effective countervailing organizational structure for the realization of their reform goals. The New Deal, which was above all else pragmatic and boldly experimental, offered such an alternative organizational structure, pro-active big government.

How effective is Hofstadter’s argument? His deconstruction of the “soft” and “hard” motives of the Reformers is illuminating. He basically suggests that there was no inherent conflict between the new emerging organizations and the Protestant farmers and middle class who made up the Reform movements. Farmers’ economic interest benefited from the advent of urbanization and industrialization. In absolute terms, the native middle class also enjoyed material benefits. Hofstadter’s view is perhaps too materialistic. Progressives at the time argued that the nation was enjoying prosperity but losing its soul. “Anything that makes the organization greater than the man…is against all the principles of progress.” (Hofstadter, 226) Hofstadter appears to have little patience with intangibles and projects a firm believe in the values of pragmatism. To dismiss intangibles, however, is to deny the importance of irrational motives in history. There are, however, numerous historical examples of people and nations acting in ways inconsistent with their apparent self interest (e.g. the continuation of the slaughter in World War I long after the point where any conceivable goal could justify the cost).

Hofstadter’s concentration on the “critical path” of history, determined by emergent technical and social forces, is a powerful analytical technique. Basically his argument runs: The growth of big organizations was inevitable in a more complex technical and social environment. “Soft motives”, like the myth of the yeoman farmer, always lag behind the emerging necessities of modernity. Such old myths may produce social anxieties but may also have uses in softening transitions between historical periods (e.g. reform movements). “The rise of big business may have been inevitable, but if so it was salutary that it should have taken place in a climate of opinion that threw it intermittently on the defensive”. (Hofstadter, 255)

Hofstadter’s book is a product of the 1950s and makes virtually no mention of either women or African Americans which will be jarring for the modern reader.

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