Notes From Babel

The Conservative Contribution to Progressivism, Part 1

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I was referred to Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 after making some comparisons of conservatism and liberalism to Progressivism.  It was one of the first full length books I read on my new Kindle, and I found myself glad for the ability to easily tag and annotate McGerr’s many important ideas.  Upon finishing the book, I’ve set out to fortify the basic position I advanced here, as I believe it is vindicated by the historical record set out in McGerr’s book.

It has become a more involved project than I anticipated, however, and thus I have decided to break it out into several parts—probably three, by the looks of it.  The first part, below, concerns the decline of the era of Victorian individualism, and the forging of a new idea of individualism and individual entitlements.

* * *

For good reason, rebranding liberals as “progressives” is a widely used tactic on the right.  It is so effective because it associates the left with the repugnant and, even better, failed political movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.  That movement, of course, is the one that strove to remake humanity—economically through redistribution, morally through prohibitory legislation, and genetically through sterilization and eugenics.  The  Progressives’ zealous campaign against individual rights ultimately led even FDR, the very symbol of the remade 20th century America, to distance himself from the movement.  Thus, even while its legacy survives, Progressivism’s name is a scarlet letter in American politics.  An intellectual family tree that relates Progressivism to modern liberalism is thus a tremendously effective polemic device.

Yet, the right often neglects to mention that conservatism also makes an appearance on Progressivism’s family tree.  In its early stages, after all, Progressivism was a reaction to the decline of Victorian values, bowing under the weight of an increasingly industrialized and fractured American society.  Campaigns to stem the uptick of divorce, prostitution, and drink resulted in our nation’s first flopped constitutional amendment.  Progressives also were content to use the power of their new labor unions to exclude blacks from entire industries.

In A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, Michael McGerr outlines the social, political, and economic forces giving rise to the Progressive movement.  It is the early stage of the Progressive moment that most clearly reveals conservativism’s contribution to the ill-fated project.  As justice Frankfurter would later write in 1940 in Minersville School District v. Gobitis,

The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment.  Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilization.

It was this sort of conservative sentiment, unconservatively enshrined in national policy, that initially propelled the Progressive moment.  American individualism, loosed across a vast continent connected by an unprecedented network of rail and telegraph wire, put strain on America’s underlying social fabric.  The divorce rate following the Civil War inclined steeply as high society became obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and self-aggrandizement, perverting the virtue of individualism.  While the Victorians had balanced individual freedom with self-control, hard work, and domesticity, McGerr points out, “[t]he rich had seemingly cast aside those balance weights. In the hands of the upper ten, individualism became an excuse for complete autonomy, a legitimization of indulgence and inequality, and a rationalization of the troubling national status quo.”

Because of the wild success of America’s system of government in creating vast fortunes and divergent ways of life, Americans, perhaps unwittingly, undermined the connection with their own social fabric. The old town economies and country religions were out.  A new national economy and civic religion were in.

The wealthy, however, did not seem to grasp what was happening, or account for the growing resentment felt toward them.  From their perspective, their parties “helped the economy because ‘many New York shops sold out brocades and silks which had been lying in their stock-rooms for years.’”  Teddy Roosevelt tried to stave off the coming revolt, noting that social and political stability impel the wealthy to observe certain “duties toward the public.”  “Do they not realize that they are putting a very heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?”  “I wish that capitalists would see that what I am advocating is really in the interest of property, for it will save it from the danger of revolution.”

The extravagance of the “upper 10” during the depression years of the 1890s galvanized populist resentment, particularly as Victorian individualism was failing the industrial class at the same time.  Industrial work was distantly attenuated from its product, and thus the traditional agrarian work ethic, like the traditional agrarians themselves, began to wane.  McGerr notes that by 1900, following the depression of the 1890s, wage workers in manufacturing earned an average of $435 for the year.  The working-class earned less yet:  anthracite coal miners averaged $340 for the year; domestics, $240; and agricultural laborers, only $178 with room and board.  The middle-class, on the other hand, working as clerical workers in railroad and manufacturing firms, averaged $1,011.  For the lower classes, McGerr argues, “Victorian individualism was impossible . . . . Many workers simply could not make enough to support themselves, let alone a family.”  This, along with frequent economic upheavals typical of markets, tended to undermine the moral force of individualism among turn-of-the-century wage-earners.

Despite capitalism’s harsh terms, its attendant virtues of thrift and self-sacrifice began to decline.  As McGerr notes, wage workers simply “saw little point in trying to save their dollars and deny themselves.”  Instead, they took the little they had and threw it into the same rat hole of excess as the rich.

Some workers shared the upper-class obsession with fashion and display. Young laboring women spent precious dollars on flashy clothing intended to match or even outdo the upper ten. “If my lady wears a velvet gown, put together for her in an East Side sweatshop,” a reporter in New York observed in 1898, “may not the girl whose fingers fashioned it rejoice her soul by astonishing Grand Street with a copy of it next Sunday? My lady’s in velvet, and the East Side girl’s is the cheapest, but it’s the style that counts. In this land of equality, shall not one wear what the other wears?”

Booker T. Washington also documented this burgeoning sense of entitlement to the bounty of modern life, irrespective of the means to acquire it:

In these cabin homes I often found sewing-machines which had been bought, or were being bought, on instalments, frequently at a cost of as much as sixty dollars, or showy clocks for which the occupants of the cabins had paid twelve or fourteen dollars. I remember that on one occasion when I went into one of these cabins for dinner, when I sat down to the table for a meal with the four members of the family, I noticed that, while there were five of us at the table, there was but one fork for the five of us to use. Naturally there was an awkward pause on my part. In the opposite corner of that same cabin was an organ for which the people told me they were paying sixty dollars in monthly instalments. One fork, and a sixty-dollar organ!

. . . .

On Saturday the whole family would spent at least half a day, and often a whole day, in town. The idea in going to town was, I suppose, to do shopping, but all the shopping that the whole family had money for could have been attended to in ten minutes by one person.

The rise of hedonistic individualism hastened the decline of Victorian values.  McGerr notes that “middle-class husbands and wives judged their spouses by the pleasures they provided—the quality of the home and its objects, the happiness of the marriage. The failure to meet those increased expectations was a principal reason for the increasing breakup of Victorian marriages.”

This new form of individualism came as a result of a growingly diffuse economy in which labor and consumption had become only distantly and obliquely related.  Industrial work was attenuated from its product, and thus the traditional agrarian work ethic, like the traditional agrarians themselves, began to wane.  The American laborer no longer provided his own essentials of survival, but instead deposited his effort into a vast and complex economic machine.  His yield, his “wage,” served as the only symbol of his output, a rebuttable presumption of the value of his labor.  And, as his commercial appetites continued to increase, American workers started to rebut the presumption.  The wage system was being thrown into upheaval:  if the market would not set a wage sufficient to meet the American worker’s standard of living, he would set it himself.  “It seems to me that when a man, my father, works all day long, he ought to have a beautiful home, he ought to have good food, he too ought to get a chance to appreciate beautiful music.”  Thus formed a new basis for “individual rights” in American politics.

Accordingly, Americans, as laborers, resorted to collectivism to feed their individualism as consumers.  The marketplace had suddenly become too large and ominous, and the means of production too mechanical and rote, to expect to have much chance of improving one’s lot without collective action.  Though businesses would later seek to avoid unionization through “welfare capitalism,” it was already clear that unionization and government regulation were tools too powerful to go unused.  Moreover, the new strain of antisocial individualism complained of by Progressives was of relatively recent vintage, created in large part by a growing industrial economy fortified by a strong central government.  The cultural and societal growing pains caused by this surge in industrialization were serious concerns. Like the ills of slavery, since government had aided the accession of uncorked individualism, it was natural and perhaps even appropriate to look to government to redress its abuses.

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Written by Tim Kowal

January 18, 2011 at 12:25 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] is the follow up to my first post describing the historical and social underpinnings of the progressive movement of the late 19th and […]

  2. […] elite and a displaced working class.   As I explained in recent posts on the progressive movement here and here, unions and industrial regulations, though anti-competitive and anti-individualist, were […]

  3. […] and bureaucrats, the free market is inscrutable and substantially unfree.  As I wrote about recently, beginning at the turn of the 20th century, our economy has become increasingly diffuse, providing […]


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