Notes From Babel

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The Conservative Contribution to Progressivism, Part 2

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This is the follow up to my first post describing the historical and social underpinnings of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, drawing largely from Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920.  The thesis, arrived at in this post, is that while conservative values may have played a role in progressivism’s initial volley, the ultimate goals of progressive movement were anything but conservative.

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The new standard of living being conceived in the minds of Americans at the end of the 19th century put individualism in the crosshairs.  At the beginning of the 19th century, individualism was a hard lot, but a seemingly fair one.  A fledgling national government, a nigh-nonexistent system of roads, and a still sparsely populated nation rendered individual sustainability difficult but relatively predictable.  By the end of the 19th century, however, the vagaries of national macroeconomics were already beginning to render markets less predictable; the vast expansion of federal power rendered economic activity an increasingly political affair; and the maturing American economy, fortified by extensive rail and telegraph networks, saw industries becoming dominated by big firms.  All the while, increasing numbers of common working Americans were funneling into urban factory life.  While farms seldom provided more than subsistence living, Americans felt relatively proud and fulfilled.  They had a markedly different experience in the new American factories, however.  All this made working class Americans increasingly discontent—all they needed was a reason to impugn the individualism that sustained the unhappy state of affairs.

Conservative activists were all too eager to supply such reasons.  The expansion of pleasure-seeking to the middle-class worsened the problem of vice and had weakened the family structure.  The Social Gospel leader, Washington Gladden, for example, traced prostitution to middle- and upper-class affluence, as young men increasingly began to put off marriage “until they are able to support a wife in good style.”

“[A]nd as the wealth of the land increases and their neighbors live more and more luxuriously, the phrase ‘in good style’ is constantly undergoing changes of meaning. Young women become accustomed in their parental homes to a certain amount of comfort and of leisure, and they do not relish the thought of beginning to live more plainly and more laboriously in a home of their own.” When these people postponed marriage, Gladden affirmed, “one of the inevitable consequences is the increase of social immorality”: young men, single for too long, would seek sexual satisfaction with prostitutes. The attack on the brothel, then, might not get at the real problem that threatened the home. “I do not believe that there is any remedy for this social disease but the restoration of a more wholesome sentiment concerning this whole subject of family life,” Gladden concluded. “The morality of what we call our respectable classes needs toning up all along this line.”

(Emphasis added.)

It is this sentiment—that “morality . . . needs toning up”—that represents the conservative contribution to progressivism:  as new social, political, and economic forces began to disrupt cultural and moral values, many conservatives sought to push back in kind not merely to curtail those effects, but to counteract them.  Man and his moral character were no longer something to be left to the sole province of himself and his community; they must be “toned up” and remade through the law.  Under the progressive construction of man’s moral predicament, man was no longer accountable for his own actions.  Because people were malleable and defined by their environment, criminals were not wholly to blame, since their crimes owed in part to the sins of society.  “What we have got to have,” said Gladden, “is a different kind of men and women.”

Thus, a renewed vigor for morals legislation ensued, directed at card playing, gambling, horse racing, Sabbath breaking, pornography, dance halls, contraception, and, most famously, liquor.  Liquor, more than all other vices, was seen as the root of man’s moral decline—particularly, the breakup of the family and the degradation of women.  In this respect, McGerr recounts Carry Nation’s attack of a nude painting in the bar of the Carey Hotel in Wichita:

“It is very significant that the pictures of naked women are in saloons,” she explained. “Women are stripped of everything by them. Her husband is torn from her, she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food and her virtue, and then they strip her clothes off and hang her up bare in these dens of robbery and murder. Well does a saloon make a woman bare of all things!”

Yet, progressives quickly realized that prohibition of vices was not enough:  remaking man could not be achieved by negative campaign alone—it required an affirmative component.  Progressives would have to find “substitutes for the saloon.”

Alcohol free clubs and dance halls were needed to fulfill people’s desire to meet and socialize; libraries and gymnasiums were needed to fulfill the desire for stimulation. In short, the transformation of individuals required a more sweeping transformation of their environment.

With the progressives’ transition from a prohibitory campaign to more affirmative attempts to reshape mankind came the end of any partnership with conservatism.  Progressives moved beyond their “conservative” agenda to restore Victorian values, and instead began to explore a more radical, activist agenda.  Progressives began to remake rather than merely preserve society.  Law was not merely an anchor; it could serve as a sail.

This aspect of the progressive agenda was clear by the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, who stated:  “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life. . . . Our problem is to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”  Progressivism had by this time become a different thing entirely than the post-Victorian conservatism it set out as.  Indeed, it could be said the project never was truly conservative in the first place, and that the lament of the decline of Victorian values was merely lip service to justify the brewing radicalist urges.  Thus, perhaps even the prescriptive components of the early progressive agenda were less about preserving Victorian values than preliminary efforts at remaking all of society—the symbols of Victorianism simply served as a convenient cover of authenticity for an otherwise radical movement.

Whatever their original intentions, progressives eventually settled on an agenda that harmed conservative values:

Ironically, reform could destroy what it was intended to preserve. Crusading in the name of the home, reformers were supplanting the very thing they wanted to protect. As outside agencies supervised children in and out of school, ordered the material environment of tenements and parks, and regulated adult behavior, the family and the home became less important. “As in the human organism, when one organ fails, its functions are often undertaken and more or less imperfectly performed by some other organ,” Josiah Strong noted; “so in the great social organism of the city, when the home fails, the church sometimes undertakes the functions of the home.” A host of other “organs”—settlements, playgrounds, Boys’ Clubs, schools, courts, municipalities, state governments, the federal government—were undertaking those functions as well. But even the most reflective progressive activists appeared oblivious to the actual impact of their reforms on many homes.

According to E.A. Ross, progressivism eroded man’s moral fiber:  “Too much consideration for moral weakness would fill the world with moral weaklings,” he insisted. “To abolish temptation is to deprive the self-controlled of their natural right to outlive and outnumber those who have a cotton string for a backbone.”

“Once work was so constant that married women did not realize their loneliness or the want of appreciation which befell them,” Kate Gannett Wells contended in an essay titled “Why More Girls Do Not Marry”: Now society and the middle class have leisure to examine their states of mental solitude, and to see just where husbands are wanting. Fifty years ago the woman was too busy to stop for the morning kiss as her husband went to work.  Now she has time to think about the absence or infrequency of the greeting for half an hour before she reads the morning paper, in which she finds some fresh instance of man’s wickedness.

Thus conceived, progressivism cannot be sustained as a practical tool put in the service of conservatism—it is a wholly new conception of man, society, and government.

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