American Politics: Progressives and Renegades
February 3, 2014
And, slowly, the light dawns. Things begin to make sense. So let me begin.
I have been reading three books. First, there is The Bully Pulpit: T. Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Second, there is Island of Vice: T. Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York. And third, there is A Renegade History of the United States. And here is what emerged from these three books.
First, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. This is a rather conventional history of Roosevelt and Taft, although I am more interested in Roosevelt right now than I am in Taft. More especially, I am interested in Goodwin’s account of TR as a police commissioner in New York City in the 1890’s, where he served as president of the police board, a board of four men allegedly bipartisan. Roosevelt and the board were considered to be “reformist” which meant then that the members were not part of Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine that had, on and off, controlled city politics in New York City.
What Goodwin writes about is TR’s commitment to “reform,” which meant, for the most part, going after corrupt policemen, drinking, prostitution, and dancing. Roosevelt and the board shut down, or tried to shut down, the saloons on Sunday because that was what NY law required. And this is, as noted above, all quite conventional on Goodwin’s part, as is her assessment of TR’s activities that sometime read like she takes herself to be Roosevelt’s publicist. For example, Goodwin writes that TR was “convinced….that the only way to pry out…the taproot of corruption in the police force was through the strict enforcement of the law requiring that saloons be closed on Sunday.” [p. 209] Nowhere does Goodwin question this conviction, presenting it as a fact and grounding it in the expertise of Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, two of New York’s most prominent and competent journalists.
But through it all, and especially after reading Island of Vice by Richard Zacks, who goes into much more detail about Roosevelt’s time as police commissioner and who gives a much fuller picture of the controversy TR and the board created in the city, it is the intensity of TR’s actions that left me puzzled. And in Zacks account, unlike Goodwin’s, the discriminatory character of TR’s actions in, for example, closing the saloons on Sunday is crystal clear. That is, the reforms that TR was pursuing fell much more strongly on the middle and lower classes than they did on the upper classes, who could still drink on Sundays in their private clubs because they were private clubs.
Zacks also provides context that Goodwin does not, especially about the job that the police were expected to do at that time, thereby rendering their “corruption,” as it were, more understandable. The police were expected to perform various functions they no longer perform today, such as inspecting buildings and overseeing elections. They were also, as patrolmen, required to work through the night, walking beats alone, for not a lot of money and with little time to recover or recuperate.
So, given these circumstances, I was left puzzled as to why TR and others took the cause of “reform” so seriously, pursued it with such intensity, and defended it with such vitriolic rhetoric. In one meeting, Roosevelt compared those who disagreed with his campaign to close the saloons on Sundays to “lynchers and white-cappers (i.e., white-hooded Klansmen)” and he said that selective enforcement of the laws in these matters “inevitably lead to anarchy and violence.” [p. 139]
But then as I read A Renegade History of the United States, by Thaddeus Russell, this intensity, this agenda and its purposes began to make sense. As Russell wrote: “Looking back from the twenty-first century, it may be hard to imagine that most Americans in the nineteenth century believed materialism was evil, thrift was virtuous, and the pursuit of pleasure was dangerous at best.” [p. 208] That is, what lay at the base of what is called “progressivism” was a concern with “the amusement problem.” For example, in 1875, Carroll D. Wright working for the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics, found in studying the spending habits of ordinary Americans a bothersome, for him, tendency to spend on pleasure. “Most troubling was the quantity of alcohol being consumed, its effects on general spending habits, and the resulting aggressiveness of workers for higher wages.” [ibid.] These phenomena, Wright contended, undermined sobriety, industriousness, and thriftiness.
As Russell summarizes: “This ascetic ideal was one of the criteria of respectability in nineteenth century America. Indulgence in luxury was seen by both the wealthy and large portions of the working class as un-American.” [p. 212] And this last phrase is, it seems to me, the key. What the progressives were after was the “Americanization” of everyone, a result that meant that all would behave in certain socially acceptable ways and would identify themselves – or their “selfs,” it might be said – with being “American” through and through. The pursuit of pleasure, for example, the pleasures of drinking or dancing, was an obstacle to this “Americanization” of the self. Read the following, written by one progressive investigator:
“The longer and the intenser the hours of labour, the more debasing the forms of recreation become…the saloon will exist as long as there is overwork…Dancing is another of the pleasures of the senses, innocent and delightful in itself but often debased to the most vicious uses, and, when accompanied by drinking, as is the case with public dance halls, is frequently provocative of sensuality. Dancing is often loved as drink in loved. It is the element of abandon, of relief from the absolute deadness that comes from overwork that can find pleasure only in the most highly stimulating forms of amusement.” [p. 213]
As Russell summarized: There was “bourgeois disgust over the new working-class culture [that] took the form of well-organized campaigns against drinking, prostitution, and venereal disease, and in the moral condemnation of working-class spending habits.” [p. 214] And this seems an apt description of TR’s and the police commission’s “reforms” and their motivation. In this light, the intensity that was puzzling seems to evaporate in understanding. Dancing and drinking are phenomena that are inconsistent with being, through and through, an American insofar as Americans are defined by an ascetic ideal that privileges work over leisure and “Spartan simplicity” – the phrase is that of Henry David Thoreau – over pleasure. And, most importantly then, the intensity of TR’s “reform” spirit is explained not by moralism but by the fact that these reforms were part of a political agenda intended to change American life by purifying everyone of any “un-American” tendencies or practices. This is, of course, important work.
So, what’s the light that dawned? Well, that this project is on-going even today. As those who follow my blog know, I have been arguing that most political activity in the U.S. can be explained, understood as dedicated to maintaining the status quo. And such dedication is, I think, very real, especially in the aftermath of the latest “recession” after which there was a lot of popular unrest as reflected by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Some changes were required. The trick was to limit these changes to the periphery and to ensure that those changes that were made, such as Affordable Care Act, not go too far and thereby undermine the prevailing order.
But now it seems to me that there is more to the prevailing political activity in the U.S. than simply preserving the status quo. The goal is to “Americanize” the American people, that is, to have them identify as nothing more than human beings who are part of a social order and who draw their sustenance from that order while committing themselves to it wholeheartedly. We the people must put aside any characteristics or loyalties that are not, fully and deeply, American. “Blacks” are or become “African-Americans,” while gays and lesbians will be offered the opportunity to become full-blown Americans by marrying, as marriage was and is one of the allegedly defining characteristics of “Americanism.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when women were entering the workplace with increasing frequency, the “reformers” were concerned because they saw these women as “dangerous, renegade ‘women adrift” because they refused “to limit themselves to the obligations of daughters, wives, and mothers.” [p. 216] “By 1910…’women increasingly frequented saloons’” and it was even noted by some “reformers” that “not all the women in a West side saloon were prostitutes.” [p. 217] To quote historian, Kathy Peiss: “Far from inculcating good business habits, discipline, and a desire for quiet evenings at home, the work place reinforced the wage earner’s interest in having a good time.” [Quoted in Russell, p. 217] And in this light, it is interesting that Roosevelt, in defending his efforts to close saloons on Sundays, saw this as a way of ensuring that families would spend Sundays at the parks, together in peace and harmony.
Today, as illustrated by legitimation of gay and lesbian marriage, the challenges are different but the project is, I think, the same. But in many ways, the challenges are not different at all. For example, in the early 1900s it was necessary to get Americans to accept our budding empire, as evidenced by our occupation of the Philippines and our frequent interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, including the building of the Panama Canal. Today, for the same reasons, we are inundated with the heroism of our soldiers and with arguments that the U.S. is the indispensable nation in the world.
Moreover, even our alleged “conservatives” want to nationalize our schools’ curricula, ostensibly for the sake of “reform” and “improvement” of education as measured by standardized tests. It is, however, pretty easy to see that the real motivation is “nationalization” and, of course, in that regard “standardization.” And the movement for charter schools, it is rather interesting to note, seems to present no challenge to this standardization or “Americanization.” Almost no proponent of charter schools that I know of has defended them as facilitating less standardization. The arguments are almost all couched in administrative or bureaucratic terms or in terms of lessening the power of teachers’ unions.
In fact, I think a good argument can be made that both political parties and both our “liberals” and our “conservatives” share a commitment to this project of “Americanization.” Hence, almost no one in the current political class is willing to take on our “militarization” or the current patriotic fervor so evident in the nation. But even if liberals and conservatives might choose different means by which to “Americanize” us, they still may be said to share that common goal. Both want to make individuality or what Russell would call “renegadeness” disappear into a life-long and almost all consuming commitment to being “American.” And as TR knew so well, a little war – or even a rather long war – every now and again is a great way to submerge people in the nation’s cause. It is then that individuality disappears and that people recognize the need to sacrifice, even to sacrifice themselves, for the sake of America.