Restoring the Language of Obligation
But if the first Gilded Age swamped agricultural and industrial workers alike, its excesses generated decades of reformist energy that created the rough outlines of the world Americans inhabited from the 1940s until the 1980s. Emerging in outbursts of rural discontent that assumed the name of populism, these insurgents gave way to a new coalition of reformers who gradually coalesced around the term “progressive.” These progressives were a motley coalition with multiple objectives, some of which included campaigns against prostitution and alcohol abuse and in favor of education, a nonpartisan civil service, direct election of senators, and, for some at least, women’s suffrage. At the center of the progressive agenda, however, was an updated idea of economic regulation premised on interdependence and social obligation. The first professional social scientists denied the purported timelessness of free-market economics and asserted that economic ideas, like all others, develop historically and must be scrutinized critically.
Other progressives likewise emphasized citizens’ duties. The rise of the social gospel shifted the emphasis of prominent Protestant clergymen from the afterlife toward the injustices endured by the poor in this life. Like the Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch, an adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, they insisted that Christians had a responsibility to address those injustices and steer the state toward social reform. A new generation of women, often college educated, sought to exert pressure in various domains, some justifying their reformist activities as a form “social housekeeping” for which women were uniquely well suited. In one of the most characteristic formulations of the progressive sensibility, pioneering reformer Jane Addams wrote “that the things which make men alike are finer and better than the things that keep them apart, and that these basic likenesses, if they are properly accentuated, easily transcend the less essential differences of race, language, creed, and tradition.”
In place of laissez-faire, progressives argued that the state and federal governments must fulfill their duty to restrain corporate power and restore the freedoms ostensibly secured by law but effectively limited by economic inequality. Progressives created a new apparatus, the regulatory agency, with procedures patterned on the model of scientific inquiry and that enforced a nonpartisan public interest. Inspired (or shamed) by muckrakers, legislators experimented with new forms of government authority designed to address particular economic and social problems. The principle animating these reforms descended directly from the eighteenth-century conception of balancing rights and duties. As Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1910, “Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” Or as Brandeis’s friend Edward Filene, the founder of Filene’s department store, liked to put it, “Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me” in taxes? “I took it all from them.”
In the 1920s, liberals’ interest in bringing scientific expertise to government continued unabated. First as secretary of commerce and then as President, the Republican Herbert Hoover oversaw a modified regulatory regime that purported to extend the progressives’ approach to government-business relations while surrendering decision-making to the private sector. When that experiment in corporatism failed dramatically and the nation sank into the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt first stumbled into half-hearted versions of reform before he developed a more far-reaching program often designated the Second New Deal. Measures such as the Social Security Act, the Glass-Steagall Act, the Wagner Act, and other legislation concerned with employment, housing, banking, and a minimum wage helped weave a flimsy safety net and forge a durable coalition of voters self-consciously and persistently invoking the theme of citizens’ obligations to each other.
By the end of World War II, the United States faced a new world. Now the richest and most militarily powerful country anywhere, the nation had to decide how to use that unprecedented wealth and power. Roosevelt outlined a plan to meet that challenge in his 1944 State of the Union address. The Second Bill of Rights, as Roosevelt called it, was designed to ensure for every American a decent job at a living wage, adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, and “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” It was a plan based on an explicit embrace of the duties citizens owed one another. Calling this visionary plan for a comprehensive social welfare state a “bill of rights” was a disingenuous sop to the conservative critics FDR knew it would antagonize. Like Britain’s Beveridge Plan, which FDR said should have been called the “Roosevelt Plan,” it depended on Americans’ recognition of what he called their “duty” to ensure the “security” of all citizens. Strikingly, the only part of Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights to survive his death was the GI Bill, which rewarded millions of veterans and fueled a wave of prosperity that lasted three decades.
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