Economic And Political Perspectives Of Progressivism (Social Darwinism, Populism, And Protestantism)

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Following the devastation of the Civil War period and the unrest of the Reconstruction era, the United States saw a span of monumental economic progress called “The Gilded Age”. Specifically, the Gilded Age offered a solution to the prevalent issue faced during the Reconstruction era; the nation needed a new labor system to replace the horrific slavery arrangement. Streamlined by the railroad industry and the rise of massive businesses, the United States transitioned from a predominantly agrarian culture to one characterized by heavy urbanization and seemingly infinite wealth. However, because the control over this wealth was in the hands of a very select number of people, monopolies emerged and the Gilded Age revealed itself as a time of economic inequality and vast corruption. In an attempt to resolve the Gilded Age’s internal hardships, a momentous political movement called Progressivism introduced reforms that restructured America’s economy to better represent the more equality-oriented interests of the common man. It is important to note that Progressivism itself was both split into and competing with other various economic and political “perspectives” (including Social Darwinism, Populism, and Protestantism), ultimately resulting in a nationwide debate to determine the future of capitalism.

There is no doubt that the revolution of Gilded Age industrialization drastically changed the American lifestyle, but was it for the better? At first glance, the explosion of the railroad, steel, and factory industries painted a picture of ultimate success for corporate capitalism. But to meet the growing demand for industrial workers in commercial cities, the United States experienced a vast population surge between 1870-90. To add to the already present social tension, immigrants were harshly discriminated against and placed in inhumane living conditions. Eventually, they assimilated into the new working culture, shifting the general American population’s hatred towards the large business owners that financed the country’s capitalistic ventures, namely Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and JD Rockefeller. Propaganda in the form of cartoon editorials emerged as a public attempt to villainize the “robber barons”. Perhaps the most widely known cartoon depicted the industry owners as obese men donned in clothes labeled “trusts”, indicating their complete control over the monopolies of business. Furthermore, they are seen blocking the entrance to the Senate indicating that the wealthy had vast control over America’s political scheme (9.19b, Leff Lesson). Eventually, the populations’ disenchantment with corporate capitalism is what allowed the influence of the aforementioned “alternative parties” like Social Darwinism, Populism, and Protestantism to reign free and strive to settle the volatility of American society. But because disregarding corporate capitalism meant rejecting its expansive benefits, each perspective’s ideology maintained what they believed to be capitalism’s best traits, all while contending 3 of its foundational principles: perspectives on big business, need for working regulations, and government involvement.

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Perhaps the earliest and most well-founded perspective regarding capitalism was of a religious standpoint. The Protestant population, boosted by the influx of Irish immigrants, emphasized the values of individualistic honest work and prudence over brute, animalistic labor, Often, one of the only ways to gain political momentum against the capitalists in the 1870s was to adopt a religious tone [9.4,9.5,9.6 yellow]. The more individualistic Protestant beliefs played hand in hand with the non-interventionist beliefs of laissez-faire economics, which asserted that “The business should decide what wages to pay, the conditions of their factories, what prices to charge, and what labeling to put on their products” (Source 9.19b). However, the laissez-faire system became subject to interpretation and transformed into an argument for “the virtue of self-interest”, called Social Darwinism, which served as an adaptation of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest ” ideology. At the helm of Social Darwinism was Andrew Carnegie himself, who sought justification for the excessive wealth produced by Carnegie Steel, claiming that “the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions” (9.1). Although it may seem that Social Darwinism directly contends the moral foundations of Protestantism, it encourages philanthropy as well, but only because the Social Darwinists felt it was a social obligation to donate some of their wealth to the “inferior” poor. Although Protestantism and Social Darwinism both inserted large sums of wealth into the American economy, there was little done to address problems relating to workers’ jobs.

The Social Darwinist principles set by the “robber barons” in the 1870s and 1880s largely suppressed the voices of populist groups that existed before the Gilded Age, like the Knights of Labor. Despite the Civil War ending several decades before, the life of the working man was not too dissimilar from the objectifying, inhumane slavery system. But unlike the buildup to the abolition movement, anger over working and living conditions were voiced relatively immediately, in the form of the Populists. They “had emerged out of the cooperative crusade organized by the Farmer’s Alliance in the 1880s”, made it clear that their goals were “identical with the purposes of the National Constitution”: the will of the common people should be expressed in the workings of everyday life and they should be allowed to fight for jobs and “adequate” wages (9.12). Quite rapidly, the influence of the Farmer’s Alliance spread to various cities across the nation, eventually resulting in the re-emergence or creation of groups such as the Knights of Labor and American Federation of Labor organizations. With concrete alliances now in place, the Populists initiated an official political campaign (known as the Populist Party) and organized labor strikes such as the Haymarket and Pullman Strikes, gaining substantial support in the process. And although their presidential candidate in 1892 had relatively little success, future Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt embraced a number of their reform principles.

With the advocation of an established, New York-based politician in Teddy Roosevelt, many of the Populist principles underwent modernization and evolved into Progressivism — a very similar movement focused primarily on skilled industrial workers, rather than rural farmers. Ironically enough, it was the rural Populists who targeted the wrongs of big industrial leaders, while “the central Progressive idea —was the use of the power of government to achieve the social good”; the Progressives realized it was inefficient to develop reforms targeting big business leaders when they could instead undercut the business as a whole (9.26). Thus, Progressive groups enlisted the efforts of concerned writers and muckrakers, who gained traction for the Progressives by enlightening the public to horrific workplace practices, including extensive child labor, brutal work hours, and lack of safety regulations. Upton Sinclair, one of the more prominent muckrakers, brought significant attention to the dreadful slaughterhouse environment — “The wool-pluckers, whose hands went to pieces… and then the pluckers had to pull out this wool with their bare hands, till the acid had eaten their fingers off” (9.14). Ultimately, the Progressives’ success can be attributed to their adept attacks of both social and economic inequalities without falling into political or legal trouble.

It seems apparent that the rapid Industrialization of America was the driving force behind the misfortunes of the Gilded Age, but it was the conflict between so many ideological perspectives that drove “an immense wedge, not underneath society, but through society” (9.0). Despite the groups differing in regard to many factors, it was the debate over big businesses and their potential for wealth that incited the most disorder. Although the Protestants and Social Darwinists agree that wealth belongs in the hands of the diligent and industrious, they differ in that the Darwinists represented the “unfraternal, the opposite of cooperation and teamwork”, whereas a proper Christian society promotes communal growth and obliteration of social classes. However, if the “big business” debate were so simple, the struggles of the Gilded age certainly would not have lasted as long. The Populist and Progressive movements added new layers to the societal-splitting wedge, albeit in different ways, despite the proximity of their ideologies — populist arguments specifically critiqued big businesses’ specialized currency, while Progressivists honed in on Carnegie’s “Wealth” and demanded as wide of a distribution of wealth as possible. Thus, the Populists demanded“free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold”, as well as direct payment from the robber barons themselves, which although seems very fair and realistic, might also be seen as greedy and desperate from a Protestant perspective (9.12). The Progressive viewpoint, cleverly developed in Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, mirrors Protestantism more than anything, and focuses on demanding equicentric reforms, like regulated minimum wages and national currency for all industrial workers.

The other critical factors that differentiated the many perspectives were ideas regarding work regulations, and in parallel, the need for government involvement. Very clearly, the Social Darwinists controlled the dynamics and inner workings of American society, belittling the role of politicians almost entirely. If an affluent, seemingly thriving society has already favored the “strongest”, why would any power be distributed to the “less worthy”. This time, the Protestants are in stark opposition, claiming that “the life of great masses has been kept low by poverty” (9.5). This aligns perfectly with both the Progressive and Populist reform efforts; fighting for regulations that equalize wages, banish child labor, and provide a generally improved quality of life is a critical step to breaking misery, poverty, and establishing God’s Kingdom on Earth. It is important to note that need for reform, work regulations, and government involvement function in a sort of feedback loop. The affluent robber barons suppress political control, resulting in virtually non-existent government attention, which in turn leads to diminished enforcement of federal safety and economic regulations, and eventual poverty. A key example of this feedback loop is the Credit Mobilier scandal, in which leaders of the established Union Pacific Railroad industry, “to avoid certain government regulations…created a construction company called Credit Mobilier to build their railroads” and sold US congressmen valuable company shares (9.19b). Naturally, the railroad builders amassed an enormous profit, all while drastically endangering and impoverishing their workers. Thus, the Populists and Progressives both implored that the US Government “ally” with them and establish that “the election of Senators of the United States [is determined] by a direct vote of the people”, finally uniting the two already similar parties under a socialist ideology (9.12).

Without a doubt, the Gilded Age was an era of drastic economic and social change, for both better and worse. America experienced a transition from agrarian farmers to a land of industry, urbanization, technology, and big business corporate capitalism. And although it was an astronomical leap for the general structure of the economy, the developments of the Gilded Age inspired just as much hatred and misery as it did prosperity. The vast economic advancements prompted the emergence of a class differential between the already affluent business owners and their severely underpaid and overworked employees; America was no longer split into a hierarchy of race, but economic status. To justify their greed and excessive wealth, the robber barons abided by the evolutionary principles set forth by Charles Darwin so long ago. In response, the bitter workers initiated reform movement and labor revolts, eventually erecting their own philosophies of Protestantism, Populism, and Progressivism. Indeed the rise of different perspectives is indicative that many people were critical of capitalistic ventures, but in such a politically and economically volatile environment not one “claimed victory”. Instead the principles of all ideologies intertwined and meshed, all of them equally contributing to the present day capitalistic system. Without the ideology of the wealthy robber barons, the global corporations that rule the world today might not exist. Without Populism, the idea of the labor union might not be so prevalent. Without the Christian ideas of the Protestants, our entire economy might be avaricely monopolized. And without the social reform efforts of the Progressives, industries today might still encourage child labor and working conditions unregulated by the federal government.


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