Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

Trade Commission, the Tariff Commission? Another announced goal of progressivism had been to improve the lot of the work force, to redistribute wealth and income downward through taxes and the higher labor costs of wage and hour legislation. Where were reformers with such goals in the 1920s, when the gains of increased productivity were channeled disproportionately to the owners of capital? Such questions lead us to Arthur S. Link's essay, "What Happened to the Progressive Movement in the 1920s?"

In a brilliant discussion that has stood the test of more than ten years of research on the 1920s, Link explores the internal and external problems facing reform between the war and the crash. He acknowledges the restraints of external circumstances, such as prosperity, and moral fatigue from the war and League controversy; but he is at his best in the analysis of the internal deficiencies of reform as it faced the economic problems of the 1920s. Although writing before the appearance of studies by Robert Wiebe and Gabriel Kolko on the role of businessmen in the progressive movement, Link saw that much of prewar reform had been business oriented, and noted that this aspect of progressivism would naturally not be of any help in the postwar struggle against business domination. Another side of prewar progressivism -- the drive to restore the main outlines of late nineteenth-century, small-town America -- Link sees as actually intensifying in the 1920s. While in the prewar period this small-town idealism often lent its energies to campaigns against economic exploitation, in the 1920s it directed itself almost totally against urban moral and ethnic tendencies such as the consumption of alcoholic beverages, the teaching of Darwinian heresies, or the influx of blacks and non-Protestant immigrants from southern and central Europe. This nativist attack upon aspects of the urban culture was a mutation of the prewar reform impulse, and drained off moral and political resources which might have been applied in the 1920s toward economic reordering. With small-town, rural America so absorbed with cultural issues, the economic goals of prewar progressivism found few groups to push them forward in the 1920s. Railway labor, export-crop farmers in the upper Midwest, a handful of social workers, and proponents of public power under the leadership of Senator George Norris waged unsuccessful revolts against the status quo. The redistribution of economic power which reform coalitions achieved on rare and difficult occasions before the war proved impossible in the decade between Wilson and F.D.R., and the principal reason lay in the fragmentation of the progressive community.

Link's argument is complex, but it clarifies both the nature of prewar reform and the history of the 1920s. Although the great variety of groups and impulses making up progressivism are revealed in the essay, intelligible patterns are shown too. A number of criticisms of Link's essay are possible. Some have felt that Link pays too much attention to the internal difficulties which hampered insurgency in the 1920s, and too little to the inhospitality of the general climate of a "prosperity decade." The two are, in fact, not easy to disentangle. It might also be said that Link underestimates the impact of our participation in World War I, an experience which gravely disrupted reform momentum and strengthened the position of large corporations in innumerable ways. But in the very range of these considerations one sees reflected the chief virtue of Link's essay, its bold effort to delineate continuities and discontinuities across the first third of the twentieth century.

-105-

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