Sunday, July 13, 2008

Elitism in American History

Progressivism and social democracy are democratic liberal doctrines that introduce the possibility of an activist, authoritarian state that they aim to limit. Progressives of the early twentieth century management of large business enterprise, although many such as Herbert Croly and Theodore Roosevelt argued for expansion of state action into the social welfare realm. The social democrats under the New Deal discarded the Progressives' interest in efficiency and instead focused on social welfare. Hence, American public policy debate became that that countered those interested in greater efficiency with those interested in increasing welfare transfers. The advocates of greater efficiency tended to emphasize management solutions in the tradition of the Mugwumps. Hence, their emphasis on low taxes was accompanied by an interest in limiting waste in government. These views seem to overlap with the Jeffersonian philosophy of limiting centralized federal government but the Progressives' most basic belief was that efficiency in overseeing big business could not be achieved without centralization of state power. Hence, their philosophy is fundamentally statist and centralizing and so is very much in the Federalist tradition. The social democrats too are descendants of Federalism. The anti-Federalist Jeffersonians and their Jacksonsian descendents believed that centralized institutions such as the central bank and Hamiltonian schemes to support business expansion were opposed to the interests of taxpayers and small holders. It is true that in Jefferson's day there were relatively few workers, but those supported Jefferson. Jefferson opposed the same common law that was used in the Philadelphia Cordwainers' case against unions, and the Jacksonian democracy saw a renewed support for the union cause in the form of the decision of Commonwealth v. Hunt, which changed American legal attitudes in unions' favor. However, the eighteenth century's anti-Federalists nineteenth century's Jeffersonians had a very different point of view from the twentieth century's social democrats. First, the anti-Federalists and Jeffersonians opposed the central bank. Second, they opposed government support for business. Third, they opposed taxation (the Federalists advocated taxes such as the Whiskey tax, not the anti-Federalists). Thus, the spirit of pro farmer and by extension pro worker laissez faire was fundamental to the earliest political debates in America. The elitism of the Federalists was associated with support for big business and big government. The claim that the state's power would be used to support workers and the poor had not occurred to the Federalists at that point. Part of the reason was that the Federalists were individualists who opposed political parties and factions, hence manipulative or political doctrines such as social democracy would not have occurred to them. There were indeed early rumblings of interest in governmental support for workers, such as during Jefferson's 1807-08 Embargo Acts, which caused unemployment in the cities. Some workers demonstrated for expansion of city employment to counter the unemployment that resulted from the embargoes.

The elitist philosophy of Federalism did not die with the Federalist movement in 1800. Federalism died in part because of internal fighting among Hamilton, Adams, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and other prominent Federalists. Much of their struggle had to do with the abrasive personalities of Hamilton and Adams and their unwillingness to think in terms of a unified party (Hamilton preferred Jefferson to Adams and Adams preferred Jefferson to Hamilton and Pinckney). However, the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans eventually broke into two parties, the Whigs of Henry Clay and the Democrats of Andrew Jackson. Of these, the Whigs trailed the Federalists and were precusors to today's Republicans while the the Jacksonians retained the anti-Federalist impulse, were pro-worker, pro-union and anti-elitist. The Whigs believed in big government and support for business, and in central banking. In contrast, the Democrats believed in states' rights and were relatively, but not perfectly laissez faire in orientation. Hence, the history of elitism can be traced directly from the Federalists to the Whigs to the Republicans. It is tragic that the anti-elitist philosophy of Jacksonian democracy became associated with slavery because of its states rights emphasis. Without the issue of slavery, the American debate would have been more clearly along class lines, with the general public supporting Jacksonian democracy and laissez faire, and the business and plantation elites supporting Federalist, Whiggish and then Republican big government and centralization. But the states rights and slavery issue confounded this alignment to a degree.

The transformation in the party orientation of elitism began to occur in the late nineteenth century. In 1884 the elite Republican Mugwumps bolted the Republican Party in favor of the candidacy of Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was a traditional Jeffersonian-Jacksonian candidate, favoring the gold standard and low taxes. The Mugwumps, supported the laissez faire philosophy, perhaps contributing to its identification with the wealthy. However, the Mugwumps also supported rationalization of government and civil service. Even more important, the Mugwumps represented the college-educated elite of the late nineteenth century. Whereas only about five percent of the American public had attended college in the 1880s, over 50 percent of the Mugwumps had attended college. The Mugwumps were very interested in shoring up professionalism in academia, education, social work, law and medicine. They were the first professional interest movement in American history. Thus, some Mugwumps did favor some forms of government intervention, such as improvement of housing standards, and virtually all favored the Pendleton Act and attempts to improve the management of government at the federal as well as the state level. The Mugwumps were predecessors to the Progressives and were the earliest advocates of enhanced focus on rationalizaton of government and support for the professional (and implicitly) economic interests of the professional classes. Thus, American reform took the form of an alliance between professionals interested in narrow interests of their specific professions coupled with rationalization of government. The impulse toward social democracy came in part from the fixation on professional problems, not from a socialistic or equalitarian impulse. Thus, specialists in housing reform and social work began the emphasis on government intervention to improve municipal housing. It was a narrowly defined professional response. The response had two implications: one broad and one narrow. The broad response was to legitimate needs in the cities that the economy would address only slowly as productivity improved and people became wealthier. The narrow response was that the professions gained in power, prestige and access to resources as the broad response gained currency. Hence, the pattern of government programs that combined rationalization with social welfare began to take root with the Pendleton Act. American elites, both in business and in the professions, found that they had much at stake in state largess, and so the American political debate, which became increasingly a debate among elite economic interests (business and rationalizers versus the professions) began to take the shape that it has today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

awesome blog, do you have twitter or facebook? i will bookmark this page thanks. lina holzbauer