The first half of the twentieth century involved drastic changes in the role of government concerning the cultivation of virtue in its citizens and the economy, as well as in the strength and size of the executive branch and government as a whole. The Progressive and New Deal programs provided a structure for the reformers to implement these changes. Formative ambition was still a major part of government in both the Progressive and New Deal periods.
It was also evident in the pre-progressive industrial era, when the sole mission of organizations like the Knights of Labor was to create a cooperative community of virtuous citizens. Progressives attempted to foster a similar community spirit with their playground, sports team, and tenement reform projects, thus transferring the responsibility of character-forming from the local to the national level. This sense of cooperation is also illustrated by the Darwinian theory of government, where a nation is considered a living thing whose parts all work together for the optimum performance of the organism.
Preserving self-government was also one of Progressives’ primary concerns, especially Wilson, who attempted to arouse indignance in Americans at the tyranny of political machines’ alliance with business. Formative ambition, though it dissipated in the 1940s, was present in the early New Deal period as well as in the Progressive era. Franklin Roosevelt’s defense of a stronger national government rested on such traditional ideas as national unity, class harmony, and control of factions. Also, many of the New Deal programs had not only an economic purpose, but also a moral purpose.
One example is the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which restored agricultural prices to a pre-war level; at the same time respecting traditional values of free enterprise and individual freedom. Programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority sought to create jobs so citizens could be self-sufficient, and thus more self-governing. Yet this industrial interdependence reformers like Lilienthal embraced is far from the small business model of Jacksonianism, or the small farmer ideal of Jeffersonianism.
With the later adoption of neutral Keynesian economics, however, the question as to whether something would improve self-government or cultivate virtue became less and less relevant. Consumerism slowly replaced the formative ambition; government’s goal was no longer to produce good citizens, but to improve the economy for the benefit of the ordinary citizen. This consumerism manifested itself in several different ways. In the progressive era, programs for a more direct democracy supplied the needs of the “consumers of government”, while still retaining some of the formative ambition that had been the driving force of earlier programs.
Such modifications include referendum, recall, and women’s suffrage, all designed to make government more responsive to the people and less susceptible to political corruption. The anti-trust movement had many different driving forces, including outrage at its detrimental effects to the economy and consumers, and also its negative impact on self-government and independence. Thus Progressives slowly replaced their aspirations of formative ambition with consumerist ideals.
This consumerism and government control of the economy would become even more evident in the New Deal period. In 1937, the Supreme Court used the federal power to regulate interstate commerce to approve many economy-regulation programs, such as minimum-wage, labor-management, and unemployment legislation. The National Industrial Recovery Act attempted to stimulate production and employment, improve working conditions, and lower prices — economic reforms that were only able to be implemented because of the crisis of the Great Depression.
The National Recovery Administration was created to achieve total government control over the economy, quite different from the Founders’ emphasis on self and minimalist government. Finally, with World War II, Roosevelt was forced to effect deficit spending to stimulate the economy. This exercise of Keynesian economics set the stage for the next half-century, where the voluntarist conception of freedom prevailed and cultivation of virtue was no longer a government issue. Another effect of the Progressive and New Deal reforms was the extension of the federal government, especially the executive branch.
While Wilson condoned decentralization to resist economic concentration and preserve self-government, Theodore Roosevelt embraced the new national interdependence, recommending regulations for trusts and monopolies, not abolishment — evidence of the shift to positive government. Both Wilson and Roosevelt extended the role of the presidency by assuming responsibility for shaping public opinion and also as they facilitated cooperation between the three branches of government. Progressives also brought in neutral administrators or social scientists to take the place of many politicians or direct democracy.
Regulations on political parties and elections also displayed this distrust in politicians, with innovations like the direct election of Senators, secret ballots, and campaign reform. While Progressives brought government more on the local level with their social engineers, the enlargement of the presidency and the general reform atmosphere paved the way for the centralist changes of the New Deal. With the New Deal, centralization and bureaucracy became entrenched firmly in the American government.
Although Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential power started out as an emergency extension of the Progressive presidents’ authority, it continued even when the crisis was over. Programs such as the NRA gave the federal government responsibility for things that had previously been a part of the state or local sphere of government, like economic regulation and welfare. Even more extreme was the deterioration of separation of powers as the president and other executive administrators assumed responsibility for issues heretofore taken care of by the legislative branch.
Although his power was checked when his court-packing scheme failed, FDR did reorganize the executive branch to increase its power, the effects of which are still seen today. From a decentralized, formative government, to a centralized, consumerist government, the Progressive and New Deal periods represent a transition period in our history, from the virtue-oriented, minimalist government of the Founders, to our current procedural republic.