Americanism and Progressivism

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On the level of pragmatic ex­istence, the watershed results from the civilizing process. Self-contained, autonomous, independent agrarian America is transformed into urban­ized, industrialized America, and this new entity was, by force of its stage of development, inevitably drawn into the tension field of world econom­ics and world politics. The apocalyptically motivated idea of the nation of 1776 had, by the time of the Civil War, been realized in the continental American empire that not only had freed itself from the threat posed by the competing imperial enterprises of the European powers, but had also risen to be the hegemonic power in the Western hemisphere.

The internal consolidation of this empire had progressed to the point at which the mechanism, inherent in American society, of solving con­flicts through avoidance, the principle of separatism or secession, had become ineffective. The Civil War proved that any antagonism taken to the extreme between two types of social organizations could no longer be solved in this empire through the collective secession of one, so that one had to fall back on the instrument for solving conflicts employed in such cases in the Old World—armed confrontation.

The End of the Frontier

In 1890 the “frontier of settlement” first disappeared from the federal census. It was with this consideration in mind that Frederick Jackson Turner published his fa­mous essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), in which he announced the end of the frontier. The westward movement had come to a standstill; an American civilized world now existed from which no one could any longer separate himself. After the collective secession, therefore, individual secession from society as an al­ternative had also ceased to exist.

We see secession as a viable substitute for revolution and intensive social conflicts in the first founding of the seventeenth century, which was an exodus from seventeenth-century En­glish society; in the second founding of 1776, the separation from the English empire; and in the mass emigrations from nineteenth-century Eu­rope. Under the geographic conditions of the vast and seemingly inex­haustible continent, separatism became the fundamental social experi­ence. From Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams to the mass migration of the southern African-Americans into the slums of the North, it marked social behavior in cases of conflict.2

The epochal understanding of the events of 1826 [the deaths of both Adams and Jefferson on July 4th, etc., — ed] finds its correspon­dence in the interpretation of the break of the 1890s: “The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American His­tory.”3  Even if in no case the symbols of self-interpretation furnish an adequate medium for dividing the structure of the historical process into periods, epochal consciousness and the fact of such division in themselves point to the shape of American history: the period between 1830 and 1890 emerges as a specifically structured phenomenal unit.4

The govern­mental machinery established by the founders for the federation and the states, an adequate local administration, and safe borders, together with Americanism, served as the main field of consciousness of society, under the presupposition of the social mechanism of separatism sufficiently integrative to be able to keep the divergent social forces in balance; further, they created a frame for an explosive development of the nation’s physi­cal, material, and spiritual potential. Only the evolutionary achievements of the American system 5 furnished the conditions for the repudiation of its representatives Adams and Clay in 1828. This event strengthened the position of liberalism that fed on the traditions of the classical agrarian republicanism of the founding period and which now, in view of the do­mestic and international stabilization and the enormous material re­sources, eclipsed the public sphere of society in favor of a prevailing no­tion of human individuality.

The Nexus of the Founding and Order

Our recapitulation of these events at this point in our investigation is not focused on the structural changes in the American civil theology in which the spiritual, political, and economic mobilization of the libidinous ego is reflected. Rather, here a brief over­view of this phenomenon will explore its long-range destructive conse­quences for the psychic order of society. With the sociopolitical realization of the paradigms of the zoon politikon in the republic of the founders, the membership of society down to the last individual had articulated itself politically (with the obvious ex­ceptions!), and society had become its own representative. To that extent the rise of the Common Man under Jackson was the historically neces­sary sociopolitical substratum of Americanism.

But this movement al­ready made manifest those elements of a deformation of consciousness implied by the destruction of the form given to consciousness and sym­bolism by the founders; that is, it could not help but dissolve the content of the nexus of founding and order. The collectivity of “public happi­ness” is based on a balance of the psychological forces in consciousness that is maintained by the ordering function of the authentically reasoning self of the citizen. The crisis of a civil theology is announced in the ex­plicit and implicit erosion of the ordering force of reason and the ad­vancement of the libidinous ego as the guiding principle of political existence.

As early as the first half of the nineteenth century we find exemplary evidence of elements of the libidinous ego in reductionist designs for ex­istence. De Tocqueville analyzed their destructive consequences, subsum­ing these designs for existence under the concept of individualism. Unlike egoism, selfishness, a vice shared by all forms of society in equal measure, individualism grows out of man’s isolation under the social conditions of democratic society. Individualism is the specific form of amour-propre, self-love, in such a society. It even expresses the negative phenomenon of a domination of the “private world” of man’s emotional nature in a democratic society that the fathers — even de Tocqueville is still firmly convinced of this — successfully fought against by establishing the “public happiness” of shared action in political life. For de Tocqueville, the effec­tive remedy for the evils of individualism consisted of political liberty.6

De Tocqueville’s picture of the “Age of the Common Man” in the United States appeared so plausible to American self-understanding to the present day—regardless of the fact that it was not, of course, possible to consider socioeconomic equality throughout the Republic — that, like him, Americans did not recognize that the psycho-social syndrome of in­dividualism might have a greater significance for America; in the Anglo-Saxon world, the relevance of de Tocqueville’s generalization was not understood at all. Americanism continued to discuss amour-propre in the language of John Adams, that is, of the anglicized ethos of philosophical-Christian provenance.7

De Tocqueville diagnosed the manifestation of the privatist existence of individualism under the conditions of democratic civilization in its ba­sic structure with extraordinary caution:

“Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself . . . . As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe noth­ing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”

This acute social-psychological description of the common man led him to the crucial existential-analytic conclusion: thus democracy affects every man and “throws him back forever upon himself alone and threat­ens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” But this means nothing other than the destructive reduction of man to his libidinous self, which, as it were, endangers the order of the individual psyche as well as the order of republican society: “Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.”8

This turn of the paradigm from the common man to absolutizing the American bourgeois is already marked at an early stage. James Fenimore Cooper spoke for many when he wrote in 1828: “The secret of all enterprise and energy exists in the principle of individuality. Wealth does not more infallibly beget wealth, than the right to the exercise of our faculties begets the desire to use them. The slave is everywhere indolent, vicious and abject; the freeman active, moral and bold. It would seem that is the best and safest, and, consequently, the wisest government, which is content rather to protect than direct the national prosperity, since the latter system never fails to impede the efforts of that individuality which makes men industrious and enterprising.”9 Thomas Skidmore, a spokesman for the New Yorker Workingmen’s Party at the same time, radicalized this property-individual position: “Title to property exists for all; . . . because they are: be­cause THEY EXIST! I AM; THEREFORE IS PROPERTY MINE.” 10

Eruption of Man from Society

Once again it speaks for the intellectual power of New England that it ranked among the transcendentalists those thinkers who speculatively articulated the intellectual core of this eruption of man from society. Emerson determined it as the deification of the self in mystic union with the universe.11 He gave to the American apocalypse the form of a vision of the collective existence of the individual who has been rendered divine, freed from the problems of social existence. Of course this in turn is backed by the principle of separatism, as was proven by the exodus from society practiced by the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

Quentin Anderson calls this phenomenon “imaginative desocialization.” 12  He analyzes the deification of the self as a “secular incarnation,” “the act not of identifying oneself with the fathers, but of catching up all their powers into the self, asserting that there need be no more genera­tions, no more history, but simply the swelling diapason of the expanding self.” 13 This emergence of the “imperial self” was the answer to the latent identity crisis suffered by sensitive psyches in response to the uncertainty of an order without its original guarantors, the fathers. “If on the wider public scene it was an age of political parties, of revivalism, of utopian­ism, and the growth of associations for benevolent purposes, it was likewise on every man’s inner stage an age of revolt against earlier cer­tainties.”

The younger generation of the 1820s still grew up with the immediate accessibility of the nexus of founding and order in the form of living fathers; this same generation was of necessity thrown into an iden­tity crisis by experiencing the death of the fathers. The crisis was to be overcome in the imperial self as the origin of all order: “I am saying no more than that we have not taken quite literally and naively enough the crucial fact that the generations of the founding fathers was gone or go­ing.” 14  “Americans appear to have suffered a punishing psychic blow in the generation of Emerson’s youth, to have lost the assurance provided by their sense of the presence of leaders and an instituted order.” The imperial self reconstructed order from within itself: it is “a self which assumed psychic burdens because outer supportive structures of custom and institutions had disappeared or lost imaginative authority.”15 The shock of fatherlessness is resolved in the libidinous ego’s claim to com­mand reality:

“Many Americans were more or less attempting the emotional task Emerson had undertaken: that of incorporating the powers of the fathers who no longer seemed to be present, qua father, or minister, or state. There came a moment when the loose texture of developing American life made it im­possible to credit the authority of those filling these roles. At the outset this drift in the direction of an imperial separateness made itself felt only as a symptom, not a central fact about the life of the masses of Americans. . . . We must be clear about the kind of effect we attribute to Emerson and Emersonianism before 1850; it was a highly important symptom, and what it portended was centrally exhibited later, in industrial America following the Civil War.”16

The continuity of the imperial self  became evident only retrospectively, after the social breakthrough of this dynamic-expansive ego to the domi­nant type that attempted to reconstruct the lost reality in its own image.17 But even during the incubation phase of the spiritual, political, and eco­nomic dynamization of the person, this concentration on the individual under American conditions unleashed powerful energies: Jackson’s so-called revolution perfected political democracy.18 Taney’s decision in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) 19 ceded the order of the conditions of production to the liberal politics of laissez-faire.

This state­ment, however, should not be misunderstood in the sense of the doctrine of the “free enterprise” of a liberal “competitive capitalism” that hov­ers over the textbooks of liberal political economics (and its critics). It means, rather, that the psychosocial structural patterns of industrial eco­nomic society were accorded public status—that is, the original concep­tion of the political solution of economic problems was replaced by a laissez-faire attitude. Although the circumstance that economic decisions remained in the medium of public government was unchanged, this trans­formation implied a shift of the level of decision making from the federal government to the political institutions under the immediate control of the common man in the community and the state, though traditionally, under the American system of the fathers, these had already been the centers of public economic policy.

The decentralized politics of laissez-faire meant aligning the patterns of decisions of all the representatives of society in the federation, the state, and the community according to that dynamic psychosocial structure of individualism whose plausibility must be seen in the clear victory of an expanding industrial economic society over hunger and disease.20 The politics of laissez-faire, then, is deter­mined less by the elimination of economic decisions from the public sphere — they were omnipresent there — than by its increased domination through the reality picture of the libidinous ego. “Usually thought of as a philosophy of individualism, by which is meant the single human being, the competition and conflict of laissez faire actually occurred at many different levels. In addition to the individual, there were organized groups such as corporations, labour unions, and reformers; political subdivi­sions such as parties and the states; social and economic units which became self-conscious sections or regions; and, in the broadest sense, nations themselves in the world arena.”21

William Appleton Williams described critically the intellectual, po­litical, and socioeconomic atomization of the “paradigmatic republic,” which, granted, need not immediately attack its substance. But what was more serious was that this phenomenon concealed a decision that in the long run sanctioned the transformation of the socially dominant hierar­chy of goods in the public sector. Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge would once again elucidate this argument: Taney took his point of de­parture from the fathers’ principles of order in arriving at his decision: “the object and end of all government is to promote the happiness and prosperity of the community by which it is established; and it can never be assumed that the government intended to diminish its power of ac­complishing the end for which it was intended. . . . While the rights of private property are sacredly guarded, we must not forget that the com­munity also have rights, and that the happiness and well-being of every citizen depends on their faithful preservation.”

Laissez-faire, therefore, means not that economic affairs are no longer subject to the public sector and its order, but that the public regulation of production relations is to occur according to new standpoints, for Taney declared the mercantilist institution of the privileged company to be unconstitutional because it hindered the government in its pursuit of the public interest. In republi­canism, the “incorporated economic enterprise” was the expression of the public nature of private property, the instrument for increasing the national wealth through the promotion of private interests in agriculture, trade, and industry, including science, as well as the dominant form of public control of social relations insofar as these were not regulated by direct ordinances of the executive and legislative branches.

Material Prosperity to Serve Public Justice

Consequently the Founding Fathers viewed the economy — of whose pervasiveness of the social reality they needed to convince no one — in terms of the human condition. Thus, they strove to place material prosperity in the service of the overarching purpose of public justice and to prevent its potentially destructive effects on society through political order:

“the ideal of secular corporate justice . . . was . . . the kind of an internalized restraint that had to be developed if self-interest and private property were to function satisfactorily as means to the general welfare. Along with Adams, Jay, Jefferson, Monroe, and other mercantilists, Madison persistently emphasized the vital role of a strong sense of justice: the ideal had to be pursued with vigor if the constitution were to produce the good society — ‘the national welfare’ — that he sought.”22

Taney correctly concluded that “in­corporated property” with a claim to monopoly must lead to an inad­missible restriction of the aims of public rule if the property guarantees of the Constitution were claimed for the monopoly. In Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge, however, Taney gave an entirely new interpre­tation to the “public benefit”23 implied in incorporation. He understood it as the best possible use to be made of modern science, and of progress in general, to increase wealth and prosperity, the comfort and ease of life. The monopoly claim of the owners of the Charles River Bridge is a misuse of property and a restriction of public purposes, since property can be of use to the public goal of improvement only in competition; in this case progress lies in the establishment of technically advanced means of trans­portation and communication.

Taney’s decision not only allowed the mercantilist institution of incorporated enterprise to disappear but also determined the imperative of technical-economic progress as the goal of political order in regard to economic decisions. Taney’s interpretation of the constitutional order obligates public action, at least in this case, to submit to the organizational principles of industrial economic society. But in my view this was the substance of the liberal politics of laissez-faire. The indisputable success of the publicly legitimated competition of owners, with the goal of continuous production and productivity in­creases, more and more rooted the coordination of Americanism in the growth of economic production of goods in the dominant consciousness, symbolism, and behavior patterns of American society. John Kenneth Galbraith properly described this development:

“The industrial system identifies itself with the goals of society, and it adapts these to its needs . . . . It is the genius of the industrial system that it makes the goals that reflects its needs — efficient production of goods, a steady expansion in their output, a steady expansion in their consumption, a pow­erful preference for goods and leisure, an unqualified commitment to tech­nological change, autonomy of the technistructure, an adequate surplus of trained and educated manpower — coordinate with social virtue and human enlightenment. These goals are not thought to be derived from our environment. They are assumed to be original with human personality. To believe this is to hold a sensibly material view of mankind.”24

This form of Americanism as economism created for itself a field of con­sciousness in the corporation, and in the twentieth century this social field finally spread beyond the borders of organized American society, though not without legitimating itself within society through recourse to civil theology. Galbraith, himself a victim of his concretized language, forgets that the transformation of Americanism originated with the grow­ing impact of pragmatic-functional rationality of the industrial system on the doctrine of the common man, insofar as this doctrine involved the idea of the “imperial self.”

The Dynamics of the Expanding Self

But as early as the mid-nineteenth century, Emerson proved that turning the common man into a hero would turn back on him until he would have no choice but to call on society for protection against the dynamics of the expanding self. For in social prac­tice the liberated self only too quickly yielded to the pleonexia of the driving force of his behavior. The idea that “in a free and just common­wealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile to the industrious, brave and preserving” was the final conclusion even of transcendentalist wisdom.25 No rational model of human existence could be developed from the autonomy of the deified self; the dynamic of individualism transformed the paradigm of the common man into a Horatio Alger and produced the entrepreneur as the ideal type and a Rockefeller and Car­negie in the social sphere in which pleonexia was given its socially most powerful form.

At the end of the century the expectations of the common man had not been fulfilled. Instead of holding unrestricted sway over society’s means of power, he saw himself exposed to bosses, political machines, and the spoils system. Instead of being a member of a democratic eco­nomic society of private capitalist entrepreneurs, he was confronted by an unavoidable process of economic concentration. From this situation corporate capitalism emerged as the prevailing organizational form of the means of production. Instead of an agrarian-republican idyll of free farmers — beneficiaries of a liberal distribution of land by the public hand—the “embattled farmer” experienced nothing but want; the num­ber of the dispossessed and of dependent tenant farmers rose. “The end of the frontier” meant, finally,  [not] only territorial satiation of the “paradigmatic republic”; but the dynamic of the spiritually, politically, and eco­nomically expanding self had found a power base in this continental em­pire.

This empire promised that the obvious insufficiency of one’s own social existence could be overcome in the fulfillment of apocalyptic yearnings. Economic-social Darwinism and idealist power-political sym­bolism in American self-understanding made the episode of direct impe­rialism of 1898 and the long-range policy of indirect imperialism seem plausible, though even this plausibility threatened repeatedly to obstruct an evaluation of the power structure of the global civilized world corre­sponding to the Americans’ situation. In terms of world history, the imperial republic understood itself pri­marily as the new Rome, destined to spread throughout the world the novus ordo seclorum, that is, the republican order. The expansion not of imperial power but of republican order, whether in the form of a republic encompassing the entire continent or in the form of a republican fed­eration of states, was the primary objective of the Founders, and in this they cleverly combined the power-political continental claim with clear economic-political interests.26

But the Roman model and the Fathers’ own theoretical insight similarly planted the seeds for justified doubts about the possibility of combining imperial politics and republican order. This contradiction intensified in the latent psychic crisis at the end of the nineteenth century, when increasingly libidinously motivated apocalypses were substituted for the original consciousness-shaping spiritual-political experiences of order, and when Manifest Destiny treated other people and nations as objects of one’s own libido dominandi. So, on one hand, imperial foreign policy was always tied to the mental, political, and eco­nomic crisis within the country, thus also the crisis of Americanism. On the other hand, time and again, foreign affairs dealings by the political leadership and the majority that supported it showed that the various strands of motivation were intertwined: republican pathos, the modes of imperial apocalyptics, and the power-political and economic-political pragmatism of dominant social interests.

But what is crucial is the fact that all the actors moved in the conti­nuity of the symbolic cosmos of Americanism and perceived the struc­tures of the global civilized world only in the context of their own sym­bolic universe, where even the individual American always derives his point of view within his world. On this point the latent contradiction between imperial politics and republican order deepens into the contra­diction between the American world and the competing symbolic worlds of contemporary humanity to the point at which regularly, to the present day, the search for a finite world order in the sense of the perfection of the founding in the world proves useless. The thoroughly reasonable in­sight into the vanity of imperial efforts, however, turns just as often into an attempt to retreat from the inevitable international entanglements into its own closed universe.27

Objectifying national expansionism into an imperial operation merely served to make very clear to sensitive Americans the progressive loss of republican humanity by which their own existence was measured. Before long this experience of frustration was critically captured only in Ameri­can literature — given its social standing, a marginal product to this day. Washington Irving, Johnson J. Hooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph G. Bald­win, George W. Harris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain alone were sensitive enough to measure the pathos of civil theology against the American reality. They somehow subjected the cities of the East, the plantations of the South, and he camps of the West to harsh criticism and, as Miller noted in speaking of Melville, offered “a long farewell to national greatness.”28 Not until the 1890s did the aware­ness of crisis spread until it produced an extensive literature of American self-criticism that reached its apex in the middle of the twentieth century.

Our observations so far make it seem understandable that the litera­ture of crisis is invariably linked to the symbolism of Americanism, so that it operates in the medium of the dominant social field of organized society’s consciousness. Underlying its premises there is, thanks to the transparency of social and political processes in American democracy, highly developed pragmatic criticism, by which I mean the detailed analy­sis of specific social phenomena and the investigation of singular circum­stances, followed by proposals for reform. A splendid example of such pragmatic criticism grew out of the collaboration of the progressive poli­tician Robert La Follette with the University of Wisconsin, where social analysis was converted into reform politics. But behind the pragmatic criticism — which, as will be shown, transformed American society from Wilson’s New Freedom through Roosevelt’s New Deal to Kennedy’s New Frontier under the horizon of Americanism — there gradually arose doubt in its substance. The doubts were expressed both in a stiffened patriotism and in criticism of the established understanding of history. But criticism could not achieve any genuine theoretical dimension, remaining linked to the American beginnings and mired in historical reinterpretation.

Turner claimed that the American spirit, character, and politics are the result of a pioneer culture unique in history. Having proclaimed the end of the frontier, he insisted staunchly on the unbroken shaping force of the “American spirit” and the “American ideals”; “However profound the economic changes, we shall not give up our American ideals and our hopes for man, which had their origin in our own pioneering expe­rience . . . . We shall continue to present to our sister continent of Europe the underlying ideas of America as a better way of solving difficulties. We shall point to the Pax Americana, and seek the path of peace on earth to men of good will.”29 Turner’s thesis of the frontier merely gives new form to monumental history; he and his time did not yet doubt its substance; only its material substratum strays into the zone of doubt. Consequently criticism, in a Protestant manner, addresses itself to the fictional elements in the cult of the hero and monumental history. The reception of the critical methods of Continental European historians between 1890 and 1915 led to a de-mythologizing of American salvational history.

Sydney G. Fisher examined the Legendary and Myth-Making Process in Histories of the American Revolution and learned that the apotheosis of the Revolution and its heroes hardly presented a picture of historical reality. He suggested that what was needed was “to substitute truth and actuality for the mawkish sentimentality and nonsense with which we have been so long nauseated.”30 Searching for the truth, he composed a True History of the American Revolution (1902), a True Benjamin Franklin (1900), and a True William Penn (1900). As early as 1897, Paul L. Ford had written The True George Washington; in the book the apotheosis was recanted, and Washington was humanized so as to turn a historical figure into a man.” Turner, Fisher, Ford, and their fellow writers were interested not merely in historical accuracy; along with such figures as Henry Adams, Thorstein Veblen, Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, William James, H. L. Mencken, Brooks Adams, and Charles Beard, they were part of a broad intellectual movement that articulated a crisis of American society in order to find a new connection with reality on the far side of the symbolism apparatus of orthodox Americanism.

The problem of the search for reality becomes clear in the concept of debunking, a term coined by the writer William E. Woodward in 1923 to designate the critical abolition of the cult of the hero: “Why, debunk­ing means simply taking the bunk out of things . . . . You’ve heard of deflation — of prices, wages, and so on — taking the fictitious values out of merchandise. Well, debunking is an intellectual deflation. It’s the sci­ence of reality.”32 Debunking alone, however, was no substitute for the critical history that, according to Nietzsche, corrects and destroys the past.33 Woodward himself proved, in his George Washington (1916), that debunking leads not to reality but, at best, to banality.34        

Charles Beard is an example of how little the intellectual revolt before the First World War was able to free itself from the ties to its own beginnings. He developed his progressivist attack on the “American Way of Life,” led by covetousness, greed, and acquisitiveness in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), which revealed that among the members of the Constitutional Convention special interests were tied to decision making. Similarly, Louis Boudin published his radical attack on judicial review as a device to block all social progress in a historical tract, Government by Judiciary (1911). What is true for the critical literature of Progressivism applies even more to the Progressive political and social protest movement as well as to the earlier mass movement of Populism.

Progressivism and Populism articulated the psychological makeup of the Republic in the late form of civil theology of the waning nineteenth century.35 Both have a place in the continuum of the spiritual-political movement of awakening. They are, with characteristic differences, the specifically American answer of those social groups that were most violently deprived of the realization of the world of the common man by the real consequences of Jacksonism, the organized oligarchy of bosses and corporations. Their basic structure contains all the elements of traditional political revivalism. The social-critical jeremiad takes the separate analysis of economic crisis, social conflicts, misuse of power, and concentration of power in economics and politics in particular, and a chaotic urbanism and industrialism in gen­eral, and shapes it into an apocalyptic pattern of corruption and vice.

The looming punishment of a dissolution of the American order had to be countered with a national purification and reformational awakening of the citizens in order to restore the order of man and society. This po­litical revivalism extended from the vulgar evangelism of a William Jennings Bryan through the militant moralistic national-republicanism of a Theodore Roosevelt to the ethical-political spiritualism of a Woodrow Wilson.36 All of the society was felt to be threatened–not by economic breakdown but by moral and social degradation and the eclipse of demo­cratic institutions. This is not to say, however, that the men of the age gave way to despair; for they believed that, just as the sinner can be cleansed and saved, so the nation could be redeemed if the citizen awoke to their responsibilities.37

The Common Man Against the Establishment

Populism and Progressivism, social movements that, as such, had encompassed broad sections of society beyond their respective party organizations, were, according to Richard Hofstadter, reforming attempts “to hold on to some of the values of agrarian life, to save personal entrepreneurship and individual opportunity and the char­acter type they engendered, and to maintain a homogeneous Yankee civilization.”38 But the spiritual impetus of this movement no longer touched the deeply rooted pattern of consciousness in the majority of Americans; rather, it worked itself out primarily in the effort to imagine the estab­lished symbolic world in pragmatic-organizational terms.

In this sense it was a matter of claiming the spiritual, political, and economic autarky of the common man against the superior power of the political and eco­nomic big businesses as the new unit of the national power game. The encompassing reformation programs of the era before the First World War were, accordingly, a recourse to the institutionalism of the fathers with the objective of restoring the citizen to his place as the ultimate political unit in the society of big business.

But the organized interests’ competition for optimal economic growth had entered Americanism through laissez-faire politics and had become indispensable as an integral premise of thriving industrialism; the dogmatic-individualistic patriotism of this movement therefore remained ineffectual as far as the specific new structures of American society were concerned. Populism organized the social protest of the provincial yeomen, the agrarian-republican frontier culture, which was increasingly losing its social basis, though it continues to exist to the present day as a social fragment, like a social facet of agrarian-provincial America, along with the Populist tradition.

The Popu­lism of the free farmer was wrecked on the structural change of agricul­ture. But the successful commercial and industrial agriculture of a few producers who had taken the place of the farming majority of yeomen realized the Populist forms of political self-organization and the claim to sweeping public protection and subvention by the federal government to such a successful extent that in the twentieth century agriculture as a powerfully organized and special interest could become an important fac­tor in the new political equilibrium of group interests to which William Appleton Williams gave the name of American syndicalism.39

Progressivism and the Middle Class

The contradictoriness of restoration and reform becomes even more evident in Progressivism. Unlike agrarian-provincial Populism, Progres­sivism, which included important Populist elements, was a national movement of the new urban middle class, which for its part was already a product of the social-structural change brought about by industrialism. Progressive social criticism still judged the conditions of American soci­ety mainly according to the standards of the Jacksonian variant of Ameri­canism, the republicanism of the individual entrepreneur and virtuous citizen. The “trust” and the “machine” were the root of all evil, of “mam-monism,” which was suddenly undermining the republican substance.

The Progressivist psyche also gave a prominent place to pragmatic reform in the context of the revivalist recourse to traditional doctrine: “the trust in America was a significant part in intellectual technique for defining economic problems in terms of a Locke no one dared to transcend. If the trust was the heart of all evil, then Locke could be kept intact simply by smashing it, it was a technique by which a compulsive ‘Americanism’ was projected upon the real economic world.”40 For L. Hartz, the whole com­plex of the antitrust laws is the expression of a Progressive variation of Americanism; the same is even more true for all initiatives to democratize the political process:

“It does not take a deep analyst to see that the whole issue of “direct gov­ernment,” that passionate symbol of the progressive days, was involved root and branch in this problem. Why smash bosses and elect senators directly? . . . The answer was: to give every last individual an equal chance to govern . . . . Here was the equity of the Alger world flowering into politics . . . . Indeed the political energies premised by Progressivism were no less astounding than the economic energies it premised, so that the good American was not only a frantic economic dynamo rising to the top after trusts were shattered but a frantic political dynamo voting by referendum and recall after bosses were shattered.”41

Trusts and machines were the targets of the Progressive revival, and the cathartic impetus of the movement was proved by their being shattered: the world was cleansed of all corruption. Here was found the specific connection of economic power and political corruption:

“which made the abolition of both simultaneous questions . . . . The point of connection, of course, was the charge that trusts and monopolies extracted special benefits from the state . . . , so that a restoration of the true ‘American’ world automatically called for elimination of the political corruption which its economic corruption inspired.”42

But Hartz ignores what is peculiarly paradoxical in the Progressive contribution to Americanism. He insists on including in the symbolic universe of society the organiza­tional structure of industrial society as well as the principles of efficiency and functionalism that embody it and that were allegedly being attacked.

The Progressive Restitution of the Republic

Unlike those of Populism, the spokesmen of Progressivism were in a po­sition to understand the irreversible nature of the historical process of the evolution of modern science, technology, industry, and bureaucracy, not least on the basis of their strong following among the new middle class. The Progressive movement began as a protest of the “unorganized pub­lic” against the new large organizations of capital and labor, as well as, implicitly, against the imperative of functional rationality inherent in in­dustrialism. Under the pragmatic pressure of the reciprocal dependence of material prosperity and rational efficient organization, the restitution of the “paradigmatic republic” on the basis of the organizational principles of industrial society increasingly became the focus of the Progressive re­formers’ attention.

Roosevelt and Wilson thought Taney42A through to his logical conclusion when they ultimately made efficiency the criterion for the political evaluation of big business:

“That is the difference between a big business and a trust: A trust is an arrangement to get rid of competi­tion, and a big business is a business that has survived competition by conquering in the field of intelligence and economy. A trust does not bring efficiency to the aid of business; it buys efficiency out of busi­ness.”43

A trust is artificially created by powerful men; it is a product of “greed,” and therefore an expression of social corruption. Big business, on the other hand, grows naturally. “I admit that any large corporation built up by the legitimate processes of business, by economy, by effi­ciency, is natural; and I am not afraid of it, no matter how big it grows.” “Big business is no doubt to a large extent necessary and natural. The development of business upon a great scale of cooperation, is inevitable, and . . . is probably desirable.”44

Like Marx, Wilson is convinced that “major industry” is essential to modern production: “I am not jealous of any process of growth, no matter how huge the result, provided the result was indeed obtained by the processes of wholesome development, which are the processes of efficiency, of economy, of intelligence, and of inven­tion.”45 Consequently this insight into the organizational structure of in­dustrial society had to alter the direction of political reform:

“A simple and poor society can exist as a democracy on a basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex industrial society cannot so exist; for some individuals, and especially those artificial individuals called cor­porations, become so very big that the ordinary individual . . . cannot deal with them in terms of equality. It therefore becomes necessary for these ordinary individuals to combine in their turn, first in order to act in their collective capacity through that biggest of all combinations called the gov­ernment, and second, to act also to their own self-defence, through private combinations, such as farmers’ associations and trade unions.”46

Herbert Croly and the Intelligentsia

In Herbert Croly, the author of The Promise of American Life (1909), this change from urban-industrial Progressivism to recognition of the or­ganizational principles of the industrial economic society, which the agrarian-republican Populist Jeffersonians in the West and the South could not easily espouse, found its civil-theological interpreter. Croly–the son of devout Comteans and a student of Santayana, Royce, and James–wrote under the influence of the politics of Roosevelt, whose implications and underlying intentions he not only understood better than the presi­dent himself but also knew how to turn into theory. His book became the bible of the intelligentsia with a revivalist bent, who expressed them­selves after 1914 in the New Republic: John Dewey, Walter Lippman, Walter Weyl, George Soule, and Bruce Bliven.

“While many of Croly’s ideas were later substantially modified and expanded, they served as the point of departure for an entire generation of writers who believed that America could be fundamentally transformed without having to endure a violent revolution.”47 Croly remained strictly within the context of founding and order when he described the conditions that would allow socio-political reformation in the United States, which at heart is an ethical-spiritual revival of the nation. In order to remain true to the traditional vision of the promise, the American must sacrifice the traditional means of fulfillment; otherwise American life will gradually lose all specific promise. For Croly, American history after Jefferson and Hamilton is a sequence of abortive attempts at realization, thanks not least to the re­duction of political faith of the Americans to a national optimistic fatal­ism:

“The substance of our national Promise has consisted . . . of an improving popular economic condition, guaranteed by democratic politi­cal institutions, and resulting in moral and social amelioration. These manifold benefits were to be obtained merely by liberating the enlight­ened self-interest of the American people . . . . The fulfillment of the American Promise was considered inevitable because it was based upon a combination of self-interest and the natural goodness of human na­ture.”48

The optimistic fatalism of an automatic fulfillment of the Ameri­can promise and the social-Darwinist economic form of American civil theology I have described above were the core of Croly’s critique. Reform of the political institutions in the state and federal governments, with the inclusion of organized labor and organized capital in a constructive regu­lation of industrial corporations, were to be the principles of big business, placed in the service of an ethical-spiritual renewal of the nation.

This he described as “constructive individualism,” the contents of which were based on the representative humanity of Abraham Lincoln:49

“these very qualities of high intelligence, humanity, magnanimity and humility are precisely the qualities which Americans, in order to become better demo­crats, should add to their strength, their homogeneity, and their inno­cence; while at the same time they are just the qualities which Americans are prevented by their individualistic practice and tradition from attain­ing or properly valuing.”50

Lincolnian Virtue in a New Collective

Although the apotheosis of Lincoln furnished the paradigm for the Progressive revival, the prevailing individualism pre­vented a return to Lincoln. Croly called for such a return as a collective act, that is, a national education. It involved the moral and intellectual emancipation of the individual, which was to occur in a system of collec­tive responsibility that allowed the process of social reform to become altogether identical with that of individual reform.51 Croly was aiming at the restoration of the truth of individual existence, but he determined it from the excellence of those activities whose ethical and intellectual meaning consisted in the material disinterest of the actors.

The citizen’s organized material autarky was the precondition for the “declaration of intellectual independence,” the “emancipation of the individual”; that is, political and economic Americanism would henceforth have to be fol­lowed by the “intellectual basis of Americanism,” in which the standards of technical excellence (in the sense of techne) are tied into the standards of moral and intellectual excellence. The training of some individuals who are competent in the sense of Croly’s ethics is the first condition of national reconstruction, for it is only such persons whom the people will ultimately prefer as reformers over the traditional political leaders. To Croly reform meant regeneration of the national corpus mysticum in the form of a “religion of human brotherhood,” in which “a democratic scheme of moral values” achieves its perfect expression.

The ordering force of “loving-kindness” toward one’s fellow citizens would meaning­fully unite the different technical excellence of competent individuals in the work of social reorganization and individual emancipation. The end of this work, according to Croly, may consist in an “outburst of enthusi­asm,” inspired in part by a democratic evangelist: “some imitator of Jesus who will reveal to men the path whereby they may enter in to spiritual possession of their individual and social achievements, and immeasurably increase them by virtue of personal regeneration.” Croly’s Progressive revival combines Comtean symbolism with the tradition of Americanism. Democracy–and with this Croly takes up the leitmotif of the fathers–is virtue:

“The common citizen can become something of a saint and some­thing of a hero, not by growing to heroic proportions in his own person, but by the sincere and enthusiastic imitation of heroes and saints, and whether or not he will ever come to such imitation will depend upon the ability of his exceptional fellow-countrymen to offer him acceptable ex­amples of heroism and saintliness.”52

Croly’s Americanism saves him from the Comtean implication of ascension to the superman: the restitu­tion of virtue under the conditions of the organizational principles of industrial society is placed in the continuity of the revivalist reconstruc­tion of the paradigmatic humanity of a national hero: Abraham Lincoln.

Progressivism was successful, not as an organized political awakening movement, but in its dominance as the vehicle of a form of consciousness and symbol in whose medium the structures of the industrial-technical organization in society could first develop without breaking apart its col­lectivity. This Americanism of the Progressive movement was also shared by the socialist variants of the waning nineteenth century, especially the Socialist party, insofar as they did not, like the Marxists, persist in their “Europeanism,” thus giving up their effectiveness in the American world. The socialist alternative proposed by the American radicals, as W. A. Williams never ceases to insist, was rooted in the old tradition of a Christian-cooperative commonwealth grounded in the great debates of Cromwell’s forces in the English revolution.53

Bureaucracy as the Vehicle for Reform

Heedless of the decay of the “movement” with the end of World War I, Progressivism left behind an all-American consensus concerning the dominant sociostructural components of the industrial society of the United States. This genuine product of progressivist politics was, for one thing, a saturation of politics with the principles of industrial organiza­tion. The organization of social groups along the lines of function and efficiency gave to the political process a new structure; agriculture, labor, and capital became the constitutive units of American politics. But what was decisive was the social breakthrough of a specific Progressive com­ponent: the bureaucracy as the vehicle for public reform.

The commu­nity, the state, and especially the nation were subjected to bureaucratization in an effort to coordinate the organized special interests cooperatively through a powerful central organization of the public inter­est. To these sociostructural components was added the elements of the functional leadership elite in the form of the professional politician. Its highest objective was the political and bureaucratic power center of this new structure of society: the office of the president. Complementing the social group of professional politicians is the shifting and fluid group of reforming and consulting intellectuals. Together they form the functional leadership elite–what Williams calls American syndicalism.

Theodore J. Lowi uses the term interest-group liberalism for the current manifesta­tion of this phenomenon.54 It is the organizational form of industrial America, whose stability is based on including the new structural ele­ments into the social plausibility structure of Americanism. The sym­bolic universe mediated among the sociostructural outcomes of private-libidinous segments with the public-rational claim to order of the socially dominant form of consciousness in such a way that the crucial contradic­tions could be successfully suppressed. The deformation of consciousness and of symbol forms in the waning nineteenth century was the common denominator for such mediation.

The Revolution That Did Not Happen

In any case, the symbolism proved its worth once more in the serious crisis of the sociopolitical order in 1929, and at the same time it allowed the pragmatic reorganization of the New Deal. If the great Depression of the ‘thirties’ suggested anything, it was that the failure of socialism in America stemmed from the ideologic power of the national irrational liberalism rather than from economic circumstance.55 This is how Hartz described the decisive function of the American civil theology at the time when the organizational structures of the early form of the syndicalist system collapsed. It was crucial to preserve the public sphere, the politics, as the locus of the social totality in the symbolic universe; that is, the constitutional order and its institutions remained untouched, and there­fore the crisis could be surmounted through collective political action of the crucial segments of the syndicalist system under the leadership of a determined executive.

J. C. Davies speaks of a revolution that did not happen, though the socioeconomic preconditions for it were at hand. But the apathy and despair of the affected masses continued to be on prin­ciple embedded in the plausibility structure of Americanism:

“The great majority of the public was committed to the virtues that represented pub­lic dogma since 1776, and not the oppositional program of an alienated in­telligence . . . . Those who were least affected by the crisis—businessmen from the upper middle class, the clergy, lawyers, and intellectuals, re­mained committed not only to the egalitarian values and the established economic system, but also to the constitution.”56

The minimal effective­ness of alternative interpretations of order is, of course, also connected to the fact that the ethos of the ruling symbolism of order of the spiritual-moral authority was more easily assumed to reside in “public persons” than in the words and books of the intelligentsia.

The literary man as the “conscience of the nation” did not exist in this American universe, except possibly as a columnist for a powerful newspaper. Richard H. Pells, who has traced the struggle of American intellectuals in pursuit of a radical alternative during the 1930s, has shown the social irrelevance of any at­tempts to reconcile Marx and Locke in an “American-style socialism.” The deep contradictoriness of all alternative symbolisms proposed by the radical intelligentsia consisted not only of the insistence by organization­ally splintered Marxism on its Europeanism and the ambivalence of the Soviet Union’s communist model, but most especially the underlying ex­istential stamp by the Americanist symbolism of the Progressive orienta­tion.

Radicalism Rejected in Favor of Roosevelt

In Pell’s view, Lewis Mumford, John Dewey, Helen and Robert Lynd, Sidney Hook, and Reinhold Niebuhr carried Croly’s Progressive revivalism almost to the point of no return, to the essential nexus of founding and order. In the long run, however, the representatives of American radicalism were neither willing nor able to bring the sacrifice of self-destruction in favor of a rebirth under the sign of European ide­ology. The quenching of the American self for the sake of entry into the “second reality” of European ideology was, in the 1930s, the radical al­ternative from which, understandably, the radicals’ common sense shrank back. In representative cases a symbolic “half-way covenant” only came to this:

“By combining traditional liberal values, new socialist insights, and a pro­found moral passion, they hoped to give their fellow citizens a means of understanding and solving the crisis in which everyone found himself . . . . In sum, Mumford, Dewey, Lynd, Hook, and Neibuhr had managed mo­mentarily to join ideas that seemed otherwise contradictory.”

“They suc­ceeded in preserving a tenuous balance between liberalism and Marxism, morality and politics, private thought and collective action, individual free­dom and the search of community, a cultural critique of industrialism and an ideological analysis of capitalism, the desire for psychologically satisfy­ing myths and the need of coherent social theory. But it would prove in­creasingly difficult to sustain this equilibrium in the later years of the dec­ade. What they were asking Americans to do was hold two opposing ideals in their minds at the same time.”57

While in 1932, the radical intelligentsia was still discussing the relative merits and drawbacks of William Z. Foster, the Communist candidate, and Norman Thomas, the Socialist one, the overwhelming majority of Americans had already made up its mind in favor of the “Christian” and “Democratic” Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the beginning the reform program of the “‘sublimated’ Americanism” (Hartz) of the New Deal alienated the radical intelligentsia to the same degree that it fulfilled the voters’ expectations. The commonly perceived American reality was the psychic effort to overcome the Depression; this loss of material suste­nance had turned latent existential anxiety into palpable experience. For the radical break with the self-evidence of infinite progress in material prosperity affected the faith in the American experiment, whose substance it had become. The restitution of the promise of American life must be proved in the vigorous reorganization of material living condi­tions, thus preserving the majority’s trust in the ordering power of poli­tics in the paradigmatic republic.

The New Deal as Pragmatic Continuity

The New Deal was certainly not an extrapolation of the Progressive movement. Nor was it “different from anything that had yet happened in the United States,”58 even less an “abrupt break with the continuity of the past.”59 From the point of view of the history of society and consciousness, the New Deal is preformed to such a degree that the traits of pragmatic-political reform affecting all of society such as had not before been recognized in the United States became all the more apparent. In other words, the New Deal was not a movement of political awakening like Progressivism, though many revi­valists participated in it, and the thrust of pragmatic reform took a dif­ferent direction, responsive to the conditions of the Depression. But pragmatism was possible only in the medium of an unchallenged civil theology, where the Progressives had placed industrial society in the con­tinuity of founding and order.

Furthermore, the institutional and struc­tural reforms rested on the organizational form of American syndicalism, which in its basic structure was already fully developed and–not least, in turn, through the politics of Progressivism–had symbolically become part of the civil theology:

“The leading models of the new order grew for the most part out of the ideas of the innovators of the past reform period. They grew out of the experiences of these people from the planned economy of the wartime pe­riod and from the ‘teachings’ and ‘logical conclusions’ that one appar­ently felt it necessary to draw from Hoover’s experiences and from his methods. The United States now no longer adhered to the problem solving of the 1920s, and Americans professed their loyalty to the encompass­ing movement toward socioeconomic integration. But in this they con­tinued . . . in the past, and their behavior can be understood only in the context of the total national history.”60

Williams’ analysis very precisely depicted the connection and trench­antly concluded: “the New Deal is often viewed as a major turning point in American history. A bit more perspective suggests that it represented a reaction to a severe crisis in which most of the elements, attitudes, and policies of the Progressive Movement were finally consolidated in one short period under the leadership of a particularly dramatic politician.”61

The experimental practices of Roosevelt’s pragmatism and of his hetero­geneous following based its implicit theory on the common sense of the Americanisms of the preceding spiritual-political awakening movements, though without signs either of their spiritual impetus or their underlying experiences. Certainly Williams was not incorrect when he described Roosevelt as a representative of the “American feudal gentry” and pointed to its tra­ditional “spirit of noblesse oblige,” “disinterested humanitarianism,” and “buoyant confidence.” This ethos of the old leadership elites of the United States is the tradition of the political class since Washington. Nev­ertheless, the European analogy to the terms feudal and gentry conceals the fact that we are dealing with a leadership ethos sui generis: the men­tality of the existential-political republicans is psychosocially rooted in the form of consciousness of common sense.

True, in the case of Roose­velt it takes its vitality less from authentic spirituality than from the cer­tainty of a self-evident symbolic order as the source of order. Its primal thrust in the symbolic world of the republic enables it to exercise the bold eupraxia of the true dilettante, though its borders lie precisely in this world of Americanism. Roosevelt’s naïveté toward a world in whose structures the symbolic universe of his civil theology does not appear reveals the limits of this particular universe.62

Roosevelt’s Economic Constitutional Order

Roosevelt came to power neither as a pragmatic reform technocrat with a closed mind about ways to overcome the Depression nor as the clever “virtuoso of opportunism” (Hofstadter), who allowed himself to be guided by the “attitude” of prac­tical performance in the permanent experiment of crisis resolution–though both the technocratic and the opportunistic element were present. Rather, he rose to be the political leader of a new majority of the impov­erished masses of the “forgotten man” by his promise to actively restore social justice in the paradigmatic republic under the new conditions of industrial society. “Social justice” called first of all for the effective estab­lishment of all possible measures to abolish material want in its various guises.

The civil-theological content of this program of social justice was illustrated in Roosevelt’s famous Commonwealth Club address, which the early New Dealers helped to write:

“Faith in America, faith in our tradi­tion of personal responsibility, faith in our institutions, faith in ourselves demand that we recognize the new terms of the social contract. We shall fulfill them, as we fulfilled the obligation of the apparent Utopia which Jefferson imagined for us in 1776, and which Jefferson, Roosevelt and Wilson thought to bring to realization.”

The end of the frontier, the speech noted, meant the end of freedom for farmers, and the highly or­ganized financial-industrial corporate complex meant the end of the free-enterprise system. The socioeconomic premise—the right to property and independence through property—of the political order of the found­ers was thus turned into its opposite: the economic power of an oligarchy not only threatened the individual’s material existence but also affected the public welfare, the purpose of government. But just as formerly un­controlled political power in a social contract was subjugated to the pub­lic interest through constitutional democratic government, today, he said, it was a matter of modifying and controlling economic power in an “eco­nomic constitutional order.”

The New Deal as Successful Salvage Operation

Roosevelt’s principled political understanding of order resulted in the New Deal’s confusing multiplicity of conceptual initiatives, ideas, and programs for institutional reform and the contradictory complexity of experiments and techniques for problem solving. In the social context of the basic syndicalist structure, it was essential that the federal authorities proceed democratically in solving the power problems of industrial society in an “economic republic;” this method would supposedly guarantee that both social welfare and economic growth be preserved.

The economic republic had, in the words of the New Dealer A. A. Berle, “inte­grated the democratic process by which we operate our politics with vis­ible or indirect controls of the private decisions by which we work our economics.”64 In his attempt to describe the results of the New Deal, Berle certainly defined the intention of Roosevelt, whose close adviser he was. This is not the place to discuss the six hectic years from 1933 to 1938 but only to note that the New Deal, despite considerable failures, was successful on at least one point: it salvaged for organized society the social field of consciousness that exemplified it.

From this time on, orga­nized society would, on the whole, arrange itself according to the syndi­calist principles of the large organizing units. The restoration of constitutional civil government in all the areas of the syndicalist structure institutionalized a tentative equilibrium among the various components for the time being. The institutional center of order was the Office of the President, around which were grouped a variety of bureaucracies in a singular “fragmentation of governing power” (Shonfield) in which the public power of the nation exercised its constitutional government syndicalistically.

This complex federal reform bureaucracy was linked with the municipal and state bureaucracies in exercising its tasks, and, tied to the political process, it recognized the organized interests as concerted participants in power; its rise marked the specific republicanism of the New Deal. At the same time it established for the duration the reform intelligentsia in the various ranks of the welfare-state bureaucracy in such a way that the social relevance of an alienated intelligentsia was blunted.

The New Deal’s Symbolic Popular Consensus

Not only the professional politicians as the de facto trustees of the public sphere, but also the leadership elite of big labor and big business, decided the power questions in organized society, at least until the time when the socioeconomic unit of the corporation began to go beyond the social field of organized society in the context of a global economic community. As long, however, as this state of affairs ran parallel to the international policies of the American empire, Americanism covered over a potential contradiction between imperial policy and global economy.

In the practices of the New Deal, pragmatic rationality with a bureau­cratic-economic orientation inevitably attained the status of a social principle of order: “At the core of the New Deal, then, was not a philosophy . . . but an attitude, suitable for practical politicians, admin­istrators, and technicians.”65 To put it in negative terms:

“The personal condescension of the New Deal, allied with the doctrine of the liberal tradition, encouraged it to be satisfied with giving Americans a greater share in material goods–and even within this standard, to measure suc­cess by quantitative ‘indices’ of well-being that masked the unevenness of the economy’s performance.”66

This functional-rational part of the New Deal is revealed especially clearly in the relationship of the New Dealers to the symbolic dimension of American existence. The social success pre­vailing over other symbolic worlds lay not least, as already shown, in recourse to the traditional symbolism; Pells correctly points to Roose­velt’s attraction for American intellectuals: “many writers in the late 1930s were attracted to the New Deal precisely because it seemed to utilize the traditional rhetoric, images, and slogans of American culture far more effectively than any of the parties farther to the left, thereby uniting people around the lowest common denominator of belief and ac­tion.”67

Roosevelt’s minimizing of the national crisis in a symbolic popu­lar consensus, which took political shape in the election of 1936, as well as the looming international crisis, compelled a departure from the Eu­ropean ideologies; consequently the American radical intelligentsia, in­cluding the Communists, renewed their efforts to join with the masses in the shared symbolic world of Americanism: “the search for an alternative social philosophy gave way in the late 1930s to a renewed appreciation for the habits and precedents that had sustained the country through previous crises.”68

“Now, as the Left discovered the value of patriotism and as intellectuals displayed a new found respect for the underlying vigor of the national character, the past was being transformed into pre­cisely the sort of compelling ‘political myth’ that could comfort the popu­lace in an age of chaos and uncertainty.”69

Manipulating People for Their Own Good

This turn toward Americanism arose less from the search for the sources of order of the republic in tra­ditional symbolism than from the insight into the functional achievement of civil theology, preserving the patterns of social behavior; this phe­nomenon was noted by such prominent figures of the left as Helen and Robert Lynd in their study Middletown in Transition (1937), in which they used the methods of empirical social research. The attitude coincided on one point with the functional rationalism of the New Deal elite: social self-understanding having already largely lost its motivating experiences, doubt now also arose whether implicit ratio­nal knowledge of order could be involved.

Here lies the break with the tradition of spiritual-political revivalism: the truth of the existence of homo Americanus was disputed. The liberal Frederick Schumann, in 1932 a cosigner of an appeal to the Communists, persuaded of the syn­thesis of pragmatism and Marxism, began from then on to deny that the masses employed reason; they were, he claimed, moved “by emotions, mysticism, and mythology.” Not last, in connection with the new forms of mass communication, public recourse to the symbols of self-interpretation was understood as functionally steering the citizens to their best interests in the sense of behaviorist psychology. Harold Laswell and most especially Thurman Arnold absolutized symbol functionalism, which they considered to be the theory of the New Deal. “We find a sharp and sustained attack upon ideologies, rational principles, and moralism in politics.”70

Thurman Arnold

Arnold’s The Symbols of Government (1935) and The Folklore of Capitalism (1937) seek to demonstrate that all social organization is based on the symbols of self-understanding. But “social and political be­liefs had ‘no meaning whatever’ apart from the organization and move­ments to which they were ‘attached’.” Arnold “interpreted every doctrine as a semantic instrument for the regulation of human activity.”71 Sym­bolism, here called folklore, was no longer granted any wisdom; the mo­tivating order of consciousness was replaced by the structure of drives: patterns of behavior and organization expressed the satisfaction of needs identified by utilitarian determinants–that is, guarantees of optimal pro­duction and distribution of material goods.

Although Arnold understood the instrumental character of civil-theological symbolism, he disputed its order content; he therefore transferred the authoritative justification of reform within a social order–in the sense of that very order content–to the depths of unconscious instinct. Arnold’s “fundamental axiom that man works only for his fellowman”72 was the final conclusion of prag­matic wisdom. “What Thurman Arnold failed to see was that the tech­nical pragmatism he wanted was nourished by the very ‘folklore’ he blasted. An irreversible ethics made all problems technical.”73

The Erosion of Americanism Among the Intelligentsia

Arnold, as well as Laswell, documented the functional connection of founding and order, at the same time making clear the social consequences of the reifi­cation of the symbolic order in its instrumentalization of all symbols; all “national mythology” was a means to further steering of other-directed man by the standards of the calculating self-interest of organized groups. The institutions of the Republic were redefined in the spirit of the functional rationality of organized industrial society.

Certainly Arnold repre­sented not even the majority consciousness of the New Dealers, Roose­velt included, and, as Hartz correctly stressed, the social reforms of the New Deal could be effected successfully only in the symbolic medium of the dominant social field of consciousness of American society. But he signaled the erosion of the psychic substratum of Americanism, an ero­sion that intensified with the manifest crisis of the sociopolitical arrange­ment of the New Deal in the second half of the twentieth century. Until this time the United States could still absolutely interpret itself on a con­tinuum of tradition:

America, so it was argued, had succeeded in break­ing through to a magnificent fusing of two worlds into a system that combined technocratic rationality, social security, and stable growth with a large arena for democratic decision processes and decentralized initia­tive. And this breakthrough . . . was said to have made the ‘American way’ into the embodiment of economic and social progress. America’s way was the way that a large part of the rest of the world would eventu­ally take.74 Using the terms of civil theology, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., noted:

“The New Deal took a broken and despairing land and gave it new confidence in itself. Not perhaps new confidence; but rather a revival of the ancient faith in the free people which, speaking through Jefferson and Jackson and Lincoln, had been our great source of national strength. Roosevelt had the vision of democratic America and the strength to re­alize a good part of that vision.”75

Schlesinger remained caught in the spell of a monumental history whose consciousness-shaping power would no longer be able to withstand the pressure of pragmatic reality. On the other hand, since all problems of order were raised in the lan­guage of this monumental history, including even Arnold’s symbol of ni­hilism, the American self-critique and self-analysis in its search for the lost order center at the present time on the quest for the theoretical dignity of Americanism.



1. H. S. Commager, The American Mind (New Haven, Conn., 1959), 41.

2. Compare Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 64 — 65.

3. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (Madison, Wis., 1894), 61.

4. William A. Williams has brilliantly developed the unity of this period in Contours of American History, 225-338.

5. For a summary, see S. M. Lipset, The First New Nation (New York, 1963), 35 — 60; W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 149-2,00.

6. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, 109ff.

7. Compare the commentary of Henry Reeve, an Englishman, whose translation (1835) first brought de Tocqueville to the attention of an English-speaking public: “I adopt the expression of the original [individualism], however strange it may seem to an English ear, partly because it illustrates the remark on the introduction of general terms into democratic language which was made in a preceding chapter, and partly because I know of no English word exactly equivalent to the expression.” Quoted in Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I, vi.

8. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, 104—105.

9. Quoted in R. B. Perry, Puritanism and Democracy (New York, 1964), 535.

10. Quoted in Somkin, Unquiet Eagle, 81.

11. Compare especially Emerson’s “Divinity School Address, July 15, 1838,” in Emer­son, Works, II, 111-43, and “Politics, 1841,” ibid., 399-416. See C. J. Friedrich, The New Belief in the Common Man (Boston, 1942), 15-20; L. Baritz, City on a Hill (New York, 1964), 105-69.

12. Anderson, The Imperial Self (New York, 1971), 4.

13. Ibid., 58.

14. Ibid., 40.

15. Ibid., 234-35.

16. Ibid.

17. Compare also E. Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality,” in Phenomenology and Social Reality, ed. M. Natanson (The Hague, 1970), 185-95.

18. In the Introduction to his United States Magazine and Democratic Review, I (Oc­tober, 1837), 1-15, John L. Sullivan formulated the policies of the Jacksonians better than Jackson ever could. Sullivan’s Introduction was reprinted in J. Blau, ed., Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy (New York, 1954), 11-38, where there is also further material on the Jacksonians’ self-interpretation. Compare also A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (Boston, 1945); Hofstadter, American Political Tradition, 45-67; Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 89-142; E. Pessen, Jacksonian America (Homewood, Ill., 1969); M. Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford, CA, 1957); Dorfman, Eco­nomic Mind, II, 601-37.

19. II Peters, 410 (1837).

20. For the role of the public hand in the nation and individual states in the nineteenth century, see A. Shonfield, Geplanter Kapitalismus (Cologne, 1969), 356-66. For the mer­cantilist tradition of public intervention in the economy of the individual states, see L. Hartz, Economic Policy and Democratic Thought: Pennsylvania, 1776-1860 (Cam­bridge, MA, 1948); O. Handlin and M. Handlin, Commonwealth: A Study of the Role of Government in the American Economy, Massachusetts, 1774-1861 (New York, 1947); J. N. Primm, Economic Policy in the Development of a Western State: Missouri 1820 to 1860 (Cambridge, MA, 1954); M. S. Heath, Constructive Liberalism (Cambridge, MA, 1954).

21. W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 247.

22. Ibid., 158-59. Compare also J. J. Spengler, “Political Economy of Jefferson, Madison, and Adams,” in American Studies in Honor of William K. Boyd (Durham, NC, 1940), 3-59; Dorfman, Economic Mind; Dauer, “Political Economy of John Adams.”

23. See particularly Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 1818.

24. J. K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State (New York, 1967), 350-51. Compare also Heimann, Soziale Theorie der Wirtschaftssysteme; M. Hereth, Freiheit, Politik und Ökonomie (Munich, 1974).

25. R. W. Emerson, “The Conduct of Life,” in Emerson, Works, VI, 106.

26. Compare R. W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (New York, 1960), 78-79.

27. For this complex in general, compare besides Van Alstyne, Rising American Empire, and W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, in particular W. A. Williams, The Roots of the Modern American Empire (New York, 1969); W. La Feber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1963); F. Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York, 1963); E. R. May, Ameri­can Imperialism (New York, 1968); Nagel, Sacred Trust, 247-324; H.U. Wehler, “Der Amerikanische Imperialismus vor 1914,” in Der Moderne Imperialismus, ed. W. J. Mommsen (Stuttgart, 1971), 171-92; H.U. Wehler, Aufstieg des Amerikanischen Imperialismus (Göttingen, 1974).

28. Quoted in K. S. Lynn, The Comic Tradition in America (Garden City, N.Y., 1958), 109.

29. F. J. Turner, The United States, 1810-1850: The Nation and Its Sections, 152f.

30. Fisher, “Legendary and Myth-Making Process,” 54.

31. P. L. Ford, The True George Washington (Philadelphia, 1897), 6.32. Quoted in Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 188.

33. Nietzsche, Werke, I, 229.

34. Craven, Legend of the Founding Fathers, 196.

35. Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 228-55.

36. Compare Hofstadter’s biographical essays in American Political Tradition, 186-282.

37. R. Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York, 1955), 11; J. D. Hicks, Populist Revolt (Lincoln, NE, 1967).

38. Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 12.

39. W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 384.

40. Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 232.

41. Ibid., 140.

42. Ibid., 241. Compare also R. H. Wiebe, The Search for Order (New York, 1967); J. Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918 (Boston, 1968); D. M. Kennedy, ed., Progressivism (Boston, 1971); D. S. Kirschner, “The Ambiguous Legacy: Social Justice and Social Control in the Progressive Era,” Historical Reflections, II (1975), 69-88.

42a. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837),U.S. Supreme Court, II Peters, 410, ceded the order of the conditions of production to the liberal politics of laissez-faire.

43. W. Wilson, The New Freedom (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1961), 109.

44. Ibid., 102-103.

45. Ibid., 115.

46. J. M. Blum, The Republican Roosevelt (Cambridge, MA, 1954), 110; also quoted in Hofstadter, Age of Reform,

47. R. H. Pells, Radical Visions and American Dreams (New York, 1973), 4-5.

48. H. Croly, The Promise of American Life (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 22.

49. Ibid., 89-99.

50. Ibid., 99.

51. Ibid., 409.

52. Ibid., 453-54.

53. W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 386-89, 486ff. However, Williams turns Marx into a secularized leveler. Compare also A. Fried, ed., Socialism in America (New York, 1970), 1-15; Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 233-36.

54. W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 384ff., 470-73; T. J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism (New York, 1969), 55-97. Compare also H. J. Puhle, “Der Ubergang zum organisierten Kapitalismus in den USA,” in Organisierter Kapitalismus, ed. H. A. Winkler (Göttingen, 1974), 172-94, and E. W. Hawley, “New Deal und ‘organisierter Kapitalismus’ in internationaler Sicht,” in Die grosse Krise in Amerika, ed. H. A. Winkler (Göttingen, 1973). The term organized capitalism as applied generally to a number of es­sential aspects of the social reality of completely different political societies does not seem to me very instructive for theory, since it arbitrarily reduces a common component of the socioeconomic structure that can be found in different forms to an absolute.

55. Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 259.

56. J. C. Davies, “Theorie der Revolution,” in Theorien des sozialen Wandels, ed. W. Zapf (Cologne, 1968), 411-12.

57. Pells, Radical Visions, 148ff.

58. Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 303.

59. S. Lubell, The Future of American Politics (New York, 1955), 3.

60. Hawley, “New Deal und ‘organisierter Kapitalismus,'” 17.

61. W. A. Williams, Contours of American History, 439.

62. For Roosevelt, compare Hofstadter, American Political Tradition, 315-52; A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt (Boston, 1957-60); J. M. Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox (New York, 1956). The account of the New Deal in American historiog­raphy, of course, depends in turn on the particular position within social self-understanding. Besides the noted contributions by Hartz, Hofstadter, Hawley, Schlesinger, Burns, and Williams, compare also the anthology by E. C. Rozwenc, ed., The New Deal (Boston, 1968). See also W. E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York, 1963); P. K. Conkin, The New Deal (New York, 1967); Shonfield, Geplanter Kapitalismus; A. A. Berle, The Twentieth Century Capitalist Revolution (New York, 1954); J. K. Galbraith, American Capitalism (Boston, 1952).

63. F. D. Roosevelt, Public Papers and Addresses (New York, 1953), I, 742-56.

64. A. A. Berle, The American Economic Republic (New York, 1963), vii.

65. Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 325.

66. McWilliams, Idea of Fraternity, 547.

67. Pells, Radical Visions, 326.

68. Ibid., 314.

69. Ibid., 315.

70. Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 319.

71. Pells, Radical Visions, 324.

71. T. W. Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism (London, 1937).

73. Hartz, Liberal Tradition, 271.

74.  Hawley, “New Deal und ‘organisierter Kapitalismus,'” 32.

75. A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Broad Accomplishments of the New Deal,” in Rozwenc, ed., The New Deal, 28.


This excerpt is from Americanism: Revolutionary Order and Societal Self-Interpretation in the American Republic (Louisiana State University Press, 1999). The earlier excerpts an be found in “The Genesis of Civil Theology: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three and subsequent excerpts are “Postwar Americanism” and “Americanism: Counterculture and Common Sense.”

Jürgen Gebhardt

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Jürgen Gebhardt is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Emeritus Professor at the Insitute for Political Science at the University of Erlangen-Nürenberg. He is the author and editor of several books, including Political Cultures and the Culture of Politics: A Transatlantic Perspective (Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010).