Even a cursory glance at our political culture reveals that America is in a state of crisis. The unprecedented nature of this presidential campaign is suggestive of broad-based discontent extending to the lowest levels of American society. For the past forty years we have been moving rightward. Think of the steady march to the right represented by the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, each more conservative than the one before. And now, as if the sky were to open, a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders emerges and generates a mass following, seemingly coming from nowhere. Not as inexplicable, but just as dissonant, is the self-destruction of the Republican Party. Each Republican administration has put forward an increasingly conservative agenda with promises unfulfilled, only to create a downward spiral of extremism that has finally opened the door to a dark figure such as Ted Cruz, and a neophyte showman and political ignoramus in the personage of Donald Trump.
Much of the ulterior discontent which has brought forth these odd happening is, no doubt, spawned by a stagnant economy, by massive displacement caused by new technologies that have left an older workforce behind, by the hemorrhaging of the middle class, and the feeling that by working harder one is going nowhere except downward into an abyss of greater financial oppression and insecurity.
And behind this still, which Sanders has made the hallmark of his campaign, is a system that is rigged; owned and controlled by “the class of millionaires and billionaires.” Loss of financial security, loss of power to control one’s destiny, loss of faith in a more benign future is very anxiety producing, very frightening and very anger inducing. It is also politically destabilizing. Our democracy, one senses, may be in jeopardy.
One sign of hope is that America has been there before. It is been there and has taken back the county from the rich and powerful. The period I’m pointing to is America’s Progressive Era, which flourished from about 1890 to World War I.
May 15th is Ethical Culture’s Founder’s when Felix Adler gave his first address in 1876 which inaugurated our Movement. This year I will be giving my address on that day, and I want to devote it to a look at the Progressive Era, the Era of which Ethical Culture in its formative and most creative period was an expression.
What was the Progressive Era? In briefest terms it was a multitude of responses at all political and social levels to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, the Gilded Age, the age of the “robber barons.” In many ways it was period similar to our own. Just as we have been transformed by the rapid growth of the cyber world, so the period of the late nineteenth century was no less enchanted by the wizardry of electrification and massive power generated by the internal combustion engine. It was an era of cavernous factories, teeming cities, an unparalleled influx of immigrants, and gaping disparities of wealth between the captains of industry and the masses of desperately poor who labored without protection in the factories.
The leaders of Progressivism, fought back in myriad ways. They promoted labor unions to bargain for the rights of workers. They pushed for child labor laws. They demanded government involvement to regulate health and safety and stem abuses in the private sector. They called for the breakup of monopolies to crimp corporate power. They demonstrated for a woman’s right to vote, and the direct election of senators. They created “good government” clubs to curb municipal corruption. They introduced new, child-centered, forms of education, built playgrounds and called for humane housing for the poor. By doing all this and more, the Progressive Era promoted robust democratic engagement at all levels.
Ideologically, its leaders did battle with unregulated laissez-faire capitalism, which was promoted by the wealthy as a law of nature. They fought the pernicious doctrine of social Darwinism, which claimed that those who were poor deserved by nature to be so, and those who were the masters of society were likewise by Nature to enjoy the power that the competition for survival had destined for them.
The Progressives fought against the status quo and by so doing they transformed America – and they won. Among the luminaries of the Progressive Era were names we still recognize – Jane Addams, John Dewey, W. E. B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, William James, Jacob Riis, Louis Brandeis, Alice Paul, Lillian Wald, and many more.
Ethical Culture was part of this glorious transformation of American society, but we were not the only one. We were a component of a larger movement.
In my address of May 15th I want to look at the broader environment which spawned Ethical Culture, an environment with challenges not all that different from those we confront today. Please join me on Founder’s Day for “Ethical Culture in Context.”