Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/June 1914/The Struggle for Equality in the United States VII
|THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES|
The Current Trend of Affairs
NO one in this generation has expressed the idealism of the American people as well as Mr. Roosevelt in his best moments. Speaking at Jamestown, Virginia, he said:
In the pursuit of this ideal, the present era of reform is beset with five difficulties. The first is the difficulty that arises from flattering the intelligence of the common man. A political order in which every man has one vote irrespective of his intelligence encourages the erroneous idea that one man knows as much as another, and makes the employment of the scientific expert appear to be a waste of the public money. Many a man who has clearly demonstrated his> incapacity to manage his own affairs feels entirely competent to run the much more complicated affairs of the state and the nation.
The second is the difficulty of distinguishing between reformers that are genuine and those that are fakes. According to scriptural writ, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven." Neither is every measure labeled "progressive" necessarily what it pretends to be. When some profess to be conservatives and others profess to be progressives, it is difficult enough to tell which is which, but when practically every one claims to be a reformer it is doubly difficult to draw the line between the quack nostrums of pretenders and well-meaning but unbalanced reformers, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the specifics of those who not only have the cause of society at heart but whose judgments are sure.
The third difficulty is the perplexing problem of determining just how far the self-interest of the individual is consistent with the general good. How much shall freedom of contract be abridged? How much social control shall be exerted over the individual in other directions? How far shall combinations of labor and capital be permitted to go in carrying out their purposes? Amid the complex conditions of modern life, these questions are more difficult to answer than ever before. It is all clear enough that restrictions here and there upon the liberty of the individual make for the greater liberty of the whole. Without some restrictions there would be nothing to arrest the hand of the social marauder. But then again individual initiative has been the great factor in human progress. Few things have done as much to advance mankind from the age of stone to the age of steel. If the individual is put in leading strings, our civilization may become stagnant. Not to push social restraint far enough is to invite anarchy. Selfishness is at once the thing that makes for progress and makes the attainment of perfection impossible. Just where is the point to curb it so as to secure the good without the evil that it works?
A fourth difficulty is the danger of insisting too little upon the fundamental principles of right conduct. Men do not do good because their hearts are evil is an old saying still worthy of belief. The primary need of every man is the reformation of his own life. It is well enough at times to protest against the wrongs inflicted upon one by others. No man worth the saving will consciously permit himself to be imposed upon or taken advantage of by others. But it is still more important that those who protest see to it that their own hearts conform to what is right and true and of good report. Those who demand justice should see to it that their own hands are clean. The first duty of organized labor is to keep itself free of such leaders as the McNamaras. The protesting spirit occasionally forgets the value of the heritage bequeathed to us by the past and the fact that there is more of good than of evil in the world. It at times runs dangerously near the point of revolt, as in some of the doctrines openly proclaimed by the militant branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. "I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil" are words which should not be forgotten. There is a crying need for more of the law-abiding spirit, for more men of high principle and of a staunch adherence to the right because it is the right.
A fifth difficulty is the tendency of the masterful element in human nature to run to extremes. The desire for domination is strong. The fighting instinct is covered with a thin veneer. An overbearing spirit is sometimes not far removed from the spirit of fair play. The craving for distinction within moderation is a wholesome desire, but snobbishness is thoroughly reprehensible. Ancestral pride is sometimes carried to this extreme. There is a proneness to regard foreigners as inferiors. Every community beyond the frontier stage has its social cliques. Shopgirls sometimes refuse to fraternize at dances with domestic servants. The work of the latter is commonly regarded as menial. The privilege of exclusiveness is one of the things paid for in Pullman cars. Social precedence is with some the main thing in life. Some rich heiresses make marriage with the titled nobility of Europe their chief ambition.
The white man loves to lord it over the black man. In some states, many whites are exempt from the educational or property qualifications to which the negro is subject. The railway, hotel and educational facilities provided for the colored race are frequently greatly inferior to those provided for the white race. The person of negro descent is greatly circumscribed in his opportunity to earn a living. In Syracuse, Ohio, a negro is not permitted to stay over night. Some churches have been rent asunder over the question of admitting a negro to membership. It is with great difficulty that a negro can buy property in many communities. The average white man may contribute to save the soul of the black man in Africa, but he does not care to have a negro who is not his servant reside in the same block. This attitude is often as marked among the descendants of abolitionists as among any other class. To call a white person a negro in some states renders one liable to a suit for damages.
The present era of reform has made few serious mistakes in meeting the foregoing difficulties. It has reduced passenger fares and freight rates in some instances without due consideration. It has blundered more or less in trying to solve the trust problem. In many states it has not taken the first steps toward preventing the feeble-minded from polluting the race at its source. It has not addressed itself seriously enough to the solution of the race problem. "I will permit no man to injure me by making me hate him," Booker T. Washington once remarked. The present era has made little progress toward this lofty ideal. Perhaps the most ominous mistake has been the increasing expenditures for militarism including pensions. The competitive building of armaments has become a crying evil.
In the main, however, the course of events has been so moderate as to attract and not to repel adherents. There is no evidence that the country is growing less radical, or that it is tiring of reform. Probably there has been no decade in the country's history during which humanitarian measures have scored so many victories as during the last ten years. Hypocrisy has been mercilessly unmasked. One stronghold of privilege after another has been assaulted. Conduct once supposed to concern no one but the individual has been seen to have a public aspect, and some of the points at which the self-interest of the individual is inconsistent with the public welfare have been noted and a measure of collective control has been imposed. The public has become more exacting in the demands which it makes upon its servants. There is a quickening influence felt in nearly every direction. The man absorbed in business and the closet philosopher are waking up to the claims of public affairs, and are contesting the supremacy of those who have hitherto run our politics. There is a growing realization that we have had the forms without the substance of a real democracy. It is not so much statutory enactments as the general atmosphere of criticism in which the ordinary man lives and works that is making for higher standards of private and public conduct. The discriminating character of the times nowhere appears to better advantage than in the readiness with which sham reformers and their works are detected and rejected. Most men are progressive in spots and the public is showing the good sense necessary to distinguish between the respects in which those who profess to lead it face the future and those respects in which they face the past. The subsidized press has lost much of its influence. It is the critical attitude of the age that is so full of promise for the future.
A notable change in public opinion has taken place since 1896. At that time the man successful in gaining public office stood primarily for an ultra-individualism and for upholding property rights. The prevailing view was that a man acted in consonance with the public interest in securing the kind of a tariff or franchise that he wanted. This idea is to-day discredited. The emphasis has shifted somewhat from business success to the broader interests of mankind. Society has become less complacent with unwholesome conditions. It is more generally understood that sweat-shops, unsanitary tenements and unduly long hours of labor threaten the well-being of the public at large as well as that of the victims immediately involved. An awakened people is striving to control its political institutions. Moreover, business and politics are such close bed-fellows that the improvement in the latter reflects the change for the better that has taken place in the former.
The forward movement of recent years has not won its triumphs without a fight. Nearly every inch of the ground has been contested by skilled and often opulent adversaries. The vested interests affected have opposed the spirit of progress for the same reason that the silversmiths dependent upon the votaries of Diana for their living and prosperity arrayed themselves against the preaching of Paul. Nor is this surprising. Those whose pockets are threatened by any proposed reform naturally try to get off with as little loss as possible. In addition to the opposition offered by vested interests, that due to the inertia of society and to impracticable reformers has had to be met and overcome. The indifference of many of the intelligent and respectable is one of the greatest barriers to progress. The obstacles that have been successfully encountered and overcome inspire the hope that the spirit of the age is moving in the right direction.
The world-wide character of the present era of discontent strengthens and confirms this hope. In England, Germany, France and other nations there is a forward movement that has much in common. In many of the more backward countries, the suffrage is being broadened and the people are playing a more influential part in governmental affairs. The fact that personal liberty calls for more interference on the part of the state is quite generally recognized. It is not the old-time marauder who waylays his victim with a club against whom protection is needed so much as the superior cunning and unscrupulousness of a certain type of the modern man of affairs. In every progressive country, the community is now doing things which the common man once attended to himself. The individual is becoming more dependent upon the state to safeguard him against monopoly, foul air, impure milk, adulterated food and unsanitary plumbing, and to insure him against the contingencies of sickness, unemployment, accident and old age. The duty of protecting the individual against unduly long hours of labor and unwholesome conditions while at work, of preserving him from improper amusements in his leisure moments, and of supplying him with the educational facilities necessary to start him properly in life and to meet his mental and esthetic needs in his mature years is devolving more and more upon the state. There is a concerted movement to give the man who has been worsted in life a chance to get upon his feet and regain his self-respect. The growing density of population and its concentration in cities are socializing the production of certain things with which the individual has commonly supplied himself. Many European cities have municipalized the supply of water, light and local transportation. The Cincinnati board of health took over the ice plants of the city during the strike last summer. The federal government has established postal savings banks and a parcels-post, and government ownership and operation of the telephone, telegraph and railway are spreading throughout the world.
Another evidence that the present trend of affairs is not far amiss is that men seldom break things as they are without just cause. The power of custom and tradition is strong. The religion or politics of most men is a birthright. The keen joy which the partisan of any cause experiences comes partly from being one of a multitude. The average man feels a sense of loss without a political party. There is an element in human nature which craves authority. Obedience is easier than disobedience. Many men instinctively crave direction. One function of dogma is to relieve people from the disagreeable necessity of doing their own thinking. The raison d'être of the political boss lies partly in relieving the community from a lot of trouble. The extraordinary longevity of the Roman Catholic Church indicates that it ministers to something fundamental in human nature. As James Bryce says:
At first blush, the difficulty of solving the problems of the day seems a good argument against popular government. But second thought points to just the reverse conclusion. The frequency with which men vote according to their interests rather than according to reason makes it well to give the mass of men a voice in affairs to protect them from oppression. What state or section would be willing to entrust its interests to the remainder of the country? Likewise, what reason is there to suppose that the interests of any class will receive as much consideration if it is disfranchised as if it has the ballot? Would the Irish or the Scandinavian elements in our population receive as much political recognition if they did not have votes? Now that women vote in a number of states, there is some chance that an amendment to the federal constitution granting the ballot to women will be submitted to the legislatures of the several states. The disfranchisement of the negro in certain states has been followed by a movement to segregate the school funds. But altogether aside from this, the judgment of the untutored mind is often worth taking into account in solving social problems. When one considers the sophistry with which many men of reputed intelligence habitually deceive themselves and others upon the tariff, one feels encouraged to appeal to the good sense of the common man. The results frequently justify the appeal. What class is so well qualified by experience to know the evils of ill-ventilated workshops, dangerous machinery and unsanitary tenements as the working class? The associations of the professional man, the merchant or the large manufacturer tend to produce a class spirit that precludes any great familiarity with the common lot. The initiative for much of the legislation that has lightened the burdens of those who toil has been supplied by organized labor. "I see no reason why the rule of the majority should be the rule of ignorance, unless they are not only ignorant but fools," remarks Professor Cooley.
The sentiments of justice, liberty, truth and patriotism are especially strong among the masses. The spirit of brotherhood manifested in acts of kindness and service to those in need is more prevalent among the poor than among the rich. It was the common people in New England who carried through the Revolution. The men of wealth and standing were largely against it. The Tories everywhere consisted chiefly of men of property. The masses in England "upheld abolition in the colonies and sympathized with the North in the American Struggle." If we are to have a narrow suffrage, to what portion of society shall it be restricted? Shall we entrust our currency solely to the bankers or the political economists? There is no class whose mental horizon and sympathies are broad enough to control the destinies of the state. In the opinion of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, there has never been a period since the American people gained their independence when control of the nation by its highly educated men alone would not have been a calamity. So unfriendly a critic of democracy as Lecky remarks:
Universal suffrage in practise has worked much better than many of its opponents have predicted. The dire predictions of Macaulay in 1857 are a striking example. Our "fertile and unoccupied land" is practically gone. Parts of New England are "as thickly peopled as old England." We have our "Manchesters and Birminghams." Periods of economic distress have come and gone. At times a multitude of people "has not had more than half a breakfast" or expected "more than half a dinner," but the poor have not plundered the rich, nor has civilization been saved at the price of liberty. The demagogue has asked "why anybody should be permitted to drink Champagne and to ride in a carriage, while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries," and yet we have not been ravished by the Huns and Vandals engendered within us. No Cæsar or Napoleon has seized "the reins of government with a strong hand."
A wide suffrage is a mental stimulus to the whole community. By abolishing everything that smacks of caste in voting, it arouses in the common man a desire to better his social and economic condition. It promotes an interest in public affairs. It helps the newspapers to keep the public mentally receptive. It fosters a system of education at public expense which begins at the kindergarten and ends with the university. It makes for the amelioration of social conditions. It discourages the growth of an educated aristocracy. It puts the more enlightened under the necessity of persuading the less enlightened to its way of thinking, a work that is no less helpful to the former than to the latter. It helps to widen the circle of readers and stimulates the popularization of knowledge. The market for the numerous books and periodicals that are published to-day depends in part upon universal suffrage. The rule of the people does not necessarily mean government by either the most ignorant or the most enlightened, but it raises the general level of intelligence.
The right to vote has a sobering effect. It arouses a sense of responsibility. It develops self-respect. It makes for patriotism. It gives the foreign-born a sense of oneness with ourselves. It deprives violent men of any valid excuse for violence. It gives zest to freedom of discussion. The right to talk relieves the feelings of the man who talks. The right to vote offers a remedy for all grievances real and imaginary. Neither the reckless utterances of the strike leader nor those of the politician should be taken too literally. The responsibility of office usually sobers the latter, and the former, if placed on the police force, often proves a staunch defender of law and order.
A democratic suffrage is manifestly not suited to every stage of civilization. The wholesale enfranchisement of the negro by the fifteenth amendment was probably a mistake. It is notorious that many of the Latin-American peoples have never achieved anything more than a paper democracy. It is said that Venezuela has averaged one revolution a year during the last thirty years and that one is now six months overdue. Such highly unstable societies exemplify not the rule of the many, but the tyranny of the few. It is as patent, however, that we have progressed beyond the kindergarten stage in democracy as that certain other peoples have not yet reached that stage.
Probably there is no better evidence of this than that supplied by the state of Wisconsin. In freeing themselves from the humiliation of corporate rule, in subjecting the railways of the state to public control, in regulating the public service corporations, in distributing the burden of taxation more equitably, in electoral reform, in articulating the state university with the administration of public affairs, and in bringing the services of experts to the aid of the state, the people of Wisconsin have manifested excellent self-control and have conclusively demonstrated their capacity for self-government. The steady growth in popular favor of the state universities of the entire central west is a most reassuring fact. Dependent upon taxation for support and administered by boards elected directly by the people, they have successively raised their standards of admission, greatly increased their enrollments, developed graduate and professional schools, and toned up the secondary schools. In their standards of scholarship, several of them have become the rivals of the older institutions that rest upon private foundations in the east. There has been uncertainty at times, but the open discussion by which these institutions have won their way gives them a most promising future. To what more exacting test could democracy be subjected?
A wide suffrage does not do away with the need of leadership. Only the exceptional man can express the feelings and thoughts of the multitude. Because one man counts as much as another at the ballot box, it does not follow that this is true in the formation of public opinion. There are individuals who contribute in a conspicuous way to the process. The contributions of the masses, while enormous in the aggregate, are small per man.
On the other hand, the scrutinizing eye of the multitude lifts the plane of leadership to a higher level. In the words of Ex-President Eliot:
A new type of political leader is coming to the front, one who knows how to address himself directly to the people. The opportunity for the man who does all his work behind the closed doors of a committee room is passing. The call is for men who not only have constructive minds, but who, in addition, have the capacity for leadership and effective utterance on the stump. We are consequently witnessing a revival of public speaking. Never before have good health and a good presence been so indispensable in public life. The change that is taking place is not wholly for the better. As a result, a certain kind of quiet, unobtrusive man may be lost to the public service. Tenure of office for a time at least may be more unstable. But the prospect is that what is gained will more than compensate for what is lost. The new type of leader promises to be more stimulating, more informing, more given to discussing questions of justice, and beyond doubt more responsive to the progressive thought of the time. The man who calls other public men to account by reading their votes on the questions of the day is a valuable addition to the public service.
Popular rule may not always command the services of the most efficient men. It may content itself with mediocrity. It may even on occasion elect a crook to office, but, if so, it will not be because he is a crook. Moreover, the crook who owes his position to the people may not act like a crook at all. The people will condone many an error of judgment so long as they believe in a man's honesty. In judging our public men, it is only fair that due allowance should be made for the stinging criticism to which they are exposed. Their motives are all the time called in question, every mistake or weakness is duly noted. If men in the private walks of life were subjected to the same ordeal, many of them would not shine by comparison. Our railway and trust magnates do not always successfully withstand the searching light of criticism.
Some writers who question the wisdom of the referendum admit that the masses are shrewd judges of men. The men elected to public office correspond roughly to what the positions require. Our county and municipal offices are usually filled by rather ordinary men. The governors of the several states represent a better grade of ability. The presidency commands men of a very high order. When it comes to filling important positions, the voters usually display a good deal of sense. As our cities have grown in size and the problem of governing them has become more difficult, more capable men have been elected to municipal offices. This explains the spread of commission government. The general adoption of the short ballot would do away with the needless number of elective offices, concentrate responsibility and help to keep not only the crook, but the mediocre man out of public office. There is no weapon so deadly to dishonesty or incompetency in either public or private life as the certainty of exposure.
The fact that the people do not more frequently prefer college-bred men as their political leaders sometimes occasions regret. But the fact is not necessarily the fault of democracy. It is largely due to the newness of our environment. Life on the frontier encourages contempt for experience, lack of respect for training, a profound faith in natural qualities, and an inordinate respect for the opinions of "self-made men." It rarely suggests the need of the college-trained mind. The failure of college-trained men to gain political recognition is also due occasionally to lack of force and an assumed superiority. The man of books is often disqualified for a life of action. The gradual extension of the merit system and the growing number of experts employed in the conduct of governmental affairs indicate that democracy is not necessarily inconsistent with efficiency in the public service. In any event, an influential portion of the property-owning class is no less responsible than the working class for the manifest failures in our municipal, county, state and federal governments. The mistake of supposing that some new kind of political machinery, such as commission government, will work desirable results without the watchful eye of an intelligent electorate is not confined to any one class.
It does not follow that the services of a man who is not elevated to an elective office are lost to the country. The case of Mr. Bryan, whom an error of judgment on the silver question and the "cross of gold'"' speech brought into prominence, is a good illustration. He has never reached the presidency, but as the critic of his own as well as of other parties he has rendered the country more distinguished service than some who have reached the highest office in the gift of the people. Many of the positions of greatest influence are outside of public office. There is no occasion to despair of the influence of the educated man who can think and express himself clearly.
We may rail at "mere talk" as much as we please, but the probability is that the affairs of nations and of men will be more and more regulated by talk. . . . there can be no doubt that it is talk—somebody's, anybody's, everybody's talk. . . by which each generation comes to feel and think differently from its predecessor. No one ever talks freely about anything without contributing something, let it be ever so little, to the unseen forces which carry the race on to its final destiny. Even if he does not make a positive impression, he counteracts or modifies some other impression, or sets in some train of ideas in some one else, which helps to change the face of the world.
The late Edwin L. Godkin justly complained of the influence of the boss in our nominating system, of the decline of our state legislatures, of the prevalence of the spoils system, of the lack of public spirit, and of our failures in municipal government. These evils are still with us, but the changes that have taken place, while leaving much to be desired, have been, for the most part, in the right direction. In no respect has there been greater improvement than in the weakening of party ties and the growing influence of the independent voter. An excessive loyalty to party was one of the unfortunate results of the Civil War. In the South, voting the democratic ticket became almost a sine qua non for admission to polite society. In many northern communities, the republican party
Party loyalty within reason serves a useful purpose. It gives stability to public policy. It holds the party together for future contests. It may mean devotion to principle, if the party stands for some great cause. None-the-less, a blind devotion to party has been the bane of our politics. It has introduced the extraneous issues of national politics into our state and municipal contests. It has kept the unprincipled leader in power. It has countenanced alliances between political machines subservient to the same sinister influences. It has acted as the catspaw of the interests which participate in politics for private gain, the most consistent of non-partisans. The growing independence of the electorate is consequently a hopeful symptom. The greenback and populist movements helped to break the crust of habit in voting, whatever one may think of some of the vagaries for which they stood. The gold democrats in 1896 helped to save the country from free silver, and the independent democrats in New York City, Baltimore and Maryland have repeatedly saved the cause of good government by breaking with their party. The independent republicans in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Philadelphia have done a similar work. The independents in all parties in Toledo and Chicago have greatly improved the tone of municipal government. The results of the referenda in Ohio, Oregon and other states show a disposition on the part of the voters to discriminate. Party organizations give coherency to political action, but the influence of the independent voter is necessary to keep them within bounds.
The increase of the Socialist vote is exerting a wholesome influence, however much one may dissent from some of the cardinal points for which the party stands. It forces people to reexamine the foundations of their political faiths. It obliges the leaders of other parties to revise their platforms. It gives large numbers for the first time in their lives a political cause worthy of their devotion. Some news-dealers like to sell The New York Call for the sake of the cause which it represents. Many corner and bar-room loafers, now that they have become Socialists, are no longer purchasable on election day. A man who handled large sums of Senator Stevenson's money in Wisconsin testified that no money was used in the strong Socialist wards of Milwaukee.
The moral is clear. The remedy for our political ills lies in quickening the general intelligence and in appealing to the idealism latent in the people rather than in a narrow suffrage. The latter will not save us from the danger of corruption. A century or more ago, the suffrage was anything but democratic and yet there was scarcely any kind of political chicanery which the men then in public life did not practise. "In filibustering and gerrymandering," writes Professor McMaster, "in stealing governorships and legislatures, in using force at the polls, in colonizing and in distributing patronage to whom patronage is due, in all the frauds and tricks that go to make up the worst form of practical politics, the men who founded our State and national governments were always our equals, and often our masters."
(To be concluded)
- Hartley Withers, op. cit., p. 66.
- John Graham Brooks, "The Social Unrest," p. 235.
- Gilbert Thomas Stephenson, "Race Distinctions in American Law," passim; Frank U. Quillan, "The Color Line in Ohio," passim.
- Op. cit., Vol. II., p. 355.
- Charles Horton Cooley, "Social Organization," p. 145.
- Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "The Cowardice of Culture," Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 96, 1905, p. 483.
- Cooley, op. cit., p. 136.
- Op. cit., p. 483.
- Op. cit., Vol. I., p. 293.
- George Otto Trevelyan, "The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay," Vol. I., pp. 451-454.
- Charles W. Eliot, "American Contributions to Civilization," pp. 21-30.
- Cooley, op. cit., pp. 124-125.
- Op. cit., p. 77.
- Edwin L. Godkin, "Problems in Modern Democracy," pp. 221, 223 and 224.
- See "Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy," passim.
- Brand Whitlock, "Forty Years Of It," The American Magazine, January, 1913, p. 18.
- Charles A. Beard and Birl E. Schultz, op. cit., p. 14.