Private Power and American
by Grant McConnell
Vintage Books, 1966, paper
There have been many attempts to explain American politics in
terms of class, but the Marxian formulas have fared ill over the
long span. Socialism seemed for a period near the turn of the
twentieth century to be a viable movement; there are even grounds
for believing that the recording of its strength was seriously
minimized by the mechanics of the American electoral system. Nevertheless,
socialism as a movement was largely ended by 1912, though there
was a brief renewal of class thinking during the worst years of
the Great Depression, when it seemed possible that the economic
order was in a process of collapse.
The Progressive Legacy
During the two decades divided by the
year 1900 the problem of private power confronted the American
people openly on a scale unmatched in the history of the republic.
The corporation assumed its modern form and the institutions of
transportation, exchange, and finance acquired an unprecedented
influence over the affairs of ordinary men. Government appeared
to do the bidding of those who directed the new behemoths of capitalism.
A newly elected member of the United States Senate, on arriving
in Washington, was told by one of his seniors, "Young man,
tariffs are the whole of politics. Study them." This was
not just cynicism; it was the practical wisdom of a political
oligarchy whose power had endured for more than a generation.
Yet there were other political topics of concern to members of
this oligarchy. They included the control of legislatures and
cities. They touched upon the distribution of the public lands
and the content of the coinage. They bore upon the control of
labor and its unions.
The response to the emergence of this
power took different forms. By 1900 Populism, the greatest agrarian
movement the nation had known or ever would know, had collapsed.
There had been an incipient mass movement of workingmen in the
Knights of Labor, but it too had disappeared. Marxian socialism
had immigrated with the new tides of Europe's outcasts, and there
was even a native movement of anarchosyndicalism in the new Industrial
Workers of the World. These, however, were already locked in struggle
with the forces that would before long reduce them to impotence.
All of these movements were symptoms of
a deep and widespread sense of exploitation and disorder. They
centered in those segments of the population with the most specific
grievances. By the same token, however, these were groups apart
from the main current of American life in the new century. Without
doubt many people in that current, the broad middle class of increasingly
urbanized Americans, saw nothing disturbing in the rise of the
new aggregations of power. Nevertheless, the sense of an evil
turn in national development was pervasive; the public's preoccupation
with corruption was the most certain symptom. Although critiques
by the Populists, organized labor, and even the Socialists influenced
to some degree the more widespread uneasiness, it derived from
an older vision, the vision of the public good. This vision, handed
down by the founders of the republic, was one not often elaborated
or easily defined. Yet it became the point of departure for a
tradition of much importance to the development of American political
life in the twentieth century.
The movement which assumed the role of
defender of the public came after 1900. It had many aspects-so
many, in fact, that it may be misleading to place them all within
a single movement. Yet there were lines that connected them, and
without minimizing their sometimes contradictory aspects, it is
appropriate to use for them the term applied to the most conspicuous
political movement of the time, Progressivism..
Progressivism was a movement of many paradoxes.
Built on the foundations of Populism, it was yet more an urban
than a rural phenomenon; speaking in the name of the mass of men,
it was blind (when it was not hostile) to the organizations of
labor; strong in language, it was weak in action. The most important
paradox, however, was much more complicated and went to the very
heart of what the movement meant. Essentially, Progressivism was
an attack upon private power, reasserting the public's interest
and decrying the "special" interests, sometimes in extreme
terms. Yet the doctrines of Progressivism led to justification
and acceptance of the evils it set out to destroy.
Attack on "the system" has been a stock-in-trade of
radical dissenters for much of our history. Although today we
tend to associate it most commonly with Marxists, it has never
been their peculiar property. "The system" was a perception
of John Taylor of Caroline; many of the later Populists were also
convinced of its existence. It passed readily over into the thinking
of Progressivism.' This kind of explanation is partly the result
of a common attempt to understand and find order in apparent chaos.
It was also the result of a craving for simplicity, for reducing
the diversity of things to clear-cut moral issues on which clear-cut
judgments could be passed. In one way or another, however, "the
system" was rarely considered that normal and to-be-expected
web of institutions and relationships by which men are governed
and their work is given meaning. The idea was, rather, that there
existed a coherent, carefully thought out, and coordinated achievement
of a singularly gifted, secret, and selfish band of plotters.
If this type of explanation often had
its own beguiling simplicities, underlying it was a view of politics
whose latent tendencies were not fully seen during the Progressive
era, but which had important possibilities for later years. Of
the many writings on political problems that appeared during this
time, one published in 1907 best expressed the quality of the
Progressive impulse. J. Allen Smith's The Spirit of American Government
anticipated much of the argument in Charles Beard's An Economic
Interpretation of the Constitution, but, lacking the latter's
mass of factual detail, so appealing to American readers, it has
been relegated to the role of its precursor. Smith explained his
purpose: "to call attention to the spirit of the Constitution,
its inherent opposition to democracy, the obstacles which it has
placed in the way of majority rule....". Better than anyone
else he provided the theoretical foundations the ardent pragmatists
of the Progressive movement had refused to bother with.
The root of the evils with which American
political life was troubled, Smith argued, was in the Constitution
itself, and its origins went back to the nation's beginning. Some
colonial institutions and most of the system of law were inherited
from England, where they rejected the supremacy of the well-to-do
minority. During the revolutionary period there was a drift toward
democracy and a rejection of "the English theory of checks
and balances." Some of this attitude was carried over to
the government under the Articles of Confederation, but this was
followed by the Constitution, "a reactionary document."
The change was the work of wealthy conservatives, the democrats
who had signed the Declaration of Independence were very slightly
represented among the framers of the Constitution. As a result,
"democracy was not the object which the framers had in view,
but the very thing which they wished to avoid."
According to Smith, the system produced
was undemocratic in both spirit and detail. Perhaps most important
in his eyes was the difficulty of amending the Constitution. "All
democratic constitutions are flexible and easy to amend. This
follows from the fact that in a government which the people really
control, a constitution is merely the means of securing the supremacy
of public opinion and not an instrument for thwarting it."
The independence of the judiciary and its power to review legislation
were almost equally important, and these were inherently characteristics
of aristocratic government. Checks and balances operated-and were
intended to operate-against the majority will. Party, which had
developed in spite of the framers' intention, was potentially
a mechanism for insuring majority rule, but it had been so corrupted
that the choice of candidates was made in the secret councils
of the ruling minority. And in any event, party was doomed to
frustration by the separation of powers provided by the Constitution.
The general result was government by and for the wealthy interests.
In the mainstream of Progressivism, however, the problem was simpler:
to exorcise private power, rather than to oppose it with a greater.
The program of Progressivism, wherever it was found, had this
consistency: to restore honesty to government and society by returning
government to the public.
Locally, this meant essentially the same
list of reforms. Probably the first item everywhere was to exclude
the corporate interests" from politics and nearly everywhere
this meant primarily the ejection of railroad influence. The railroads,
bete noire of the Populists, were perhaps no more than the first
of the large corporations to attract public attention, but the
fact remains that almost everywhere they were deeply involved
in politics. The machine Robert La Follette set himself to unseat
was primarily the railroads."
The evidence seemed to indicate that the "special interests
" had used the party organizations (usually the Republican)
to fasten their control upon the people. Parties had provided
the machinery by which the railroads, the trusts, and the other
special interests had come to control the government. City machines
had been corrupted by businesses (both good and bad); state organizations
had fallen into the hands of men such as Philetus Sawyer and William
Herrin; the party organization of the United States Senate was
Nelson Aldrich's personal machine, working for the high tariffs
that benefited only the largest of the interests. To strike at
the interests themselves, it was necessary to change the party
system. The fault was not simply with one party; the evil was
latent in both. Whichever party was elected, the interests were
the real winners:
The people vote for one party and find
their hopes turned to ashes on their lips; and then to punish
that party, they vote for the other party. So it is that partisan
victories have come to be merely the people's vengeance and always
the secret powers have played the game.... Under this boss system,
no matter which party wins, the people seldom win; but the bosses
almost always win. And they never work for the people. They do
not even work for the party to which they belong. They work only
for those anti-public interests whose employees they are. It is
these interests that are the real victors in the end.
The general Progressive conclusion, then, was that parties were
a medium of special-interest power; to strike at the special interests
themselves involved some kind of change in the party system. The
logic of this approach was carried further in California than
perhaps anywhere else the Progressives came to power. The first
step was achievement of the initiative, referendum, and recall
in Los Angeles in 1903. In 1909 the state legislature passed a
direct primary law requiring a test of party affiliation for candidates
seeking nomination. In the "reform" legislature of 1911
the initiative, referendum, and recall were adopted for the entire
state. In that year also, the test of party affiliation for candidates
seeking party nomination was weakened. In 1913 city and county
offices were made subject to nonpartisan election. In the same
year the requirement of an affidavit of party affiliation was
removed from the Primary Act and the following statement was added:
"Nothing in this Act contained shall be construed to limit
the rights of any person to become the candidate for more than
one political party for the same office upon complying with the
requirements of this Act." This provision, the famous "cross-filing"
device, was adopted with no controversy and its significance was
hardly noted at the time, but it was not an accident; its terms
appeared at several places in the state Elections Code. Moreover,
parties were circumscribed by a set of provisions determining
their governing bodies, times of meeting, and manner of operation
so rigid and detailed that the private character of parties was
virtually destroyed. In 1915 a capstone to this anti-party legislation
was offered in a measure to make all state elective offices, including
that of governor, nonpartisan. The measure narrowly missed acceptance
in a referendum vote.
Progressivism did assert a public interest, but its vision of
this interest was never clear. Destruction of private power was
a clear enough goal, but what should take the place of such power?
If public power, how should it be organized and exercised? If
parties were to be emasculated, what would be left save government
by the expert, government in the name of a public whose multitudes
could never speak except through interest groups-the very instruments
of that hidden government whose destruction constituted the Progressive
mission? There were no answers for these questions.
In practice as well as in theory Progressivism
faltered. The antimonopoly policy was applied in desultory fashion.
The zeal for direct democracy via initiative and referendum brought
reforms, but the results were trivial beside the promise. Government
was returned to the people in some places, but where this took
place nothing was left to politics; quietism, good government,
businesslike management, administration were all that remained.
Perhaps among the Progressives, J. Allen
Smith understood the movement best. He had drawn-ruthlessly-its
fullest implications. Years later, looking back upon the movement,
he said, " The real trouble with all reformers is that we
made a crusade against standards. Well, we smashed them all and
now neither we nor anybody else have anything left."
What came of the Progressive movement? Was the result as bleak
as Smith in his disillusionment believed?
With a movement as diffuse and as frequently
contradictory as Progressivism, it is neither safe nor easy to
judge. Moreover, since the tendency best illustrated by the Progressive
movement reaches back into remoter stages of American history,
it is not always clear what is properly to be called Progressive
and what is not. Nonetheless it is certain that here was the zenith
of reform, of the impulse, in secular form, for the achievement
The simplest answer is to say that the
goal was not reached. Certainly the narratives of the preceding
pages would support such a conclusion. With some tolerance one
might add, as does Hofstadter, that catharsis was achieved, but
this is faint praise for so much effort. Such a judgment, however,
is too severe. If a fair estimate of the strictly moral aspects
of the republic's health were to be made, it might very well show
that in the years since the muckrakers were hardest at work corruption
has greatly declined. Dismissal of Progressivism would also be
mistaken on a different and probably more important score. The
movement was too strong and of too long duration to be without
effect. Moreover, as suggested earlier, it was not itself something
discontinuous with the American past, but rather the intensification
of an important trend in this country's politics. A generation
of political dissidents was schooled in the Progressive era. Its
leaders were in eclipse for almost two decades, but enough of
them survived to join the next burst of reform when it came with
the New Deal. In a multitude of ways the reforming ideas of the
first decade of the twentieth century found their way into the
actions of the fourth decade.
Actual consequences, however, are sometimes
different from those intended. Some factors impinging upon a situation
may not be taken into account, those that are may be misunderstood.
So it would seem with the Progressive hostility toward parties.
To a remarkable degree this hostility and the "reforms"
it engendered were successful in impeding the development of party
systems, most strikingly in California. The measures the Progressives
wrote into the California elections code went far to make efforts
to develop party organization sterile-as intended. Only in the
1950s when the most stringent of these measures were repealed
and the Progressive program circumvented by extralegal organization
parallel to the emasculated official party forms did that state
begin to have a genuine party system. In this sense Progressivism
had succeeded, but it had based its program upon the theory that
the political machine to be smashed was a party machine. In retrospect,
however, it can be seen that the actual machine was purely a creature
of the Southern Pacific and a few allied interests, not a party
machine. Moreover, the conditions created by the anti-party "reforms"
were at least as favorable to the growth of new pressure-group
machines as any previously existing. Such a machine developed
under the leadership of Arthur Samish, whose tenure of power was
not broken until 1949, when a popular national magazine gave wide
publicity to some very rash statements Samish made, and the Internal
Revenue Service secured his conviction on tax charges. The program
designed to prevent political bossism and corruption only the
more surely produced his machine.
But J. Allen Smith was correct in a more
important sense. The administrative sphere of government has grown
enormously in the years since the height of Progressivism. A long
list of new administrative agencies has been added to those heralded
early in the century as the scientific solution to the problem
of ensuring the public interest. Some, like the Federal Communications
Commission, the Civil Aeronautics Board, and the National Labor
Relations Board, are modeled on the ICC and the Wisconsin commissions.
These appointive, determinedly nonpartisan bodies were to be the
solution to the dilemmas of Congress when it was faced with the
problem of regulation in highly technical and complicated areas.
But almost nowhere were these commissions equipped with guides
to their conduct other than the very general Congressional admonition
that their rules and decisions should be "in the public interest",
and the "science". La Follette thought he saw at work
in his own Wisconsin commissions has failed to develop to fill
the void. The evils which the Legislative Oversight Committee
found in the late 1950S were not intended, but it is not altogether
unthinkable that they might have been foreseen long before they
were exposed. The lack of principled guides to action led to a
sense of the arbitrary character of the situation. In sheer self-defense,
if nothing else, the commissioners were forced into a search for
accommodation, and accommodation slipped imperceptibly into corruption.
Nor was the situation different in the
ordinary agencies of government. The severity of the problem differed
from bureau to bureau, but the effects of weaknesses in the Progressive
attitude are to be seen in many places. They became clearest,
perhaps, in that great administrative creation of Progressivism,
the United States Forest Service, where virtual autonomy was achieved
within a departmental structure and the demand for extreme administrative
discretion was clothed in an appeal to science and a policy without
standards-the so-called "multiple-use policy." Inevitably,
with the formal channels of responsibility all but closed and
with no effective or certain guides for action other than those
personal to the administrators, the Forest Service developed its
own informal lines of responsibility, its own political ties to
a particular constituency. In short, simple insistence upon the
virtue of administrators as wardens of the public interest led
deviously but certainly to ties with the special interests, opposition
to which had been the point of Progressive beginnings.
The object of most persistent concern for Americans as they have
confronted the existence of strong interest groups in their midst
has been the public interest. At times this concept has seemed
vivid, as though it were etched against the horizon and clear
for all to behold, standing in contrast to the sometimes insistent,
sometimes devious demands of particular and special interests.
Occasionally, it has seemed that the public interest was almost
wholly defined by antithesis to these special interests, especially
in earlier and simpler times, when the rapacity of railroads,
bankers, land speculators, and all their kind was crudest and
most glaring. It was self-evident in the Progressive era, when
the promise of science in government and administration seemed
brightest and "the greatest good for the greatest number
in the long run" meant very simply that the people wanted
what was good for them as revealed by the emerging administrative
science. In even simpler terms, it was the vision against which
the sordid practices of lobbyists from the National Association
of Manufacturers early in the century down to the influence peddlers
of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were measured and
Gradually, however, the vision grew hazy
and indistinct. Little action came out of the recurrent investigations
of lobbying; the public indignation that each time seemed so strong
soon cooled, and the scandals that developed every few years invariably
were quickly forgotten. The reason for failure of congressional
and public indignation to produce significant reform was in part
the hard rock of the First Amendment and its guarantee of the
right to petition the Congress for redress of grievances. In practice,
the hallowed principle of liberty of expression seemed to give
great favor to all the special interests but none to the public
interest. But there were also growing doubts that the public really
cared for what was presumably in its own interest. Thus, for example,
a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, after watching
the failure of efforts to generate public support for tax reform
in 1963, remarked, "The average American doesn't mind other
people having their own loopholes-he only cares about getting
... the California Senate ... has offered the contrast of one
district in the Sierra with less than 15,000 voters electing one
senator, and Los Angeles County with more than 6,000,000 voters
also electing one senator.
Inasmuch as the legislatures controlled Congressional redistricting,
the Court's refusal to deal with inequitable districting for state
legislatures was tantamount to placing all districting beyond
One of the unpleasant realities of government is its frequent
I and great preoccupation with war. In the modern era this preoccupation
has extended over more years than we like to acknowledge. It is
an almost ingrained conviction that the conditions of war or preparation
for war are abnormal, whereas those of peace are normal. Nevertheless,
war and the possibility of war have heavily influenced the character
of government in the United States. They have also profoundly
affected the pattern of relationships of business with government.
The years of crisis and near-crisis, although aberrations in life
as we would wish it, have been integral parts of OUT history and
have left a stamp upon institutions that will not soon be erased.
Among the many changes wrought by the influence of war is a much
closer meshing of business and government, involving a major part
of the directorate ~f the economy. And under modern conditions,
the economy is intrinsic to war itself.
World War II was very different from World
War I. It was greater in scale, American participation was bigger,
and the period of preparation (however inadequate) was bigger.
American industry and the American economy were vastly greater.
Moreover, the experience of mobilization in the first war lay
behind mobilization in the second. Despite all the differences,
however, the fundamental political problems of mobilization were
the same for both wars. In the organization of the economy it
was essential to enlist the cooperation of industrial leaders,
whoever they might be. Whoever had power that could obstruct had
to be co-opted. There was no time to discover and train new managers
of industry, even had this been desired. All thought of social
reform had to be postponed before the urgency of immediate production.
Given the conditions and the necessities of the time, there can
be little criticism of the determination to subordinate other
considerations to the objective of maximum production of war material.
Yet in the second war, as during World War I, this determination
and the basic political decisions that followed from it had a
strong influence in the set of political currents that continued
after he ultimate victory.
Power is an exceedingly diverse and complex
phenomenon in America. Almost everywhere elusive to analysis,
it is especially so in the greatest of the democracies. The theories
about its nature, its sources, and its holders are varied, and
some are deeply at odds with others. At one extreme is a view
that power is highly concentrated in the hands of an elite the
unity of which has steadily been growing and which acts largely
without regard to the supposed values of a liberal society. In
its most recent form, this has been termed a "power elite,"
woven of the highest leadership of the large corporations, the
government, and the military. The great decisions are made in
these higher circles and what lies beyond their reach-or, perhaps,
concern-is unimportant. At the other extreme is the view that
power is so scattered, balanced, and counterbalanced as to be
almost nonexistent; what it amounts to is no more than a bewildering
array of "veto groups," each having the capacity to
block the ventures of the others.
Some evidence can be cited for each of
these differing views. The exchange of posts between industrial
and military leaders has been noted by many observers since the
end of World War II. President Eisenhower gave this often close
relationship special emphasis when, on leaving offlce, he warned
of a "military-industrial complex" which might take
complete control of government.