Lessons from 110 Years Ago – When Democracy Worked


In Teddy Roosevelt’s time things were no doubt worse than they are now. For one thing, the advances of the progressive era had not yet been enacted. In fact, it was so bad that things we take for granted, like the safety and wholesomeness of our food and medicines, were completely up to the manufacturers with virtually no laws, rules or oversight – it was completely buyer beware. Business combinations, trusts, could run roughshod over competitors and customers. The plutocracy, exemplified by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, existed in a laissez faire nirvana acting with complete impunity.

Government was generally expected to do nothing that could get in the way of business interests and entrepreneurs – low to no taxes, no regulations and high tariffs on imported goods were the rule of the day. Legislatures and courts were as elitist as you can imagine, pretty much handpicked by parties and their big pockets benefactors. The U.S. Senate was still picked entirely by often corrupt state legislatures rather than direct election. Imagine, if you will how easy it is, even today, for wealthy interests to elect anonymous puppets to a state legislature. In that time those puppets then turned around and chose the 100 most powerful legislators in the country. It was the libertarian utopia that modern anti-government activists talk about as if it had never existed (and was a nightmare). Except then such activists were just called “conservatives” and their job was the protect the status quo.

Every injustice and horror that exists today existed then in spades. The squalor of the tenements, the horrible working conditions of the sweatshops, cities rife with crime, run by party bosses and separated by racial animus, streets putrid with horse excrement, diseases rampant due to poor sanitation and tainted food supplies, labor unrest leading to murder and mayhem, etc.

But in that period from 1902-1909 there was furious action to make things better despite the opposition of powerful entrenched interests.

How did reformers and progressives successfully fight such powerful interests in both parties? Because of the pressure from an aroused public informed by the magnificent work of the muckraking reporters and writers of the period.

Fearless magazines like McClure’s and realist novelists like Upton Sinclair used meticulous reporting to open people’s eyes to the corruption of the political rackets, the unethical business practices of the trusts, the railroads, meat packing plants.

Ida Tarbell’s series of articles exposing the unethical business practices of Standard Oil in McClure’s.

Lincoln Steffens’ series of articles (“The Shame of the Cities”) exposing vast political corruption in different cities in McClure’s.

Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” exposing the unsanitary conditions in meat processing.

Mark Sullivan’s articles in Collier’s exposing the fraud and collusion of patent medicine businesses.

William Allen White’s profiles of powerful politicians in McClure’s.

People all over the country read these works of investigative journalism and reacted by pressuring their representatives to adopt laws to redress these perceived injustices and violations of the public trust. Voters responded and were able to elect progressive slates of candidates that promised to enact such legislation or pressure less progressive pols into supporting these initiatives out of fear.

The Elkins Act (1902) was the first serious pierce of legislation to regulate the nation’s railroads. The railroads were the lifeblood of commerce. They could make or break businesses depending on the rates they chose to charge. The Elkins Act imposed fines on railroads that gave favored rates to businesses. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had been using the railroads to drive their competitors out of business through rebates and favorable rates.

The Hepburn Act (1906) went further than the Elkins Act to regulate railroad rates and set maximums for bridge tolls, ferries and oil pipelines.

The Meat Inspection Act (1906) began a federal meat inspection regimen at processing plants.

The Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) allowed federal inspection of food and medicine, banned the sale of impure food and the mislabeling of food and medicine.

Use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to prosecute Standard Oil and break it up into 7 smaller companies (which later became Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, etc.).

Creation of the Dept. of Commerce and Labor (1903) to investigate and regulate corporate malfeasance.

None of these actions were given a snowball’s chance when first proposed. Teddy Roosevelt’s administrations (much like his one term as Governor of NY) were defined by a constant struggle to address issues of injustice and inequality animating a movement for change though legislation or the creation of regulatory bodies. In each instance the various initiatives encountered fierce political opposition from the economic elite and their puppets in government. These political actors and business interests either (a) did not want to change their ways, (b) did not want to give up power, or (c) stood ideologically opposed to governmental action on constitutional grounds. Sound familiar?

My reading of history tells me that nothing really changes. The Tea Party has always existed in one name or another.

The difference between that era and today is that duly elected lawmakers felt the pressure to vote for legislation that they may have been personally against. They felt that they could not afford to go against the public tide. Today it feels like lawmakers can ignore the people because they feel they can mold public opinion, beat back the tide, muddy the water and most importantly squelch the vote.

The egregious uses of gerrymandering, the perversion of campaign finance since Citizen’s United, the increasingly ideologically based rationales of one of the two major parties, and the unreliable nature of the voting public are putting our modern political process in a state of stasis. Politicians will not listen to the voices of the people over the voices of their corporate masters until they’re certain that those voices for change will come to the ballot box. That is frustrating when a nation needs bold action to face down profound issues of governance.

It would have driven Teddy absolutely crazy.

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