The beginning of the 20th century was marked by the unanticipated growth of the USA’s role in the world affairs as well as its regretful social problems. While the government and commercial elite struggled to extend the American power beyond the national borders, American society faced challenging issues. As the United States wallowed in racial prejudices, political corruption, and self-serving ambitions, the Progressive Era proved to be conservative in nature.
The conservatism of the US foreign and internal affairs seems to be rooted in the arrogance of the American society. A long history of survival and the domination of the Anglo-Saxon culture led to the formation of a common stereotype about the strength of the American spirit. Namely, the US citizens praised themselves for the striking determination and far-reaching ambitions. The US foreign policy in Central and South America was viewed as a particularly valuable achievement. The necessity to protect its national borders and commercial interests abroad culminated in a series of diplomatic and military interventions (Taft, 1912). The American diplomacy successfully prevented and ended several wars while applying the great unilateral efforts and participating in the multilateral mediation of conflicts between Peru and Ecuador, the Argentine Republic and Bolivia (Taft, 1912). These steps allowed the USA to acquire a reputation of the regional power while establishing the favorable image of a concerned neighbor.
Moreover, the assertive foreign policy of the USA had a theoretical background. The adherence to the national ideals of patriotism and prosperity as well as the prospects of the material benefits led to the articulation and enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (Taft, 1912). According to this concept, the protection of the US national interests required the humanitarian and military interventions in the neighboring countries, the political turmoil and social unrest in which posed a threat to American prosperity. For instance, the revolutionary events in Nicaragua threatened the safety of the US citizens and the US property on the state territory (Taft, 1912). The American government did not hesitate to send an army of 2,000 soldiers to assist the legitimate government of Nicaragua in preventing the further lawlessness (Taft, 1912). Under the conservative slogans about the national prosperity, the USA designed the diplomatic and military tools for interfering in the regional affairs.
Meanwhile, the strong focus on the growth of the US international prestige somewhat obscured the obvious lack of progress in American internal affairs. While the government’s quest for domination in the Western hemisphere and the commercial accomplishments abroad had improved the US international performance, the domestic politics became highly corrupt. In an assertive manner, American banks acquired a strong position in the neighboring countries in order to uphold the business interests of the US enterprisers on both American continents. According to Taft (1912), the foreign markets provided numerous opportunities for “the American merchant, manufacturer, and exporter” to extend their trade contacts beyond the national borders. The search for new trade routes stimulated the exploration of the Oriental market. As the national exporters “have invaded the markets of Europe and filled them almost to their capacity with American goods”, the establishment of the commercial contacts with the states of the Pacific region seemed to be a promising channel for the export of the national surplus (Beveridge, 1902). The provided examples reveal the pragmatic calculation behind the seemingly progressive steps of the USA in engaging with the world trade.
At the same time, the commercialization of American politics paved the way for corruption among the state elites. The businesslike attitude and the implementation of purely pragmatic methods in politics and government seemed to be the product of the growing influence of the commercial circles on the formation of the US domestic and foreign policy. In Steffen’s (1904) words, one might witness the common neglect towards American public matters as the typical American enterprisers showed more concern about and “beating good government with corruption funds” while encouraging the metropolitan criminal elements and preventing progressive initiatives. The mutually beneficial relations between the influential upper class, commercial circles, and corruptive state officials resulted in the numerous instances of lawlessness. The outrageous misdemeanors included the escape from conviction, purchase of the public property, bribery and self-serving operations of various banks, labor unions, and politicians (Steffens, 1904). While pursuing high living standards, Americans were inclined to neglect the laws of their country in order to advocate their conservative agenda.
Additionally, corruption appeared to be accompanied by social disparities, including class and racial inequality. The class division seemed to be the prominent feature of American society whereas the lack of political influence or massive support might grossly undermine the social well-being of entire community. For instance, the printers were successful in opposing the challenges related to the machinery innovation by means of unified actions and intelligence while maintaining their wages on the appropriate level (Kelley, 1898). In the reversed situation, the inferior position would prevent them from enjoying the benefits of financial prosperity as the lack of power and solidarity would rob them of material fortunes (Kelley, 1898). The provided example essentially illustrates the disadvantages of capitalism since the accumulation of wealth is closely associated with the level of profit and social status. Meanwhile, Roosevelt (1906) accurately pointed out that hard work and determination might not be sufficient for self-raising of untalented and unintelligent citizens. Therefore, the members of the underprivileged classes were in the painful need for assistance. This help could be provided through education and guidance whereas the cultivation of necessary skills and motivation might make “the individual, the class or the nation permanently useful to themselves and to others” (Roosevelt, 1906). In other words, the eradication of social barriers that prevented the equal prosperity of the entire nation was a next logic step. Until then, the progress in international trade and political affairs seemed to continue at the expense of the less fortunate layers of the population. At the beginning of the 20th century, the US conservative leadership clearly opposed any progressive actions regarding social reforms.
The conservatism of the US public policy becomes painfully obvious as one learns about the social status of the underprivileged groups in American society. Historically, that category included the Afro-American population that suffered from undeserved neglect and prejudices. The biased attitude towards the colored people appeared to be a common occurrence in the 20th century America. Governor J. K. Vardaman (1904) was particularly anxious to advocate the necessity of exclusion of Afro-Americans from the access to education and the governing bodies of the USA. The politician argued that the duty of the ruling white population was to continue the Anglo-Saxon tradition of keeping the racial minorities from living “in the same country with the white man on terms of social or political equality” (Vardaman, 1904). In accordance with the mentioned belief, the Afro-American population had no access to the benefits of politically and socially protected citizens. At the beginning of the 20th century, black politicians were removed from their offices while suffering the infliction of “personal insult and humiliation” (DuBois, 1913). Evidently, under the strong influence of dominating racial views, democratic values appeared to be neglected when it came to racial equality.
In conclusion, despite the seemingly progressive course of affairs, the US leadership failed to address such issues as corruption, racial discrimination, and class disparities. The provided evidence has revealed the negative features of the capitalist system since the mentioned success in the international arena came at the expense of the inferior status of underprivileged social groups. Therefore, the lack of progress and legislative initiatives highlights the triumph of conservatism during the Progressive Era.