TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Rise of American Statism

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Frederick Wertz looks at Franklin Adler’s “The Original Model of American Democracy and the Turn to Statism,” from Telos 104 (Summer 1995).

In his well-known visit to the United States, Alexis de Toqueville was particularly struck by the invisibility of the American state: “Nothing strikes a European traveler in the United States more than the absence of what we would call government or administration. One knows that there are written laws there and sees them put into execution every day; everything is in motion around you, but the motive force is nowhere apparent.” At the time of his visit, the state governments of Europe were indeed gargantuan compared to that of the newly founded state across the pond. While such a gap used to be the main distinguishing characteristic between governments of the old world and new, few would disagree that today this gap has closed significantly. For better or worse, the government of the United States has taken a decidedly statist turn from its original model.

Here is where Franklin Adler attempts to trace the development of the American state from an institution that played a minor and invisible role in American life to the larger, more ubiquitous presence that it has today. Leaving behind, for the most part, arguments in favor or opposed to a country’s governance by a large state, Adler attempts to “explore precisely how Americans responded to the generalized contingencies of modernization experienced throughout the West during the past two hundred years.” Adler insists that American statehood was not born out of influence from the states in Europe, and that state intervention in America was less extensive and happened later than in Europe.

Adler notes that it was the original laissez-faire model that contributed to the unique aspects and attitudes of the original American populace. Building off of Tocqueville, he importantly points out that the invisibility of the state resulted in a remarkable sense of self-reliance as well as reliance on one’s fellow man. This allowed people to become defined in society by “what they do” as opposed to “who they are” or where their family came from. Certainly, it is hard to ignore the fact that this attitude has proportionally faded from the American zeitgeist as the state has expanded.

The nineteenth century, full of robber barons, titans of industry, and aggressive economic and geographic expansion, was undoubtedly the century of economics. The United States transformed from a tiny agrarian nation nestled on the east coast of the continent to an expansive industrial and economic power that dominated the hemisphere. But along with this economic and territorial expansion came problems of industrial modernity that many believed a free-market system was unable to solve. Thus, just near the turn of the century, America began a shift toward state regulation from which it would not look back. Many tend to think that the first appearance of American statism was seen in the 1930s in the FDR administration’s New Deal policies.

The presidency of William McKinley is an earlier and more appropriate place to search for the beginning of American statism. Scholar Lewis L. Gould, among others, argues that McKinley was in many ways the first modern president based on his actions while in office. To help along the implementation of his policy, McKinley was the first president to speak directly to the people regarding legislation, and he cultivated an excellent relationship with media nationwide. Though historians differ as to exactly who was the first progressive president, if it wasn’t McKinley then he set the table for progressivism. Overall, he increased taxes and the size of the government, and he seized executive powers far beyond his predecessors. His expansion of executive powers paved the way for the expansion of federal power on the whole. Without many of his precedents, Theodore Roosevelt would not have been able to “trust-bust.” McKinley marks an excellent point of reference for the beginning of progressivism, statism, and the modern presidency.

Adler traces the origins of American statism to the progressive era as well. In fact, his indictment of many of the progressives themselves, in their nefarious methods pursuing some underlying goals, is enlightening and well worth reading:

One version of this era portrays progressives using the state to break-up or regulate monopolies and trusts for the common good; the image of Teddy Roosevelt walking softly and carrying a big stick. The other version views it as one where big business itself promoted regulation to undercut weaker competitors and eventually control those very state agencies set up to regulate their respective sectors. Here the fabled big stick turned out to be a juicy carrot.

Adler points out several contradictions in the political actions of progressives during the first two decades of the century, all the while tracing their important role in shaping the new American state, which came to full on scope and extension in the third decade of the century. Here we find an interesting and unique take on the transition from the century of economics to the century of politics.

There is no doubt that industrialization resulted in many problems that capitalism seemed to be unable to solve. After all, the market is a destructive force that causes everything antithetical to it to either change or be destroyed. As Adler notes, it may not be important whether or not the United States was directly influenced by Europe in its transition to state-dominated life, but the fact remains that it did undergo that transition. Adler leaves us with a greater understanding of the old America and the new America and the locus of the paradigm shift. Much if not all of contemporary political battles are waged with this ultimate question as the basis: Is state intervention necessary to keep the market under control, or has this remedy proven to be worse than the disease? Being able to form a relevant opinion begins with understanding the history of the evolution of the American state.

Read the full version of Franklin Adler’s “The Original Model of American Democracy and the Turn to Statism” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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