The Populist and Progressive Traditions in American Politics

Ron Berger —

In his book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, historian and political commentator E. J. Dionne puts America’s current political divide in historical perspective. Its roots, he argues, go back to the era in which the United States was founded. When the founders devised the U.S. Constitution, they were concerned with establishing a government that promoted both individual and communal values. What at the time was understood to be a “republican” sensibility, they believed that the individual liberty “they so prized depended upon virtues and forms of solidarity” that could not be sustained without a commitment to “the preservation of a public life.” While they were concerned about government encroachment on individual liberty, they also allowed for substantial government involvement in the economy in order to ensure shared prosperity for all. According to Dionne, the constitutional mandate for this latter tradition can be found in the “general welfare” clause of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” (my emphasis).

The debate between Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) over the role of the states versus the federal government reflects these different strands of the American tradition. Jefferson was a believer in democratic self-rule, which also made him a supporter of states’ rights vis-à-vis the federal government because, he thought, states were closer to the people. Hamilton, on the other hand, believed that a strong national government was necessary for the development of shared prosperity. While Jefferson’s views were closely tied to an agrarian economy, Hamilton thought the country’s future laid in manufacturing and that the federal government was necessary to coordinate the emerging marketplace both within the borders of the United States and between the United States and other countries.

The issue of slavery arguably lies at the heart of this debate as it evolved in the 1800s. In the slave-holding states of the South, as Dionne notes, the fear that any expansion of the federal government would eventually allow for the abolition of slavery “led southern defenders of bondage to oppose national initiatives,” however much these initiatives might be beneficial to the nation. What this debate often misses, as we reflect upon it in the contemporary era, is that the federal government was deeply involved in the lives of the American people from the beginning of the country. Take the case of the Federal Marine Hospital System, which was signed into law by President John Adams in 1798. This law amounted to a system of socialized medicine for seaman who were injured or fell ill on the job. Additionally, the early U.S. postal service dwarfed its European counterparts in its scope and capacity to deliver mail at affordable prices-this another instance of the federal government penetrating the hinterland in ways that were central to what the nation’s founders hoped to provide to the citizenry.

Historian Brian Balogh also notes that the stark division we now assume between the public and private sectors of our society was not assumed during the early years of the country, when corporations were understood as “publicly crafted organizations granted special privileges in order to meet public service requirements.” It was only in the late 1800s, as a result of an unprecedented U.S. Supreme Court decision, that corporations were treated as private entities that retained legal rights to operate in ways not connected to the broader public good. Prior to that time, according to historian Michael Sandel, “Jefferson’s conviction that the economic life of the nation should be judged for its capacity to cultivate in citizens the qualities of character that self-government requires” enjoyed widespread support. Dionne adds that contemporary conservatives are certainly not wrong to view individual enterprise and achievement as cornerstones of the founders’ vision, but what they tend to overlook is that “these were not the only values, or even the primary values, that [were] celebrated, and that government-at the federal, state, and local levels-was an active agent in promoting national development and shared prosperity.”

Dionne also argues that contemporary conservatives who believe that the government has no role to play in regulating a market economy are the heirs to ideas that did not emerge in the United States until the so-called Gilded Age of the last three decades of the 1800s. The Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain, was an era of rapid economic growth in the industrial sector of the economy, including the mining and steel sectors, as well as the national railroad system, which allowed for the growth of commercial agriculture that needed a way to transport crops to new markets. These developments were accompanied by the emergence of corporate monopolies and rising inequality–because without government intervention the “big fish ate the little fish”–and gave rise to corporate ideologies and legal theories that postulated that corporations were persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment (which prohibited the government from depriving “persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”). In turn, these developments spawned an anti-corporate social movement, which had two distinct yet overlapping strands: populism and progressivism. It is to these movements that I now turn.

What is Populism?

Contemporary use of the term “populism” has varied meanings, but populism as a historical movement has its roots among disaffected farmers of the 1870s and 1880s who were concerned about falling crop prices and rising production costs. Their grievances were most pointedly directed at the excessive transportation and interest rates charged by railroad operators and bank lenders, respectively, and they called for greater government regulation of these industries.

In the 1890s an alliance of farmers joined with worker and other reform-minded groups to form the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, to advocate on behalf of the “common people” vis-à-vis the elite. These populists not only called for more government regulation, but also for a graduated income tax, a shorter workday, and electoral reforms such as the secret ballot and direct election of senators (rather than election by state legislatures).

This coalition was also instrumental to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Trusts were essentially cooperative business arrangements that circumvented competition in the economic marketplace, and the Sherman Act prohibited such arrangements if they resulted in a restraint of trade (including cooperative agreements to fix prices) or the monopolization of an industry. More generally, the Sherman Act was an expression of the view that government intervention was necessary for the preservation of economic competition. As economist Robert Reich recently observed, the notion of a “free market” independent of government is a myth. Without government defining the rules of the economy, the marketplace devolves into “a contest for survival in which the largest and strongest typically win.”

HD_WilliamJenningsBryan1896Although the Populist Party lasted little more than a decade, the populist movement more generally had a profound impact on the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties. In 1896 and 1900, for example, William Jennings Bryan, referred to in his day as the Great Commoner, was the Democratic nominee for president; and his platform included many populist demands (Bryan lost to William McKinley both times). Populism also overlapped with and influenced many policies associated with the Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a bipartisan movement that had proponents among both Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and Democrats such as Woodrow Wilson (more on this later).

At its core, historian Michael Kazin thinks that populism is an expression of “profound outrage” against elites, be they economic or political elites, who ignore, corrupt, and/or betray “the core ideal of American democracy.” Although this outrage may have no particularly ideological direction-that is, it may be true of people across the political spectrum-populism’s appeal to “the people” has often imbued it with common prejudices regarding racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and other minority groups. As sociologist Daniel Bell observed, “Social groups that are dispossessed invariably seek targets on whom they can vent their resentment, targets whose power can serve to explain their dispossession.” This form of populism, which is characteristic of the political right, does not share the social change objectives of its left-wing counterpart.

Reflecting on the contemporary political scene, some analysts view the Tea Party as a right-wing populist movement that has been co-opted by conservative moneyed interests that favor tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of business, and privatization of public programs. The Tea Party emerged in the context of the economic collapse of 2008 and anger over the subsequent government bailout of the “big banks.” But it was also fueled by the racial animus that followed the election of Barack Obama and the feeling among conservative white folks that they needed to “take back America.” More recently Donald Trump, who has been appealing to popular prejudices about Mexican immigrants and Muslims, has become the most vocal figure on behalf of right-wing populism.

On the left side of the political spectrum, the Occupy protest movement, which peaked between September 2011 and February 2012, heightened public awareness about the growing economic inequality that plagues our country and popularized the distinction between the “99 percent” and the “1 percent.” Around that time Elizabeth Warren, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, also emerged as a key figure in this movement by speaking out against the “big banks” and other “powerful interests” that have captured our government and rigged the system in their favor. Similarly, Bernie Sanders has positioned his presidential campaign in opposition to the “billionaire class” and is calling for the break-up of the large banks that are “too big to fail,” mitigating the corrosive influence of Wall Street financial speculation, and getting the “big money” that is corrupting our democracy out of politics.

People in the Wisconsin grassroots community will also recognize the populist strain of Mike McCabe’s Wisconsin-based “Blue Jean Nation” movement. McCabe likes to call himself a “commoner,” which he contrasts with the “royals,” eschewing conventional political labels and calling out both Republicans and Democrats for their failure to represent the common folk. Rather than framing politics as a matter of left or right, McCabe thinks we should think vertically: “The definitive question in today’s politics is not whether you are standing with those on the left, right or middle; it is whether you are with those on the top or bottom or somewhere in between.”

What is Progressivism?

As noted, populism overlapped with and influenced the Progressive Movement. According to John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress, social and economic justice and a nation of opportunity for all “will be achieved only with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest.” He contrasts this with liberalism, which advocates social reforms that provide a “safety net” for people in need but has focused primarily “on preserving human liberty and autonomy and protecting individual rights against encroachment by the state or society.”

Whereas populism had a historical base among the rural populace, progressivism had an urban bent. In addition to reforming the working conditions of those who labored in the manufacturing sector of the economy, progressivism aimed to improve the lives of urban dwellers, focusing on public sanitation, public education, healthcare, criminal justice, political corruption, and the development of voluntary community organizations. On the national level, it advocated for more effective antitrust enforcement, food and drug regulation, women’s suffrage, an end to child labor, environmental conservation, and progressive income taxation.

Importantly, Dionne notes, “For progressives, there was no sharp separation between the local and national, between charitable work and political work. Progressives such as Jane Addams were nudged toward political action when they concluded that one-on-one social work was insufficient to alleviate the dire conditions that existed in the neighborhoods in which they worked.” This observation is reminiscent of what Barack Obama first learned as a community organizer in Chicago before he embarked on his political career.

Teddy RooseveltIronically, in this day and age, it was a younger generation of Republicans, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, who first advanced progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Invoking Lincoln, Roosevelt said that the former president was “for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict, the man before the dollar.” As governor of New York, Roosevelt worked to separate the government from the businesses that had formerly controlled it by strengthening civil service laws and cracking down on filthy, exploitative sweatshops; and he forced businesses such as street car enterprises that operated in the service of the public to pay taxes they had previously avoided.

Roosevelt was President William McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate on the ticket that won the election in 1900. When McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist six months after his second inauguration, Roosevelt became president. In his first speech before Congress, in the words of historian Heather Cox Richardson, Roosevelt said that the “government should start cleaning up factories and limiting the working hours of women and children, and it should husband natural resources for everyone rather than allowing them to be exploited by greedy businessmen.”

To be sure, Roosevelt was no radical or socialist. He believed that economic concentration in a capitalist system was inevitable and his ultimate goal was not to break up large corporations but rather to supervise and regulate them. Importantly, he sought transparency, that is, he believed that if the public really knew how corporations operated, they would demand more accountability from business leaders.

Roosevelt was re-elected in 1904, the only time he won a presidential election when he was at the top of the ticket. During his subsequent term of office, he read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of the horribly unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry, and he pressured Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Insofar as Sinclair’s book had triggered a dramatic drop in meat sales due to the loss of public confidence, the larger corporations in that industry actually supported the legislation because government inspection of meat served to restore this eroded confidence. Smaller companies, however, were unable to absorb the additional cost of regulatory compliance and were put out of business.

Ironically, therefore, some attempts to regulate capitalism actually help large corporations consolidate their control of the economy. As Dionne writes, “It would not be the last time that capitalism was saved not by its most unapologetic enthusiasts but by critics who understood the system’s imperfections and inadequacies and saved it from itself.”

Roosevelt did not run for reelection in 1908, and a more conservative Republican, Howard Taft, won the presidency. “A national government,” Taft declared, “cannot create good times . . . but it can, by pursuing meddlesome policy, attempting to change economic conditions, and frightening the investment of capital, prevent prosperity and a revival of business which might otherwise have taken place.” According to historian John Milton Cooper, Taft “marked an early step toward the ideological transformation of the Republican Party” in a more conservative direction from that point forward.

Progressive Republicans were disappointed with Taft’s conservatism, and as the 1912 presidential election approached, they turned to Roosevelt to revive their political aspirations. But Roosevelt was unable to dislodge Taft, who received his party’s nomination, and he and his followers decided to mount a third-party campaign, forming the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, because of Roosevelt’s reputation as a big-game hunter.

It is important to note that progressivism was a bipartisan movement, and on the Democratic side Woodrow Wilson, who served as governor of New Jersey, was the most prominent of the early progressives to reach the presidency, winning the election in both 1912 and 1916 while campaigning for a stronger federal government, antitrust enforcement, and labor rights.

In some ways, at least rhetorically, Wilson was a more strident opponent of corporate concentration than Roosevelt. As he asked, in an effort to distinguish himself from Roosevelt, “Have we come to a time when the President of the United States or any man who wishes to be President must doff his cap in the presence of high finance and say, ‘You are our inevitable master, but we will see how we can make the best of it?'” And he warned that the United States was nearing “the time when the combined power of high finance would be greater than the power of the government.” In the current Democratic presidential campaign, it is fair to say that Hillary Clinton has fashioned her claim to progressivism in the manner of Theodore Roosevelt, whereas Bernie Sanders has fashioned himself in the tradition of Wilson.

Before concluding this article, it is worth mentioning the contribution of Wisconsin’s Robert La Follette, the heir to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive Party and the man whom Franklin Roosevelt acknowledged as an inspiration for his own reform-minded agenda.

Robert_M._La_Follette_Sr._cph.3b20076La Follette, as a member of the Republican Party, was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1885 and to the governorship in 1890. From 1906 to 1925 he represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. During this period he was the most important figure in Wisconsin politics and helped make the state one of the most progressive in the nation. Those of us who are familiar with this history are all the more saddened by the current political climate in our state.

In 1912 La Follette had been a serious contender for the Republican Party nomination for president, and in 1924 he broke with his party-which nominated the conservative Calvin Coolidge, who won the election-and ran as the Progressive Party candidate, with the endorsement of the Socialist Party, receiving 17 percent of the national vote. His campaign platform, in the words of journalist John Nichols, “called for government takeover of the railroads, elimination of private utilities, easier credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, the right of workers to organize unions, [and] increased protection of civil liberties,” and he pledged to “break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people.”


The populist and progressive traditions in American politics prefigured many of the reforms that were enacted through Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies of the 1930s. It was during that era, for example, that the National Labor Relations Act was passed, which for the first time guaranteed the right of workers to organize labor unions.

In addition, the Glass-Steagall Act was passed, which created a wall of separation between traditional commercial banks, which receive deposits that are insured by the federal government and lend money to borrowers, and investment banks, which raise uninsured capital for risky high-stakes investments, trade in stocks and other financial securities, and manage corporate acquisitions and mergers. (In an alliance between President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress, Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999. Currently Bernie Sanders favors reinstatement of Glass-Steagall while Hillary Clinton does not.)

During the 1930s, too, federal regulatory law was expanded with the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Federal Housing Administration, among other agencies. And the first incarnation of social security was passed, providing financial support for the elderly, the unemployed, widows, the blind, and destitute children and children with disabilities.

According to Dionne, the New Deal “accepted and fostered a cooperative connection between government and the private economy. It understood government’s role as constructive, and assigned government a moral responsibility.” As Franklin Roosevelt himself said, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The New Deal and the policy heirs to this legacy, which included Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s, saved capitalism for several decades. By providing needed reforms and helping to build the American middle class, it arguably prevented the desperation that gave rise to the authoritarian and fascist movements that emerged in Europe in the 1930s. At the same time, it also stunted the development of a viable socialist movement in the United States, or what Europeans generally call social democracy and Bernie Sanders calls democratic socialism.

Up until the 1970s, corporate leaders tended to view themselves as having a moral responsibility to balance the claims of stockholders, employees, and the general public. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, this is no longer the case. These leaders and the political class that does its bidding no longer believe they have a responsibility to provide for shared prosperity, or in the words of our Constitution’s Preamble, to “promote the general welfare.” And a large portion of the citizenry, whether by intention, inattention, apathy, or despair, is no longer trying to make them do so. It is our task and responsibility to future generations to try to change this state of affairs.


Thanks to Jeff Berger, Charles Cottle, Richard Haney, and Randy Stoecker for their feedback on this article.


Brian Balogh. 2009. A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel Bell (ed.). 1963. The Radical Right. New York: Doubleday.

John Milton Cooper. 2009. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Knopf.

E. J. Dionne Jr. 2012. Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. New York: Bloomsbury.

Michael Kazin. 1995. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Mike McCabe. 2014. Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics. Mineral Point, WI: Little Creek Press.

John Nichols.  1999. “Portrait of the Founder, Fighting Bob La Follette.” The Progressive, vol. 63, issue 1.

Barack Obama. 2004. Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Broadway.

John Podesta. 2008. The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country. New York: Crown.

Robert Reich. 2015. Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. New York: Knopf.

Heather Cox Richardson. 2014. To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. New York: Basic Books.

Michael Sandel. 1996. Democracy’s Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Theda Skocpol & Vanessa Williams. 2012. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press.

5 thoughts on “The Populist and Progressive Traditions in American Politics

  1. This is a useful start of something! A few quick thoughts. I lay them out impulsively here. 1) The mention of Hamilton and Jefferson brought Washington to my mind as a third option. Washington was able to keep his promise to free the humanity at Mt Vernon, and I have found that more interesting than jeffersonian principles at times, and promises unkept. 2) This brought Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights to my mind as well. She discusses the relation between american and french experiments that might be valuable in this discussion, namely the status of “Declarations about universal humanity. 3) Concerning populism and progressivism I wonder if any of us see regional contexts as important. I think the Wisconsin connection is fascinating. I also recall William Cronon’s history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, which may be helpful in this way. As well as George Packer’s Blood of Liberals which gives a southern perspective on generational responses.

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  2. Richard Haney asked me to post his comment for him:

    Robert La Follette and Teddy Roosevelt were hostile to one another, and it had nothing to do with ideology. The reason was that in 1904, the Wisconsin GOP was divided between the progressives of La Follette and the “stalwarts” [their name for the conservative business wing of the party at the time] led by Senator John Spooner. There were two slates of delegates selected to go to the Republican national Convention–both pledged to the renomination of TR. The stakes were control of the Wisconsin GOP apparatus. TR sided with the Spooner Stalwarts, who were seated at the national convention—TR needed the senator more than he needed the governor. Old Bob felt betrayed. So two years later when La Follette became a US Senator, he and TR were barely on speaking terms. Then in 1912, La Follette wanted to wrest the GOP presidential nomination away from Taft, but when he was rebuffed, he ended up in the general election that year supporting the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, over both Taft and the Progressive “Bull Moose” candidate Roosevelt, even though he, La Follette, remained in the Republican Party. LaFollette then broke with Wilson over US entry into World War One. La Follette in the early 1920s was one of the cadre in the Senate who exposed the oil and bribery scandals of the Harding administration. Then in 1924 Old Bob broke with the GOP and ran an independent campaign for President against Coolidge [GOP] and Davis [Dem]. And as a side note, the Milwaukee Socialists of Victor Berger, Dan Hoan, et. al. always referred to the Wisconsin progressives as the “progress-IFs.” Within the Wisconsin progressive movement, there were even some divisions—La Follette, a Dane County farm boy, was in the rural/ag tradition of William Dempster Hoard. His successor as governor, Jim Davidson, was a Norwegian immigrant who followed Old Bob’s footsteps. Then came governor Francis McGovern, who had been may of Milwaukee, and he emphasized urban and labor issues which had always been secondary to La Follette and Davidson. I won’t even get into the progressivism of Bob Jr. and Phil La Follette, or of Gaylord Nelson, or I’d be rambling on forever.

    Another interesting tidbit. When the Wisconsin Progressives imposed a state corporate tax that required corporations to pay the same rate as individuals, the large Milwaukee Socialist contingent in the state legislature voted in solidarity with the conservative Republicans against the corporate tax. The Milwaukee Socialists, in other words, went against their own proclamations in order to support their constituent corporations. There were only a couple of Democrats in the legislature those days, and they were more conservative than the conservative Republicans at the time

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  3. No discussion of Populism is complete without at least some analysis of Andrew Jackson and his followers who founded the Democratic Party, which was the original populist movement. Were they right wing or left wing populists? In fact, they were a bit of both. The Democrats became the party of slavery, but they also represented themselves as the party of the common man–especially in contrast to the Federalists. However, the prior three administrations included two former Jefferson Republican proteges (Madison and Monroe) and one independent (John Quincy Adams) son of a Federalist. In their eyes, Madison and his Secretary of State (Monroe) had the “temerity” to reconstitute the Bank of the United States, and JQA had the nerve to advocate for federally funded education and roads, which were classic characteristics of Big Government. Besides being anti-Big Government, the Jacksonians were also anti-intellectual. JQA was a lawyer, which was considered to be a more elitist profession than slave-owning, plantation owning, and Indian slaying, which were Jackson’s professions. The Jacksonians were also upset by the shady deal that Adams made to get elected in 1824–by promising Henry Clay to make him Secretary of State. (Roll forward to 2000 when Al Gore was accused of being too intellectual to relate to the common people, and in a reverse of 1824, W got elected due to some shady shenanigans.) So, what did Jackson do? He abolished the Bank of the United States, paving the way for JP Morgan to later become the czar of Wall Street and Jackson abandoned efforts to fund roads and public education. Jackson set the stage for the Gilded Age, for which late 19th century populism became the cure. And yet, in spite of its seedy roots, the Democratic Party always did side with workers, as long as the worker had the right color of skin and ethnicity.

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  4. I would note that recent populists on the left have included the group from Texas that includes Ronnie Dugger, Molly Ivins, and Jim Hightower. More recently, it is Elizabeth Warren who clearly is in the left-wing populist mold. Additionally, I think that Bernie Sanders can be considered a left-wing populist, perhaps more so than a socialist.

    Populists on the left and socialists have often advocated the same policies, but populists typically do not advance a far-reaching program that would alter the social structure required for the institutionalization of socialist institutions. Consequently, the lure of populism (on both the right and the left) tends to disappear when economic times are good.


  5. A discussion of Monica Prasad’s The Land of Too Much: American Abundance and the Paradox of Poverty (Harvard University Press, 2012) is worthy of an extended article in its own right. Here I only want to make a few comments that are relevant to my original post on populism and progressivism. My comments below are oversimplified, because a fuller treatment would require much more thought and time. I’m also leaving out her arguments about how the populist farmers’ movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was co-opted and how this co-optation affected the trajectory of American politics.

    Prasad argues that one reason the US did not develop a welfare state comparable to Europe is progressive income taxation. In part, European countries have been able to fund their welfare states because they have a national sales tax system. European citizens are willing to tolerate this higher degree of regressive taxation because they get a lot in return, particularly in the area of government subsidies for healthcare and education. For many decades, progressive taxation in the US (without a national sales tax) funded enough government services for the middle class that a potential constituency for further expansion of the welfare state was co-opted.

    Another reform that mollified the American electorate that could afford it was the emphasis on government subsidized housing in the form of tax deductions for home mortgages. Home ownership has become a normative expectation in the US, whereas in Europe it has not. This approach began during the New Deal of the 1930s and by the 1970s, when the US was experiencing stagflation (unemployment and inflation combined), the expansion of credit from that point forward enabled many Americans to consume enough products and services to keep the economy going—at least enough to prevent a substantial political uprising.

    Prasad also notes that access to credit (including home loans) has been a prominent goal of progressive activists seeking to reform discriminatory policies that adversely affected racial/ethnic minority groups in the US. The downside of this approach was that expansion of credit, and the subsequent indebtedness it entailed, became an alternative to the expansion of the welfare state.


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