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The Age of Reform

In the attempts of the Populists and Progressives to hold on to some of the values of agrarian life, to save personal entrepreneurship and individual opportunity and the character type they engendered, and to maintain a homogeneous Yankee civilization, I have found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic. To say this is not to say that these values were in themselves nonsensical or bad.

The ideal of a life lived close to nature and the soil, the esteem for the primary contacts of country and village life, the cherished image of the independent and self-reliant man, even the desire (for all the snobberies and hatreds it inspired) to maintain an ethnically more homogeneous nation--- these were not negligible or contemptible ideals, and to those who felt most deeply about them their decline was a tragic experience that must be attended to with respect even by those who can share it only through some effort of the imagination.

At the so-called grass roots of American politics there is a wide and pervasive tendency to believe---I hasten to add that the majority of Americans do not habitually succumb to this tendency---that there is some great but essentially very simple struggle going on, at the heart of which there lies some single conspiratorial force, whether it be represented by the “gold bugs,” the Catholic Church, big business, corrupt politicians, the liquor interests and saloons, or the Communist Party, and that this evil is something that must be not merely limited, checked, and controlled but rather extirpated root and branch at the earliest possible moment. It is widely assumed that some technique can be found that will really do this, though there is always likely to be a good deal of argument as to what that technique is. All too often the assumption prevails among our political and intellectual leaders that the judgment of the people about such things must of necessity be right, and that it is therefore their own business not to educate the public or to curb its demands for the impossible but to pretend that these demands are altogether sensible and to try to find ways to placate them.