I consider the Progressive evolution in three periods, punctuated by reactions. The first was from 1900-1920, ending with the landslide election of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The second period was from 1930-1980, ending with the landslide election of Ronald Reagan. The third period was from 2000 to the present. Donald Trump certainly complicates this admittedly simplistic view, but since he never won a majority vote or re-election I do not consider him a comparative reaction to Harding and Reagan. Trump certainly lacked an ideological reaction to progressivism. Like early progressives he prided himself on a pragmatic approach; the world as he saw it.
Amity Shlaes wrote bookends to the second progressive period with The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and Great Society: A New History. William Voegeli wrote an outstanding review of these books in The New Criterion in March of 2020 titled Not So Great.
FDR had the benefit of enacting policy at the bottom of the Great Depression when almost any form of control of the chaotic economy would have been an improvement. LBJ, living in the shadow of FDR, was living in a time where the U.S. had recovered, stood as the leader to the free world, and was in the midst of post recovery boom. FDR had little to lose, LBJ had much to lose. John Kennedy understood 1963 was no longer 1933.
The phrase “Forgotten Man” was made popular by FDR but the phrase originated with William Graham Sumner of Yale University in 1884 and it meant something quite different from its use by FDR.
From its origins in the late nineteenth century through to the present day, progressivism has been “an alliance of experts and victims,” in the words of the political scientist Harvey Mansfield. Shlaes helped us understand this alliance by borrowing the title of her previous book from William Graham Sumner, the Yale University social scientist. In 1884, Sumner explored a persistent, troubling social dynamic:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or in the better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X.
Sumner’s “Forgotten Man” was C. Worse than forgotten, he was probably never thought of in the first place. “[M]any burdens . . . are laid upon” C, Sumner lamented, in that he is a victim of “the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist.”
fdr’s Forgotten Man was X, the victim of some social ill and the object of A and B’s concern. That Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign speech reintroducing the “forgotten man” to our political vocabulary became much more famous than Sumner’s lecture, and devoted not a word to anyone matching C’s description, supports Sumner’s point about the disregard for C.
Indeed, the New Deal did not forget C so much as deny his existence. The New Deal coalition was an alliance of: reformers and philanthropists, such as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (Sumner’s As); experts of the sort who populated fdr’s Brain Trust (Bs); and victims suffering privation and fear during the Great Depression (Xs), who could be counted on to elect and reelect gratefully a Democratic Party that took their grievances seriously. As Shlaes wrote in 2007, fdr “systematized interest-group politics . . . to include many constituencies—labor, senior citizens, farmers, union workers. [He] made groups where only individual citizens or isolated cranks had stood before, ministered to those groups, and was rewarded with votes.”
For FDR the ‘Forgotten Man’ was the victim of an unfair society left behind in the capitalist economy. Only a robust central government had the power to right this wrong. For William Sumner the ‘Forgotten Man’ was one who would be required to ultimately pay for it.
Reform is seductive: the faults of the status quo are always clearly identified, but reform will only be judged by its good intentions.
Terms such a the ‘Forgotten Man’ change dramatically over time and like so many political terms require clarification when used.