The impulse for reform is everpresent in American political culture. The United States as a country owes its foundation to appeals and, eventually, demands for the reform of British administration in the colonies. Since the American Revolution and foundation of the US government, there has been a seemingly endless stream of reform movements, from abolitionism to women's rights to civil rights. All of these movements can be seen within the context of a general striving for a more perfect society; however, people's visions and ideals differ, leading to tensions, debate, and political struggle.
While there have been certain periods when the reform impulse has intensified, such as during the Age of Reform in the 1830s and 1840s (see the corresponding link below) or during the Progressive Era (see the corresponding link below), the impulse for reform has always been present in American culture and politics. Today is no exception. An examination of these previous eras of reform can help provide insights into reform movements (and their causes) at the present time and their prospects for success.
If we look into the past, we see many of the same debates resurfacing, though never in exactly the same form. The questions posed above need to be examined individually as they pertain to each separate reform issue; to address reform as a whole would be to oversimplify the complexity of American culture, society, and politics. Furthermore, reform rarely comes without calls for counter-reform, so reformist impulses run in both directions. Determining what is the initial impulse and what is the reaction can be difficult.
One of the current impulses is immigration reform, for which we find analogs during previous periods in US history. For example, in the late 1790s, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it easier to deport foreigners and created additional impediments for immigrant participation in politics. In the late 1800s, many Americans began to blame immigrants for labor unrest, and immigration was often conflated with anarchism and socialism by the press and politicians.
For a helpful case study, one may want to examine the Hay Market Affair in Chicago in the late 1880s. During the 1920s, following a period of progressive reform, a wave of nativism paved the way for legal limitations on immigration, partly in response to the creation of the Soviet communist state and the ensuing Red Scare in the US. In all these cases, the impulse for immigration control or restriction resulted from perceived threats from the outside and was met with criticism and counter-reform impulses, with eventual immigration liberalization.
The causes of the pendulum swings are rather complex: there were political, social, and economic factors at play, just as there are today. While historians are usually careful to stay in the past and avoid even educated conjecture about the future, one could suppose that the pattern will continue: the pendulum will continue to swing and, as in the past, reformers on either side of the immigration debate will never achieve their full vision.