Life in the Roaring Twenties

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To what extent were the policies of the 1920's a rejection of progressivism?

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The 1920s were a decade of "normalcy" in American foreign policy—or isolationism—and growing materialism on the home front. The high ideals of Progressivism were largely discarded as the United States became more dedicated to the pursuit of self-interest, both at home and abroad. Though initially popular, there was a sense...

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The 1920s were a decade of "normalcy" in American foreign policy—or isolationism—and growing materialism on the home front. The high ideals of Progressivism were largely discarded as the United States became more dedicated to the pursuit of self-interest, both at home and abroad. Though initially popular, there was a sense that progressive reforms had perhaps gone a little too far. Prohibition, for example, though still operating throughout the twenties, was becoming increasingly unpopular, not least because it was leading directly to the growing enrichment of organized crime. In the popular mind, progressivism became associated with groups of middle-class busybodies telling people how to live their lives and Prohibition was held up as the prime example of this.

The twenties were also characterized by a headlong pursuit of wealth by both individuals and businesses alike. If you've ever had a chance to read The Great Gatsby you'll see how the obsession with achieving the American Dream overrode all else for so many people. Society was becoming more open, more fluid, with greater opportunities being created by a thriving economy. It seemed that the good times would last forever. In such an environment, it's not surprising that the noble ideals of Progressivism no longer resonated with large sections of a rapidly-evolving society.

In the sphere of foreign policy, the rejection by the Senate of the League of Nations dealt a huge blow to progressive ideals in the conduct of international relations. On the whole, Americans were tired of getting embroiled in what they saw as other nations' conflicts. The United States had intervened decisively in World War One, and yet the European powers were still riven by disagreement and mutual hostility. Far better, thought the isolationists, to pay heed to Washington's warning in his Farewell Address against "foreign entanglements" and let the Europeans and others get on with sorting out their own problems.

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The policies of the 1920s were an almost complete repudiation of the progressivism of the preceding decades.  The only things that can really be seen as somewhat progressive during this time were Prohibition (which was, of course, implemented just before the 1920s) and, possibly, the immigration restriction acts.  Everything else was essentially a departure from progressivism.

Prohibition was a quintessentially progressive policy.  It was an example of the use of government powers to improve people and make them act in ways that were more acceptable to middle class people.  Prohibition was instituted before the 1920s, but continued to be enforced throughout the decade. 

Immigration restriction can be seen as something of a progressive policy.  The Progressives were suspicious of immigrants to some degree because immigrants did not behave in the “right” ways.  They would not have approved of the politics of many of the more radical immigrants as well.  They would have been likely to support immigration restriction.

Outside of this, though, the 1920s were not a progressive time.  The progressive idea of government restricting the actions of business and the rich was not something the Republicans of the 1920s were interested in.  This was an era of laissez-faire and of pro-business policies.  That means that, in terms of economic policies, the 1920s was very much the opposite of the Progressive Era.

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