NEW POLITICAL FORMATIONS
As the twentieth century shifted into high gear,
new political formations were to be sighted.
Once both technically and mythically distant from one another,
agriculture and industry began a technical rapprochement.
Producer and consumer technology changed rapidly toward mass
production and consumption, and at the same time trifling differences
were introduced to hide a growing uniformity.
Henry Ford ceased to make only black cars; more choices were
offered in many product lines. Things, tastes, and fads - becoming
habits that typed the new American - were increasingly invented
rather than evolved. The automobile, the radio, telephones,
electricity and its many appliances to energy, light, heat, cold, and laundry -
these afforded perhaps the main personal utilities of the age.
Every formal and legal political brake was set against the fearful fact:
yet it happened. The United States became a Nation of Cities.
People lived one way, imagined and dreamed another. The
people who were most attentive to the times and the future were a
race apart, the true city people. Most of them were of recent European
origin. They produced a new civilization that was illicit in the minds of
the dwindling, but entrenched, rural and small town population, whose
bucolism was reinforced by the city elites and
media managers and owners.
The cities grew as fast as they could, contrary to all malarkey about
Americans loving the wide open spaces, and the rural dwellers, the
majority of whom were in poverty and without possessions of value
except some scrubby land that hardly produced a cash crop:
as many as could of them, shambled into the city lights -
from the 1830's gas lights, from the 1880's electric bulbs,
burning all the night through -
never mind the stars above.
Between 1900 and 1910 the growth in cities (a huge
increase) came 41% from European immigration,
31% rural American immigration,
22% by natural increase, and
7% from incorporating adjoining settlements.
By the turn of the century the majority of people were urban, but
the full character of the American twentieth century
did not display itself until the great new immigration had
settled in, and given birth to a native generation.
Actually most significant events of American history
took place in the large town - new constitutions, political campaigns,
inventions. higher schooling, new professions.
That hogs roamed the streets of Manhattan
until the late nineteenth century should not be let to
obscure the facts of urbanism, the city life,
no more than should the lot of hard-riding and shooting
cowboys and Indian movies fool us about the wide-open spaces.
Cities were unequal of course. There were, for example,
certain cultural weaknesses of Philadelphia when compared to
New York and Cambridge-Boston,
even with Chicago when this monster matured.
Reflecting upon the recent past,
the century of frenzied physical motion,
collapsing it into long-term history sub specie aeternitatis,
was like turning on and off a water main, or more appropriately,
it was a nightmare whose memory ought to be brought under control.
All that gave color to the West,
even though largely a mirage to begin with,
rather than the free, belly-filling life-style pictured in the media -
the railroads, cowboys and herds, Indians in full regalia,
the homesteaders and land-rushers, the rise of cities like San
Francisco and Salt Lake City and Denver - faded
as the West revealed itself to be the East redrawn.
Until and even after big city culture
overwhelmed country and town,
say up to 1936, more or less,
nostalgia for a rusticated America -
meaning "people like us running things" -
governed politics and the press.
Here, once more, the Celtic undertow applies:
in the two thousand county courthouses of the Nation,
in the thousands of town and city halls,
politophile, contentious, unsystematic Celts abounded.
Ethnic relations continued poor;
any city outside the South would have
a score of what might loosely be called ghettos
but in those days were called poor neighborhoods -
a Bohemian neighborhood, a Negro, a Chinese, a
Swedish neighborhood - often referred to by
other contemptuous names.
Attacks on the cities came in several forms.
Since those in small towns and their country around
came usually from the same ethnic origins
as those who were first to command business and press,
as well as the police and militia, too,
the migrants felt more akin to these bosses
than to the workers in the mines, factories and infrastructures.
Their ideology too had become frozen
into a languishing bucolism..
We can plausibly declare that small town and rural Americans
and their descendants in the cities, North and South,
changed their attitudes on politics, morality, and culture
very little between 1870 and 1970.
One need only read the autobiographies and novels of the
deserters from this tradition to grasp an abundance of testimony.
They had no idea that they might have become a backwater,
rather than mainstream.
Many would not realize the fact in the year 2000.
By 1920 the cities had assumed much of their
twentieth century shape as bailiwicks and culture pods of
Irish Catholics, Jews, and their cohorts.
Political dealing and public and private money management
were preeminent skills of ruling the wide-open cities.
Very large aggregates of Germans, Poles, Bohemians,
Swedes, Italians, et al were urban and mostly Catholic,
but they tended to give up their chances at
pre-eminence in return for steady jobs and a move to the
suburbs. Afro-Americans arrived late in their larger numbers.
Not until the 1960's did they play a considerable role.
Overall, the cities were the creatures of the
rurally dominated state legislatures until the 1960's and
it took the rest of the century to purge the influence,
yet still without full formal equality, given,
for instance, the U.S. Senate with its heavy rural bias
coming from guaranteeing each State two seats, and the
House of Representatives from assuring every State
the minimum of a single Representative.
As happened often in the social revolutions of Europe, the
privileged classes in America contributed disproportionately
large numbers to the leadership of the cities.
Liberals put more trust in the ill-defined masses
than did their own class and rural relatives.
Settlement houses, charities, education,
soft-pressure Americanization, and reform movements
against not only the ethnic machines, but also
against the exploitative oligarchies of the state and federal
governments - these were creations of the very characters
who had pushed ahead with new forms of urban organization -
Rotary Clubs, Boy Scouts, Y.M.C.A.'s, and the like.
A great many incorruptible and honest characters were
to be found in the general setting of corruption and criminality.
Most major crime was "white-collar": fraud, embezzlement, graft,
mismanagement, neglect and negligence were still domains of the
older American stocks, abetted by their country-minded cousins and
admired as older American types by the newer immigrants,
who were going to replace half of them in another generation.