The issues that we face are very different from those of the last century and a half. The difference, I think, might be summed up roughly this way: those who went before inherited a conservatism and overthrew it; we inherit freedom, and have to use it…the rock of ages, in brief, has been blasted for us (Drift and Mastery, xvii).
Lippmann’s first chapter about the rise of muckraking sets the stage for the arguments he advances throughout Drift and Mastery. By asking why muckrakers achieved so much credibility, why they remained popular, and what this expressed about their audience, Lippmann is able to probe the reform-minded psychology of America in the early 20th century.
Why all this has happened: why there are new standards for business men, why the nature of property is altered, why the workers and the purchasers are making new demands, — all this muckraking never made very clear. It was itself considerably more of an effect than a sign of leadership. It expressed a change, and consequently it is impossible to say that muckraking was either progressive or reactionary in its tendency (25).
Lippmann notes that muckraking would not have been so successful without widespread interest. Without the sale of the newspapers headlined by the exposés of Tarbell, Steffens, Sinclair and many more, muckraking as a journalistic endeavor would most likely have quickly disappeared. However, Lippmann notes that these stories were extremely popular and promoted their authors to fame. The often shocking accounts written by the muckrakers were exactly what the audience in America wanted to hear, but why was this so? This question is especially interesting to Lippmann because in his view corruption had been rampant in every business for years, while attracting little notice. Why suddenly was it on society’s radar?
For the average American will condemn in an alderman what in his partner he would consider reason for opening a bottle of champagne. In literal truth the politician is attacked for displaying the morality of his constituents. You might if you didn’t understand the current revolution, consider that hypocrisy. It isn’t: it is one of the hopeful signs of the age. For it means that unconsciously men regard some of the interests of life as too important for the intrusion of commercial ethics (16).
In essence, Lippmann argues that America in his era was reform-minded and thus interested in creating a more just and productive society. Before, business was considered the supreme pursuit. Now Lippmann cites the rising power of the consumer, the worker, and women as evidence that, “there is in everyday life a widespread rebellion against the profit motive” (30). In order for citizens to wrest power away from “economic tyranny”, Lippmann predicts that they will use the power of the government to make big business accountable to the public. One of the first steps in this process is for society’s consciousness to be awakened to the task, a function Lippmann attributes to the muckrakers. As the argument develops later in the book, one realizes that the popularity of their stories was a testament to the new dialectics of societal attitudes about business, government, progressivism, and conservatism in American life. In a sense, it reflected new conversations taking place in response to exponential industrial growth and change at the turn of the century.