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How accurate is it to describe the 1920s as a decade of conformity, intolerance and conservatism?

The 1920s of America symbolised the struggle between the rural traditionalists who echoed policies of conformity and intolerance, with the youth and immigrant class of urban areas striving for freedom and looser morals. Hence the conservative policies of the federal government and fundamentalists were bound to conflict with the progressive ideas of modernists and the rise of consumerism.

The decade after WWI was characterised by many older Americans suffering a fear of their society being undermined. Their yearn to return to the perceived “nomalcy” of pre-war years embodied itself in policies of immigration restriction, prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. WASP intolerance led to the rise of the Klan, which was anti-African American, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. The popularity of the “invisible empire,” which grew to over 2 million members in 1925 showed the growing dissent many felt toward the new era of drinking, dancing and looser morals.

Intolerance was further connoted by public opinion, which was strongly anti-union. Even at the federal level legislations were unsympathetic to their cause, sending troops in 1921 to end the Miners Strike of West Virginia. The Supreme Court in the Duplex Printing Press v. Deering case repealed the protection unions had against prosecution and damages. In the landmark case of Sacco-Vanzetti in 1921 many believed their immigrant status and political beliefs played a large role in their convictions. This bias was shown through skilled workers and middle managers, who resented the spread of black ghettos and immigrants which led to job competition. Their views of intolerance was reflected in the passing of the Emergency Quota Act 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924, the first such restrictions placed on “foreign-borns.”

The well-publicised Scopes Trial of 1925 epitomised the battle between traditionalists and modernists. While Scopes was convicted and the teaching of evolution in schools banned, fundamentalism was dealt a serious blow with national repercussions. The stigma of intolerance stuck to the supposedly “expert” William Bryan, whose contradictory views and claim of knowledge of the teachings of the Bible were refuted under the close examination of Clarence Darrow.

The 1920s election showed the rejection of Wilson and the League of Nations in favour of a return to the isolationalism and Harding’s “nomalcy.” His win, by a greater margin than any previous president revealed that his policies of isolation and conservatism appealed to the majority of the electorate. Under Harding and Coolidge tarriffs reached new highs and income taxes fell, leading to a highly skewed wealth distribution. Sympathy for big business and low taxes was a dominating factor in the conservatism of the 1920s. The one alternative to the conservative platforms in 1924 was the Progressive Party, yet support deterioated after its loss.

Nevertheless it was also a decade of change, shown by the success of women suffrage and the rise of flappers. Consumerism and the inventions of the washing and sewing machines granted them substantial leisure time, leading to the popularity of short skirts, dancing and drinking. However the radicalness of this change was exaggerated; many underlying aspects of continuity were still apparent in their status.

The innovation of the decade and easy credit led to prosperity and changing values. The popularity of the motor car enabled movement and freedom on a larger scale than any other decade before it and the rise of commercial airlines came to symbolise speed, modernity and a break from the past. Thus the feelings of intolerance between the older and younger generations were mutual. The rise of massive spectator sports like baseball revealed a generation of pleasure-seeking youth who were critical of traditional codes. The widespread fixation on sex was capitalised by the growth of rebellious literature, magazines and Hollywood.

However this was countered often by a disapproving older generation and state legislation. The restricted sale of contraceptives and the censorship of books, films and plays all signalled the intolerance that defined the decade. These conservative views resulted in the ‘noble experiment’ of Prohibition, yet the failure and corruption it faced showed that these views were not shared by the majority of immigrants, working classes, youth and even state and government officials, leading to the rise of gangsters, graft and liberalism.

Nonetheless the election of the Republican Herbert Hoover in 1928 to presidency over Al Smith showed strong traditionalist constituencies. Smith, an opponent of Prohibition, managed to win the twelve largest cities, emphasising the gulf between the urban and rural areas; the old and new America.

While America in the 1920s was ruled by conservative policies coupled with the incompatibility of conflicting morals, it gave rise to a culture which fought back against the repressive conformity and introduced new morals in an era of prosperity. The 1920s was more than a decade of traditionalism; it also exemplified American innovation, prosperity and a recess from the past.