It was mostly a middle-class reform movement that waged war on the evils of monopoly, corruption, inefficiency and social injustice in this country. Their main targets were the giant corporations/trusts that exploited labor (especially women and children) and manipulated politicians. Additionally, unrestricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe caused many to favor established quotas for all immigrants. (Sound familiar?)
While other forces inside and outside of government were reluctant to challenge the primacy of big business, individual writers such as Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens bravely exposed the underside of an unprecedented industrial revolution whose stunning success in productivity was matched only by the abuses it unleashed on the general public.
Taking on big business back then ran the risk of being labeled a socialist (sound familiar?), for anything that threatened to slow down the wheels of progress, as defined by the “Captains of Industry,” was seen as un-American.
Even if, at the time, it meant exposing the fact that children were literally being worked to death, or that the processing of foods and drugs was sickening, even killing people — all, of course, in the name of maximizing profit for the few at the top.
The trouble then, as it seems to be now, is that those people at the top had it in good with the people in government — local, state and national. It was a perfect symbiosis, with business needing friendly laws/contracts/tax breaks, non-regulation linked to politicians needing money and willing to trade one for the other.