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Politics of the New Gilded Age


There’s a reason that corporations love state regulators and state politicians–they can easily buy them for cheap. Such is the politics of the New Gilded Age, when politicians are as openly for sale as they were in the first Gilded Age. The energy industry is just openly purchasing Republican attorney generals, especially in fossil fuel heavy states like Oklahoma. Companies write the bills and lawsuits, their hacks submit them without even bothering to change the wording:

The letter to the Environmental Protection Agency from Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma carried a blunt accusation: Federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in his state.

But Mr. Pruitt left out one critical point. The three-page letter was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies, and was delivered to him by Devon’s chief of lobbying.

“Outstanding!” William F. Whitsitt, who at the time directed government relations at the company, said in a note to Mr. Pruitt’s office. The attorney general’s staff had taken Devon’s draft, copied it onto state government stationery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Washington with the attorney general’s signature. “The timing of the letter is great, given our meeting this Friday with both E.P.A. and the White House.”

Mr. Whitsitt then added, “Please pass along Devon’s thanks to Attorney General Pruitt.”

The email exchange from October 2011, obtained through an open-records request, offers a hint of the unprecedented, secretive alliance that Mr. Pruitt and other Republican attorneys general have formed with some of the nation’s top energy producers to push back against the Obama regulatory agenda, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

Attorneys general in at least a dozen states are working with energy companies and other corporate interests, which in turn are providing them with record amounts of money for their political campaigns, including at least $16 million this year.

The whole story really goes into detail on how beholden these politicians are to the energy capitalists. Only a real citizen movement to retake our democracy will stop this from continuing. We did it a century ago in the Progressive Era that ended the first Gilded Age. We can do it again. But we have a long ways to go.

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  • Denverite

    The NYT source documents are a good read. Though I’m thoroughly depressed about how many people on the email to GOP AGs I know. I need to stop hanging out with so many Republicans.

    • ThrottleJockey

      What’s the likelihood that a US Attorney could mount a successful prosecution of these Bozos?

      • cpinva

        off the top of my head, I’d say slim to none.

    • brewmn


  • LeeEsq

    The reform politics of the New Gilded Age might be more difficult than the reform politics of the First Gilded Age. During the First Gilded Age, you had reformers and conservatives in both political parties. The ideological mix made the sort of constitutional hardball that Republicans love to do now more difficult to pull off. The greater ideological split between the Democratic and Republican Parties give way to a greater willingness to use constitutional hardball to frustrate your opponents. If your party is united in thinking that all redistribution of wealth and economic regulation, that doesn’t directly benefit corporate interests, is evil in itself than your going to fight against it with your life. The bribery is a side benefit. The Republicans enjoy a electoral advantage even if they don’t have a demographic one necessarily. The Supreme Court of the New Gilded Age is nearly as bad as the Supreme Court of the First Gilded Age.

    • Couple of things here.

      First, I think the real barrier to reform politics in the US today is the lack of a working-class consciousness that drove elites to take working people’s concerns seriously.

      Second, true enough on the court as currently made up. Another Republican presidency beginning in 2017 however would likely change this significantly.

      • ThrottleJockey

        First, I think the real barrier to reform politics in the US today is the lack of a working-class consciousness that drove elites to take working people’s concerns seriously.

        How much of your view is driven by the Southern Strategy’s successful attempt to elevate race over class concerns? If its not the Southern strategy that drives this is it something else?

        • None. Race has almost always dominated class concerns in this country, especially in the South. The Southern white working class was at best moderately for more social reforms and often happily voted in politicians completely hostile to them. The decline comes from the erasure of class politics and working class identity in the nation in the last 50 years, a process that is complex but is part the rapidly improving life of the American working class after World War II, part the effectiveness of middle-class propaganda that undermines working class identity, and the decline of the unionized shop floor that did so much to build working-class solidarity. There are other factors however as well.

          • DrDick

            Yeah, I think that really nails it. The movement of large numbers of working class (in the sense of wage labor, as opposed to salaried) families into the comfortable middle class, did a lot to erode class consciousness there. I would also say that the preeminence of race over class in the South is also a big part of why workers there are so much worse off. While race baiting has always been used by capital to divide the working class in the US, it was far more effective in the South and Northern workers were not ready to slit their own throats to screw minorities until Nixon and Reagan .

          • LeeEsq

            South Carolinians voter for politicians that were openly for child labor in the early 20th century while most politicians elsewhere at least felt the need to look like they opposed it.

      • keta

        First, I think the real barrier to reform politics in the US today is the lack of a working-class consciousness that drove elites to take working people’s concerns seriously.

        If fear, as exploited by the right (especially around “otherness”) has been so successful as a motivating tool for the Republicans to convince the working class to vote against their own best interests, perhaps it’s time for the Dems to start hammering on the drums and exploit this same motivator around fear of what is at stake.

        If you can’t “educate” them, you need to be be much better at putting fucking fear in their hearts.

        • DrDick

          Antonio Gramsci argued something similar in the 1930s in Italy.

        • Brett

          They’ve tried. Democrats have used “Wall Street vs Main Street” and the like, used Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech against him, and so forth.

        • UserGoogol

          I think fear inherently skews in a somewhat reactionary direction. Fearful people will want security, which ideally can include economic security, but they won’t want progress, and they won’t be particularly enthusiastic about helping people who aren’t them either.

        • LawyerWhoWantsToHelp

          When I hear “fear, as exploited by the right” I immediately think Fox News. If you take Fox News at face value as a viewer, you essentially will be attacked personally by a terrorist on your way to the supermarket. Now, isn’t it possible that the reason such a fear-mongering media source can so strongly influence Republican viewers is that a large percentage of them tend to skew toward old and/or less educated? (I believe there are studies showing a correlation between increased education and liberal viewpoints). Perhaps the “fear” narrative is so successful because wee old ladies tend to scare easily when words like “Terrorist” or “Ebola” are thrown around and are accompanied by a carefully selected photograph of Obama sporting a sinister smile.

          It may be putting it bluntly, but “fear” doesn’t inspire anything in many liberals because they are flat out too shrewd to be manipulated by that kind of tactic. That isn’t to say there is nothing to fear; surely there is. But driving the message home by “fear”, in my opinion, invokes nothing more than a chuckle and a desire to think rationally from most liberals, while most conservatives I’ve been exposed to are more likely to respond, as User Googol puts it, in a reactionary way.

      • FlipYrWhig

        There’s a white working-class consciousness. It’s just based on resentment and grievance that they don’t see new policy as a vehicle for addressing. IOW, I’d say they see themselves as a group with shared interests; they just don’t want politicians to advance those interests except by dismantling special treatment for others (and Others). They don’t want politics that helps them; they want a politics that harms Those People. And they believe it en masse. That’s their class consciousness in the 21st century.

        • Jackov

          Aggrievement and pessimism, especially amongst men, is certainly central to the wwc mindset. However, it materializes in vastly different ways – anti-welfare amongst the conservatives and anti-Wall Street amongst the liberals. These two groups are each roughly 25% of the white working class with the remaining half being the ambivalent middle according to Levison.

          Additionally, if you control for income in addition to education, Democrats still do okay with the white working class in presidential elections. Outside the south, Obama won white voters earning under $45K and he received ~55% of the vote from the those in the wwc earning under $30K in 2012. (The average white working class job pays $21K for women and $31K for men and the work week is about 50 hours) There is also a large segment of this group that does not vote at all.

          The wwc supports the expansion of family, maternity and sick leave, wants to protect Medicare benefits, expresses more skepticism with Wall Street and feels big business has too much power at much higher rates than the population as a whole so there are certainly issues Democrats can use to sway the middle of this group.

      • LeeEsq

        From what I know from 19th century history, there wasn’t what you would call a united class consciousness in the American working class in the same way that there was in European countries. This isn’t even getting into race issues. A coal miner from West Virginia, the most militant of the Anglo-Protestant working class, wouldn’t necessarily see themselves in the same group as a Polish immigrant worker in the Chicago stockyards or a garment worker in New York.

        A lot of the progressive reforms were also driven by middle-class professional types rather than elites, who tended to oppose the reforms pretty strictly.

    • keta

      Oh yeah. The political climate today makes substantial reform almost impossible. “Democracy” has never before been so wholey owned by naked corporate interests, and the long-game played by those interests (Koch bros., et. al) have shifted the playing field so far in their own favour that an apathetic electorate just shrugs and says, “what can I do about it?”

      Meanwhile, greed and ego subvert those few pols whose genuine interest is reform, while the system has been gamed so badly that even those that retain their integrity simply cannot make a difference.

      It ain’t fucking pretty, and the odds are highly stacked that it ain’t never gonna’ get better. And yes, I am a cynic, but first I’m a realist, and this shift to the right in the US is a colossal tragedy for most, with the added train-wreck of watching millions of people who are adversely affected willingly opting for their own destitution.

      • DrDick

        I think you are viewing the past through rose colored glasses there. That might have been somewhat true from WWII to Reagan, it has not been typical.

        • keta

          Sorry, I miss your point, Doc. What am I seeing through rose-coloured glasses (in a post void of positivity)?

          • DrDick

            That the government and politicians were not always owned outright by the plutocrats. What we are seeing is a reversion to the norm.

            • keta

              Ah so. Thanks for the clarification.

              It seems to me that the original Gilded Age was somewhat subverted by an engaged electorate, among other factors. What are the chances of this happening again, do you think?

              I guess when I pose this question to you, Erik and others I’m really looking for something to hang my hat on here. I mean, darkness is defined by an absence of light and I’d like to find some glimmers, you know?

              • Voter participation was extremely high in the Gilded Age but neither party really represented working people in any meaningful way. Republicans were openly the party of the plutocrats while Democrats were a diverse party that had trouble mustering its different constituencies enough to win presidential elections. What changed things was the combination of high voter participation with worker action that made enough of the rich and growing middle class that some changes really needed to be made in order to tame the unruly capitalism of the era. Those actions ranged from the Farmers Alliance protesting against railroads to anarchists shooting our presidents and trying but failing to kill our capitalists (always time to slag on Alexander Berkman). That’s why the 1902 anthracite strike is so important–for the first time, the federal government recognized that workers had legitimate concerns but that happened after strike after strike after strike.

                What are some glimmers today? Occupy, immigration activism, people protesting in the streets over Ferguson and Eric Garner’s murder, etc. People aren’t happy but they really lack the class consciousness to get what’s really happening here in a way to demand a fundamental transformation of the entire economic and political system that will be necessary, as it was in 1895.

                • keta

                  Education combined with activism, is what I’m hearing. It won’t be easy, but the necessary seldom is…

                  Thanks for this.

                • It’s a long fight we are presently losing but that doesn’t mean that it lost or ever really will be necessarily.

              • DrDick

                It seems to me that the original Gilded Age was somewhat subverted by an engaged electorate, among other factors.

                Seems a bit dubious to me, given that a Montana Copper baron literally bought a US Senate seat during that period.

      • The political climate in the Gilded Age was significantly less set up for substantial reform than today. Although that it changing unfortunately.

        • keta

          Really? Even in the wake of Citizens United? In an age of waning union membership? In an age in which greed is an acceptable character trait? In an age where fascination with the world around us often ends at the electronic device in our hands? In an age where the fact that we’re poisoning our environment produces apathetic shrugs?

          I don’t discount your historical knowledge here, Eric, but I’m having a hard time seeing a way out of the drift towards a more firmly-established Gilded Age, frankly, and am resigned to one day seeing it as “just how things are.” Any insight or links to better understanding any optimism how this will be counter-effected would be welcome.

          • I don’t think you understand the level of inequality in the Gilded Age and how thoroughly it penetrated politics. Yes, I know the problems we face. They were far worse in the Gilded Age. Unfortunately, the differences are shrinking every year, but let’s not get myopic where we take our issues and say they are the worst in the nation’s history. No they aren’t. Not because today is great. Because the Gilded Age was that horrible.

            • keta

              Fair enough. But, “not as bad as was that other time” is no comfort at all, cold or otherwise.

              I’ll ask again; what do you see as worthwhile issues/pursuits to arrest (and turn around?) this head-long rush towards a firmly established new Gilded Age?

          • Brett

            The Old Gilded Age had a worse equivalent to Citizens United, since you could make unlimited political donations for most of the period with no rules on transparency, and most federal offices were nakedly for sale to cronies of the winning party. That’s not even getting into the corruption in the state governments and lower-level legal system.

            Honestly, the only thing better about it was fear on the part of politicians back then that they might be seen as too closely tied to big business, particularly railroads. Railroaded talks about that when discussing the efforts of the railroad tycoons to influence state and federal policies.

          • UserGoogol

            Damned kids today with their iPhones and their hula hoops.

            Separate from the broader question of the political viability of change, complaining that people today just don’t care seems like just plain old grumpy-old-man-ism.

            And using phones as a particular example particularly annoys me. Yes, much of what people do on phones is stupid and frivolous. But phones are telecommunication devices so they almost by definition involve some degree of engagement with the world around us, and quite a few people have in fact used telecommunication to engage in political activism.

            And this also seems like a big example of looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. I’m not really informed enough to know exactly how much people of the gilded age were involved in politics versus now, but people have always spent much of their free time with frivolous nonsense. And the Gilded Age was a time where mass entertainment was really starting to kick into gear.

            • keta

              Simply look at voter turnout then as compared to today. The apathy in the present is appalling, and I don’t really give a shit for the reasons, just that it’s a part of the problem.

              Maybe my particular frustration with phones stems from the fact that I work on a university campus, where everyone knows what Susie ate for lunch but nobody can name the mayor of the city.

              • Gregor Sansa

                The apathy in the present is appalling, and I don’t really give a shit for the reasons

                I see what you did there. At least, I hope I do.

              • DrDick

                Perhaps because after all this time, and so much effort at reform, not much has changed?

                • Brett

                  It can take time to build up. It’s not like the progressive and populist movements were built in a short period of time – stuff like the popular election of Senators built up over literally decades before it finally happened.

                  I assume that’s something that’s going to have to happen with the populace here in the US, too, which is why see any sort of enhanced mass political activity – like the labor actions this year or the major street protests – is good news.

      • c u n d gulag

        I’ve written about this before.

        When I first moved to NC, I had a co-worker who was a Southern Democrat and Progressive.
        When I asked him why so many poor whites voted against their own best interests, he explained it – here it is, in summary:
        “It’s a long-standing Southern plantation mentality that keeps the poor whites divided and conquered by their fear and hatred of minorities of the same class.

        The same story applies now, as it did before the Civil War. A young poor boy and his father are walking down the road and he asks his father, ‘Why don’t we have shoes? Why do we have a hole in the roof and floor? Why can’t we afford new clothes, and good dinners. Why is our horse sick, and our mule skinny? Why don’t we have some of the nice things that rich white people we see, have?’
        And the father turns as they’re walking, and says, “You know the black family down the road? They have it worse than we do. We’re MUCH better off than they are! So, just thank got you ain’t a n*gger, son. So, just keep your mouth shut, and thank the Good Lord that you’re white. As long as we’re better off than the n*ggers, than we can be happy with our lot in life.”

        And that’s what the Civil Rights Movement, and laws and Amendments, changed – the potential for white dominance was lessened, and the blacks might have it equal – or, perish the thought – better than the poor whites.

        And that’s why the conservatives stress “entitlements” and reform:
        They make the poor whites believe that the poor blacks and minorities are getting more than them, and that entitlement reform will hurt those lazy and shiftless minorities worse than the whites.
        And conservatives have a long list of grievances, what are caused by minorities, about how the white male Christians are the REAL victims.

        “Divide and conquer,” still works – and as long as forms of bigotry exist, it will continue to work.

        Now, on top of minority Civil Rights, and racism, add the women’s empowerment movements, and you have misogyny; more non-white non-Christian immigrants coming in? Xenophobia and religious intolerance; Gays getting human and civil rights? Homophobia.

        That’s a long list – among other things – of utter bullshit that conservatives use to muddy the waters of the real problem:
        Ever increasing income inequality, and class warfare – which, btw, the wealthiest of the wealthy, are winning, hands-down!

        When he explained it that way, I understood, and believed him.

        • Linnaeus

          When I asked him why so many poor whites voted against their own best interests…

          As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, when white Americans vote “against their interests”, it’s because racism is their interest.

          • Murc

            I have noticed in recent years, a lot of people have switched from saying “against their interests” to specifically “against their economic interests.”

            It’s very… smooth. It’s like they don’t want to just baldly say “a lot of poor white people consider smashing brown people in the face to be in their interests, and to in fact be a more compelling interest than no longer being poor” but they also don’t want to be inaccurate, so they tack a modifier on there.

            • MAJeff

              Here’s the thing, though:smashing black and brown people isn’t just in their cultural interest, it may just be in their economic interest. It has been for most of American history, why are we to assume that has changed?

            • ThrottleJockey

              Unfortunately that same segment is also more likely to be socially conservative, and social conservatives don’t really care about their economic interests. They’re religiously-oriented voters. They might have holes in their shoes, but they’re still voting Republican. (And I say that based on a guy I know).

              • tsam

                Churches are very effective at convincing people that being poor and destitute is a virtue. Jesus was, according to the Book. So improving their lot in life is far less of a priority than sticking it to the harlots and sons of Cain and the homosexuals. They are absolutely convinced that gay people are a tangible threat. It’s difficult to overestimate how volatile and destructive a mix of blind faith and stupidity really is.

                • majlufkin

                  tsam, I believe you are wrong on this. It isn’t that being poor is a virtue, churches don’t teach that anymore really. The “prosperity gospel” has been ascendant since at least the ’80s, and it teaches that those who are wealthy are rich because god has blessed them. And if you open yourself to god and his blessings, you will be rich as well. This is how Christianity has managed to make it okay to be greedy, and even elevate greed to a godly good.

                  On the opposite end, for those who are just poor, the church teaches that they shouldn’t be worried about riches in this world, because they are going to receive vast riches (of some sort or another) in the next world.

                  It is a two-prong attack on the poor: you are poor because it is your fault that god hasn’t blessed you (you aren’t godly or worthy enough), but don’t worry, you will get your reward in the next life.

                  So people shouldn’t begrudge those with vast wealth, because that is only god’s blessings upon them.

                  And that is how your square the circle and convince Christians that wealth inequality is a good thing.


                • tsam

                  I picked this up from the bumper sticker that says “Don’t let the car fool you, my treasures are in Heaven”.

                  I know those suburban megachurches are all about the riches–that’s just a good business model.

                  They do, however put oppressing the outsiders above their own prosperity.

          • Jackov

            The white middle class is definitely getting the better deal from Republicans – racism and “their economic interests.” Guess that is why they support Republican presidential candidates by about double the margin as the white working class who has to choose one or the other.

            • DrDick

              Perhaps some segments of the white professional classes, but hardly the middle classes as a whole.

              • Jackov

                That was a veiled dig at the white middle class and hence why I put their economic interests in quotes.

                For all the analysis of the white working class, whites earning $45-$90K favor Republicans by about 20 points more than those earning under $45K even though Republican economic policy is doing them no favors beyond screwing the young and poor.

        • LeeEsq

          DuBois had a neat phrase for this phenomenon, psychic wages. You get a lot of emotional satisfaction from racism and hatred. It doesn’t really matter what the targeted group is, as this essay demonstrates:


        • DocAmazing

          It’s not as bleak as that. There are people among the white working class who Get It, and who can (maybe) help others to Get It. I commend to your attention the works of Joe Bageant:



        • c u n d gulag

          Here’s a clip from “Mississippi Burning,” where Gene Hackman explains racism very concisely:

          • Oh yeah, the film where the FBI somehow was the hero in the civil rights movement.

            • LeeEsq

              It was probably a necessary concession to get the film made. Hollywood wasn’t going to make a film that accurately depicted the FBI as thinking that the Civil Rights movement were a bunch of Communist agitators, which was J. Edgar Hoover’s personal opinion.*

              *J. Edgar Hoover was a real interesting character and very good example that humans can get very weird in their behavior and beliefs. For all the wildness in his personal life as homosexual living a barely concealed double life, he seemed genuinely shocked that MLK Jr., as a minister, would commit adultery.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Hoover was definitely queer. Do we know he was gay? Honest question.

                • LeeEsq

                  We don’t know for sure but a lot of circumstantial evidence points in that direction.

        • efgoldman

          And that’s why the conservatives stress “entitlements” and reform:
          They make the poor whites believe that the poor blacks and minorities are getting more than them, and that entitlement reform will hurt those lazy and shiftless minorities worse than the whites.

          And when their own parents are eating cat food because their representatives in congress “reformed entitlements,” will they be happy if the black elders are actually dieing in the streets, bodies in the gutters?

      • Brett

        Oh yeah. The political climate today makes substantial reform almost impossible.

        Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and the new EPA rules would disagree with you. Yeah, they’re not perfect, but neither were Gilded Age reform laws – just look at how long it took to refine antitrust and labor laws, or the endless struggle to try and ameliorate bad working conditions.

  • DrDick

    In fairness, this just extends a relationship between state politicians and the oil companies (also utilities) that has existed there all my life. It is, however rather more egregious than it used to be.

    • postmodulator

      As Taibbi put it, Democratic politicians are far too beholden to moneyed interests…but at least they have some fucking shame.

  • Linnaeus

    Clearly, this demonstrates that regulation doesn’t work.

  • Owlbear1

    The attorney general’s staff had taken Devon’s draft, copied it onto state government stationery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Washington with the attorney general’s signature.

    Damn budget cuts make it impossible to hire anybody competent these days, lamented Pruitt.

  • AR

    I touched on it in the U of O strike thread but the Times making David Frohnmayer their expert in public integrity is more than a little problematic. For those not following the back pages of Oregon politics, Frohnmayer was a long time moderate Republican office holder from a powerful family. After a failed run for Governor he joined U of O and eventually became President. He later left to become a shareholder at the law firm of Harrang Long Gary Rudnick (the largest firm with roots in Eugene, though it is more of boutique sized firm compared to the major Portland firms, let alone the national and international big firms), while teaching a class at the law school. That firm also got a contract to do most of U of O’s heavy legal lifting, including trying to break the GTFF union in the current strike and trying to stop the Professors from unionizing. The contract was awarded att just around the same time he left U of O to join as a partner.

    Since leaving, his big cases have been working to help the son of one of the named partners successfully sue the Oregon DOJ (it is related to a series of overlapping scandals at the Oregon Department of Energy involving the Governors’ significant other and may have contributed to driving the last AG out of office early) and backing up the firms’ other big money maker, Philip Morris. Forhnmayer appeared as a paid witness for the tobacco industry during litigation to overturn part of the tobacco settlement (after having once been on the board to help manage the settlement for the state). He also lobbied to kill a bill to use unclaimed money from class action awards to fund Legal Aid (which would have disproportionately effected tobacco).

    Does this make anything he said in the NYT wrong? No, but it would be nice if they had not taken such a compromised figure as their public face of “good” Republican Attorneys General.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Loyal service to the 1% is what the NYT means by public integrity.

  • Davis X. Machina

    The whole story really goes into detail on how beholden these politicians are to the energy capitalists.

    Constituent service.

    • Matt

      Freedom blumpkins.

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