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Gilded Age Foreign Policy: Any Lessons for the Present?


Marc-William Palen provides a response of sorts to my connections between the Gilded Age and today, as well as others who have made the comparison such as Paul Krugman. Palen attempts to draw the comparisons out to foreign policy, but the piece is rather problematic on a number of levels.

Palen makes two major points. First, that unlike today’s “imperialists,” Gilded Age capitalists opposed imperialism. Second, our current foreign policy is moving toward the protectionism that crippled the American economy during the first Gilded Age, something Palen very much decries.

Neither of these points really hold up under scrutiny. The first takes a lot of cherry-picking. Yes, some mugwumps opposed imperialism. But by and large, Gilded Age capitalists were completely fine with imperialism. Let’s remember that the one president in the Gilded Age with a meaningful anti-imperialist policy was the Democrat Grover Cleveland. But William McKinley, that icon of the Gilded Age, was the president who okayed the annexation of Hawaii and oversaw the Spanish-American War. The administration of Benjamin Harrison, with Republican leader James Blaine as Secretary of State, very much pushed America’s imperialist agenda abroad, including trying to tie Hawaii to the United States. Younger Republicans such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt were die-hard imperialists; if they are known as men of the Progressive Era, they were very much tied into the politics and society of the Gilded Age.

So it’s really hard to make an argument that the Gilded Age capitalists did not support imperialism. Some did not, most did. I realize Palen is trying to focus on the free-traders within the Republican Party during those years, but that’s just not a dominant force within the Republican Party at that time, limiting the argument’s power.

Perhaps the real take-away from this point is to ask what difference it makes. I drew connections between the Gilded Age and modern America because we see corporations and the Republican Party concretely attempting to recreate the former period in the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean that every part of the Gilded Age corresponds to today and I don’t really see much comparison between Gilded Age foreign policy and the present.

This is especially true when we get to Palen’s second point–that we are entering a new period of protectionism. There’s just no evidence for this. All Palen has is Obama attacking Romney for sending jobs to China and Romney blathering about starting a trade war with China. But this is just a political weapon in a campaign. There’s absolutely zero evidence that Obama doesn’t support globalization in its present form. He’s pushing for new free trade agreements around the globe. And there’s no way Romney is actually going to start a trade war with China. The two major political parties agree on little, but free trade capitalism is one of them. There might be a few people on the edges of both parties’ Congressional delegations that disagree, but they are isolated.

Without a bad economy with long-term unemployment for people without college educations, this would be a non-issue in the presidential campaign. Neither political party will even begin to edge toward protectionism, regardless of who wins in November. Palen just doesn’t provide any hard evidence for this point.

To be clear, I personally see a problem with this bipartisan consensus. I think that we need at least some manufacturing in this nation and that the decline of union jobs in this country is a terrible thing. While I am not exactly supportive of 19th century protectionism, I think Palen’s language is quite telling. How exactly is protectionism a terrible thing for society? It is true that it would make consumer goods more expensive. But is a consumer economy the only legitimate goal for our society? Couldn’t solid unionized jobs with dignity but not a ton of consumer choices be equally legitimate?

Either way, it doesn’t really matter because my beliefs are fringe ideas within mainstream modern American political discourse. The Gilded Age might have a lot to teach us about modern America, but I remain unconvinced on Palen’s foreign policy argument, particularly since it is clearly driven by a fundamentalist view of free-market capitalism rooted in unfettered free trade.

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