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The Debate on the New Gilded Age

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I have pushed the New Gilded Age as a way to understand 21st century America and what it is reverting to for several years now. I think it is an apt comparison on many levels, with growing income inequality, corporate control over American society and politics, crushing unions, growing racial violence, etc. That said, obviously the metaphor has its limitations. No two periods are exactly the same or even that close to the same, especially when we are talking about 125 years ago. The differences are always going to be greater than the similarities. Yet reminding people of the similarities has significant value in both helping people understand what the heck is happening in the world around them and to help people learn about the past and how it is useful to them.

What’s interesting to me is how many people are now commenting on the New Gilded Age metaphor is a number of ways. Some of these are pretty worthless, such as saying that capitalists lost the Gilded Age. Oh, OK.

A couple of more useful discussions. First, the historian Heath Carter, arguing we are not in a new Gilded Age That’s because in the Gilded Age, Americans fought like hell against income inequality and today, the most prominent ideology actually supports the wealthy and doesn’t challenge capitalism much at all:

But whatever the similarities between the days of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt and those of Gates, Buffett, and Bezos, there is this fundamental difference: Our late-nineteenth century forebears were less inclined to give economic inequality their “amen.” In the face of the Gilded Age’s notorious disparities, working people built movements that challenged the underlying structures of industrial capitalism, contributing along the way to an unprecedented, nationwide ferment regarding the shape of a moral economy—and it is on these crucial fronts that the analogy to our own time falls apart.

The late-nineteenth century was continually rocked by working-class unrest. Outraged at the seeming injustice of the emerging industrial order, working people experimented with new forms of solidarity, organizing trade unions, craft federations, and big-tent alliances such as the Knights of Labor. To be sure, the early American labor movement was seriously hampered by the racism, ethnocentrism, and chauvinism that were pervasive in its own ranks, but even still, it succeeded, among other things, in making “the labor question” the defining issue of the era. It no doubt helped that, for two months in the spring of 1871, radicalized workers seized control of Paris, appearing to confirm Karl Marx’s insistence that a proletarian revolution was taking shape in the wings. In the United States, an aghast elite followed the news in France and for decades thereafter entertained nightmares of a similar movement rising up in its very midst.

American workers kept the dream alive by taking repeatedly to the streets, which in countless Gilded Age cities and towns were transformed often into industrial battlegrounds. It took the combined powers of local militia, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army to quash the railroad strikes of 1877, which swept across the industrializing North like wildfire during that violent summer. The “Great Upheaval” of the mid-1880s saw more than a million workers surge into the upstart Knights of Labor, who were behind many of the 1,436 separate work stoppages (involving 407,000 workers) that unfolded in 1886 alone. That same year a bomb exploded at an anarchist-led rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, provoking consternation and alarm across the industrializing world and catalyzing, within a matter of hours, a fierce backlash against working-class movements of all kinds. Yet less than a decade later workers once more mounted an arresting demonstration of their strength, powering a sympathetic strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company that brought the nation’s vaunted rail system grinding to a halt until, finally, the federal government intervened legally and militarily to derail the uprising.

Moreover, he sees support among working people for both Trump and Clinton as a depressing sign in workers’ own acquiescence for their own disempowerment. Of course, there was plenty of that in the Gilded Age, particularly for Trump’s anti-immigrant positions. After all, Chinese exclusion was a movement coming from the white working class, not elites. And what about Sanders? Carter is moderately hopeful:

The major exception to the prevailing rule, of course, is Clinton’s Democratic colleague, Bernie Sanders, who has traveled the country doggedly making his case that “the issue of wealth and income inequality is the moral issue of our time.” Sanders’ throwback message has galvanized many thousands on the left. He battled Clinton to a “virtual tie” in the Iowa caucuses and appears poised for a resounding victory in New Hampshire. But polls show that a number of key Democratic constituencies, including, notably, nonwhite, working-class voters, continue to prefer Clinton. Unless Sanders can find a way to make deeper inroads into the American mainstream—and fast—the course of the 2016 election will only underscore how constricted the contours of not just political debate but also moral imagination have become. In these vital regards, our profoundly inegalitarian era compares unfavorably with the late-nineteenth century. And in that sense, ironically, the notion of a new Gilded Age is simply too good to be true.

Well, first of all the Sanders campaign is shifting the terrain in the Democratic primary pretty quickly so this might look more optimistic pretty quick. Second, I think one area where the New Gilded Age metaphor works pretty well is that in the early part of that period, Americans simply didn’t understand what to do about a rapidly transforming capitalism that showed all of its lies about shared wealth and relative equality to a shocked public. All sorts of short-lived movements popped up ranging from Coxey’s Army to Greenbackism to Bellamyism to the Single Tax. Occupy is something akin to that. And maybe so is the Sanders campaign. I am a bit more optimistic than Carter that Americans do know something terrible is happening to them and they don’t understand what to do yet. But they are trying to figure it out. What that leads to in the future, I have no idea.

Michael Lansing, another historian, has his own thoughts on the New Gilded Age, seeing it different than Carter because people are trying to do something about the problems. I do think he overplays it though by relying on the New Hampshire primary as a particularly meaningful moment.

The results of Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary signal a sea change in the American electorate. They breathe new life into the Gilded Age analogy. Stolid Granite State voters, known for their moderation, chose a different path. This isn’t about voters picking outsiders to send to Washington, D.C. Nor is it about anti-elitism. Reporters who tout a growing anger in the electorate miss the point. Here’s the deeper meaning of the results: American voters now believe they are living in a second Gilded Age. And like Americans in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, they want to do something about it. This shift has the potential to transform our nation’s politics.

On the one hand, Americans reeling from hard times turn to Donald Trump. This nativist and nationalist billionaire trades on his celebrity to flout political norms and belie his embodied elitism. Longstanding powers in the Republican Party shudder at the thought of him as the endorsed candidate of the GOP. And yet what seemed like a joke last summer now strikes terror in boardrooms and within the Beltway.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, touts a platform that echoes the one created by the late 19th-century Populists. It focuses tightly on the redistribution of wealth and separating corporate wealth from our political process. His tight focus on economic inequity and his longstanding record make it easy for him to stay on message. Rejecting Super-PAC money, he has defied the odds and is on the verge of stretching his primary race deep into March.

Again, maybe so. I am really hesitant at looking at one particular moment that just happened as predicative of a future or a sign of a major change. I’ve seen too many historians make this error, writing essays claiming that the Wisconsin protests show that public sector unionism is on the rise or that the Chicago Teachers Union strikes demonstrates the return of labor to a new activist phase. None of that seems to be the case at all just a couple of years later. But who knows. New Hampshire is a sign of something at the very least–that a lot of Americans aren’t real happy with the pro-corporate policies that have dominated both parties for four decades or more. Whether that dissatisfaction manifests itself primarily in left-wing populism or right-wing populism remains to be seen.

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