First Gilded Age yielded to Progessives, can today’s?

By Richard White
October 9, 2012

 

C.K.G. Billings, a Gilded Age plutocrat, rented the grand ballroom of the celebrated restaurant Sherry's for an elaborate dinner on March 28, 1903. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horses, which had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by elevator.

Mark Twain labeled the late 19th century the Gilded Age – its glittering surface masking the rot within. This term applies today for the same reasons: The rich get richer; most everyone else gets poorer. And the public thinks corruption rules.

New technologies similarly transformed the economy in that era and boosted productivity even as life for many Americans grew worse. Bloated tycoons? Desperate workers? A threatened middle class? Poverty amid the sweeping progress? Check, check, check and check.

But the silver lining of our current Gilded Age redux is that we left this stunning income inequality behind once. We can do it again. Americans eventually escaped the Gilded Age because they also made it a period of reform that ushered in the Progressive Era.

The past seems so present. The Gilded Age had immigrants attracted to the idea of golden opportunity and resented by its earlier inhabitants. So do we. In the Gilded Age many Americans regarded Catholicism as an alien religion that threatened the nation, just as many Americans regard Islam now.

Many of the basic economic and political problems we face today are indeed far too similar to those of the late 19th century. Today the top 1 percent of the U.S. population now controls 42 percent of the country’s financial (non-home) wealth. The bottom 80 percent possesses 5 percent. After adjusting for inflation, median household income has fallen by 8 percent since 2007, which was the year before the recession.

Corruption? Sixty-two percent of Americans now believe corporations are routinely corrupt. Only 20 percent trust the banks. Americans are right to be suspicious. Wall Street can seem a giant perp walk – but the perps are well connected, and most suffer little.

Yet we far outdo our 19th century ancestors in many ways. Political corruption pervaded the Gilded Age. But except for the selection of senators by state legislatures, money could not reliably buy elections. Lobbyists found it more efficient to corrupt officeholders. Now, vast amounts of money, much of it from people who can financially benefit from the election’s outcome, corrupt the process.

A modern brew of evenly matched political parties, weak presidents and a conservative judiciary usually bent on diluting or eliminating the reforms that politicians do manage mimics the late 19th century. The Gilded Age seems to fit the country we live in like a tailored suit.

These Gilded Age parallels are easy to see when we look in an historical mirror. But there are faint outlines of a better – and often virtually forgotten – late 19th century age of reform. Its shadows appear in an odd place – at the edges of current campaign rhetoric.

The presidential campaign rhetoric has been resolutely mundane and distressing. We have been in what is, for all practical purposes, a depression. But the candidates only offer anodyne praise of the free-enterprise system, which less-timid observers might think was what got us into this mess.

One party seeks to stay the course, while the other wants to recreate the conditions that brought on the crisis. Neither presidential candidate seems able to articulate his position without stumbling into gaffes seized on by his opponents.

There was President Barack Obama’s mangled syntax – “you didn’t build that” – and Republican presidential nominee’s Romney’s attack on him. There was Romney’s statement about the dependent 47 percent and the ensuing Democratic attack.

These gaffes and the various responses have been the most revealing part of the campaign because the candidates’ worst moments bare traces of quite profound 19th century debates on the purpose of the economy in a democratic society. The 30-to-60-second spots that these gaffes have yielded dominate the airwaves and the Internet. They have the intellectual content of a quick kick to the groin.

But the important thing is not in the kick – it’s the target. The campaigns know the sensitive spots in the body politic.

In capitalizing on their opponent’s mistake, the Republicans and the Democrats aim at the same places. The two parties recognize that Americans seek economic security, dislike economic privilege, desire opportunity and value independence. The opponent’s weakest spot is anything that can connect the opposing party with threats to security, opportunity and independence or with economic privilege. These words now sound like clichés – but they once had deeper meanings that dominated the Gilded Age.

Anti-monopolists are now largely forgotten, but they were powerful in the late 19th century. They included Democrats, Republicans and members of third parties. They attached particular significance to words like security, privilege, independence and opportunity.

For them monopoly meant corporation. They were avowedly anti-corporate – something now entirely heretical. What happened?

Though they were all for growth, anti-monopolists did not think growth was the purpose of an economy. They believed that in a democracy the economy should produce independent citizens. These citizens have to possess sufficient economic security and leisure to take part in the affairs of the republic. To do so they needed the opportunity to gain a competency.

Competency, another lost 19th century word, meant sufficient income to support a family and to tide it over in hard times. A competency was not great riches. Indeed, anti-monopolists thought that great riches had as their inevitable corollary great poverty. The same causes produced both.

Special privilege yielded an economy both with fabulous rewards for a few and with large numbers of poor. The middle class would be crushed between them.

The presidential campaigns’ use of security, independence, opportunity and privilege are just shadows of the power these words once possessed. They once helped lead the way out of the Gilded Age. That both campaigns, perhaps cynically, probably ignorantly, recognize the continued potency of this language is a sign of possibilities that it might still contain.

The anti-monopolists were full of flaws, but, unlike us, they were able to enunciate a clear idea of what reform should look like. Growth, if unevenly distributed, weakens the republic. Job creation – if the jobs do not bestow a competency – sap the society.

Give words like economic security, independence, opportunity and the hatred of privilege some substance, and there is hope of reform. The idea that in a democracy the economy should produce the democratic citizens needed to sustain it is not a bad place to start.

C.K.G. Billings, a Gilded Age plutocrat, rented the grand ballroom of the celebrated restaurant Sherry’s for an elaborate dinner on March 28, 1903. He had the floor covered with turf so that he and his 36 guests could sit on their horses, which had been taken up to the fourth-floor ballroom by elevator. 

 

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“Anti-monopolists are now largely forgotten, but they were powerful in the late 19th century. They included Democrats, Republicans and members of third parties. They attached particular significance to words like security, privilege, independence and opportunity.”

My mother and I recently had a conversation wherein she firmly believed that antitrust action in the U.S. began in the early 80s with US. vs. AT&T. I had to send her backup information that it all began 100+ years ago. We were talking about the 1% and the shrinking middle class. It worries me that people aren’t aware of past struggles the U.S. and world have gone through in the name of spreading “competency” to all. Maybe it is wise to reeducate the public about why unions exist, why child labor laws were passed, and why monopolies aren’t allowed. If everyone only remembered their 8th grade social studies courses, and the anger we felt at the robber barons who exploited lives for personal gain, maybe we would demand change.

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