The GOP Wants a Return to the Gilded Age. Do You?

The Gilded Age

During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, there was a great deal of money to be made. A class of men known as tycoons became insanely wealthy and a sharp divide grew between the haves and have-nots in American society. In an age that embraced ideas of social Darwinism, the rich came to believe that they deserved to be rich, that by the act of being rich they were better than everyone else; not only in the sense that wealth made them better but in that being better made them wealthy. Those who were poor, under- or un-employed or starving on the streets deserved their lot in life. They were poor because they were inferior.

The Gilded Age was the starting point of the Progressive movement in America, and is it any surprise? It was a time when women had no rights, blacks had no rights, workers had no rights, an age when children were worked to death in horrible conditions, and adults too. The common people had no remedy, no retirement, no health insurance, no laws to protect them from the awful conditions of their lives, lives made more brutal by the rapacity of the rich tycoons who literally lorded it over them from mansions that still inspire awe today.

In his book, Age of Betrayal, Atlantic senior editor Jack Beatty presents this dark side of the Gilded Age. As The Atlantic says of his book,

The industrialization of the country, which brought so much wealth to so few, left most of the rest struggling to get by as wage laborers, working for someone else in the factory or on the farm. And wealth influenced and co-opted the government at all levels, through unregulated campaign contributions, vote buying, and similar machinations.

It’s not a pretty picture. Beatty emphasizes “the grinding poverty, the bloody racial hatred, the violent labor strikes, and the corrupt politics that also characterize that era.” The similarities to our own age are clear: “once again a yawning gap has opened between rich and poor, and political influence is available for the taking by anyone willing and able to pay.”

This is the world the complete lack of regulation created. This is the world Republicans would have us return to.

It was in the wake of this era that businesses came together at the invitation of President Taft and created the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The government used to work closely with the corporations. You might say the corporations owned the government. The corporations liked it this way. They made money, they got rich, and the government helped them do it, allegedly in the interest of the United States.

Beatty points out the William Jennings Bryan changed all that.

Breaking with the sterile anti-statism of his party, Bryan said that government should be active on behalf of the people. That’s the turn in the Democratic party. Essentially, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and the rest followed where Bryan led. Government should act to protect the people against private power, through anti-trust. It should act with old-age pensions, and with workers’ compensation, and the like. Bryan is often rendered as a backward-looking pastoralist. But in fact, he began modern politics, because he introduced the populist impulse into the Democratic party—the idea that government should support the people.

The corporations didn’t like this. They never did. It was about them, they said. They somehow inserted themselves into the Founding documents as “We the Corporations” and now the Supreme Court has even ruled that like us, corporations are people. It is now legal to buy elections; it is even legal to do it with foreign money. The corporations fought tooth and nail against the progressive movement and they are fighting still, and they seem to be turning the tables on us.

Unregulated capitalism gave us the evils of the Gilded Age. Unregulated capitalism gave us the crash of 2008 that has left not just America, but much of the world, reeling. This is the Republican promise: more rape of America and of the American people so that a few rich people can get richer, so that corporations can ignore regulation or even by the votes to have it cast aside, so that they can do whatever they want to whomever they want to get richer. Be damned to the planet and to the people who live on it. Answerable to no one, they will foist a new Gilded Age upon us.

US Chamber of Commerce: A Monument to the Gilded Age

And the Chamber of Commerce would ease their way. Look at some of the backward-looking stances taken by that body:

  • Pro-Social Security Reform
  • Pro-Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Drilling
  • Pro-Offshore Oil Drilling
  • Pro-Nuclear Power
  • Against taxation increase on businesses
  • Against many union-supported polices

These are all stances that should chill the heart of any American who believes in equality and in the rights of the common people. These are all policies that serve the rich and the rich alone, that serve to widen the gap between rich and poor and to consolidate power (and government) in the hands of a few.

And Glen Beck is the Chamber’s big supporter. According to Media Matters,

This week, Fox News host Glenn Beck joined News Corp. as a major backer of the Chamber of Commerce: Beck’s call for donations to the Chamber on the October 14 edition of his radio show earned him on-air praise from the group’s top brass and drove so much traffic to the Chamber’s contribution website that it crashed.

Apparently an adherent of the view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so-called populist warrior Beck implored his audience to fork over their hard-earned cash to corporate darling Chamber of Commerce, “just because the Obama administration hates them.”

The Gilded Age was a pretty awful time unless you were that top 1% of the population. Things were great for them. They could legally rape the rest of us – and they did. And they want to again. And the Republicans want to enable them. The Party of Big Business, they want to re-introduce us to the world our forefathers knew, a world where our betters could use us into the grave to line their pockets. They get their Golden Parachutes; we don’t even get a retirement.

That’s the world they want. Is it the world you want?

17 Replies to “The GOP Wants a Return to the Gilded Age. Do You?”

  1. No sane person would opt for a scenario like that. In addition, history provides examples of revolutions fomented in other countries in which the “yawning gap” produced the discontent these revolutions stemmed from. The 2 countries that immediately come to mind are Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s France in the 1790’s, and the Russian Empire of Nicholas and Alexandra in 1917. Of course, in the case of Russia, the revolution led to something that was worse in a lot of ways.

    I totally agree with you about the GOP’s unveiled bias toward the rich, and it should give all of us pause–regardless of any differences such as race, religion, gender,
    sexual otientation, or whether we’re employed. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that there are wealthy people who make valuable contributions to society and also don’t want the kind of society you have described. They are shrewd enough to know that such an outcome would be an unmitigated disaster, and I give them credit for being able to see past their own interests.

  2. Hraf, Here is something that you might want to think about. Did the progressive movement begin during the Gilded Age, or did the progressive movement come about as a reaction to the Gilded Age?

  3. It was a reaction to the Gilded Age, as I said in the article, or was trying to say with this: “The Gilded Age was the starting point of the Progressive movement in America, and is it any surprise?” Apologies if I did not make it clear enough what I was trying to say.

  4. Absolutely there are good rich people. Being rich doesn’t make anyone evil in and of itself. There are plenty of poor evil people and I wouldn’t demonize either, but the GOP pretends that any measure to tax the wealthy or corporations is class warfare, while taxing poor folks is just “good business” if you’ll pardon the expression.

  5. Amazing article – and the #GOP wants everyone to go back there. No one will be allowed to disagree.
    However, pendulums swing both ways (apparently so do many of the t-bigots) – The GOP will fail again. They always do.

  6. I’m not a die-hard progressive, but a liberal with some progressive leanings (and contrary to what my critics may say I’m not a raging leftist ideologue either), but I think America needs a new Progressive Era far more than it needs a new Gilded Age. The one will improve life and the other end it for millions.

  7. I concur- this is what happens when the Right took us so far to the Right that we need to swing back to the middle and the only way to get there is to swing Left, which I don’t see happening. If you take a centrist position, you are leaning Right currently.

  8. Sad to say, Sarah. I have felt like a raving leftist myself at times simply because Bush moved us so far to the right. But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction so let’s keep those reactions coming! Then I can get back to a comfortable centrist position :)

  9. You are dealing with someone whose master’s thesis centered on reform movements, so the origins are not cut and dry the question I posed is still up for discussion. Mostly, though, I can admittedly be a little picky on this subject, but your wrote a very accurate and interesting post. It is great to see these kinds of topics being discussed on the site.

  10. Very well written. If everyone knew this history there would be very few Republicans. This is why it pays for them for people to be ignorant.

  11. People don’t think much about context. The right likes to simplify things into black and white, good and evil, either/or. Liberals didn’t just invent progressivism (for one thing, there were Republican progressives back in the day, including Teddy Roosevelt). Progressivism must be understood as a reaction to the excesses of big business and Gilded Age tycoons and widespread abuses against the working class. If unregulated capitalism worked as well as Republicans claim, progressivism would not have been seen as necessary. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

  12. I admit I don’t have a Master’s degree in reform movements; but all the books I’ve read on the subject portray the progressive movement as a response to the societal ills of the time – largely a symptom of unregulated capitalism and the Industrial Age it nurtured, thus the background for my assertion.

    I understand from my own background in history that there is very little that is not argued by scholars, even things that seem patently obvious – like the barbarians destroying civilization and bringing about the downfall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Post modernist historians prefer peaceful “transitions” for some reason. I suppose it’s more ideologically pleasing.

    So that out of the way, I’m always quite open myself to intelligent discussion about these matters and I’m always prepared to be proven wrong. But as I say, I’m going here with what scholars have written; obviously there are other scholars who would disagree.

  13. The evidence fully supports you as the republicans will not do anything for Americans. Which scares me that people support them.

    First you weaken the government then you deregulate corporations. Once the unions are gone there is no longer any advocate for the working people or people in general.

    The tealings are going right along with this under the guise that the government will support and work for them. This is really too bad because they are not going to like what they see

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