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A second Gilded Age at last?

REUTERS/Mike Segar
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.

It’s become commonplace to describe the current economic situation in the United States as a second Gilded Age. Commentators cite the low-wage service economy, the rapidly growing income gap, entrenched poverty, a shrinking middle class, and the quasi-legal violence that targets communities of color. Their references to an age of robber barons, economic dislocation and racial apartheid resonate. Times are tough for most Americans, though a chosen few live in luxury. Corporate money in politics — a prerogative of both parties — corrodes democracy.

Michael J. Lansing

More careful commentators have noted that the analogy falls a little short. In fact, the Gilded Age saw an uptick in voter engagement, intense union organizing, radical critiques of corporate capital, and a broad push for a more democratic political system. In the late 19th century, powerful challenges to the establishment matched the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few. In recent years, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party offered tantalizing challenges to that concentrated power. Yet both ultimately fizzled out.

New Hampshire signals a sea change

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.

Quiet no more

Even if establishment candidates in both parties are ultimately able to secure the nomination, it’s clear: Times have changed. For decades, ideological fights between Republicans and Democrats defined our politics while regular Americans quietly bore the costs of endless war, low wages, mass incarceration and decaying infrastructure. No more.

Despite what seem like deep divisions, it looks like a majority of Americans agree: The status quo is no longer good enough. If voters continue to express their frustration in the weeks and months ahead, we will truly be in a second Gilded Age. 

Michael J. Lansing is an associate professor of history at Augsburg College and author of “Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics.”


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/11/2016 - 10:21 am.

    Gilded age then and now

    It’s been long frustrating to me that more and more Americans are disinterested in politics even as politics directly affects their lives. The sad fact of the matter is that, if Americans weren’t so disheartened as to be politically despondent, they were too entertained to get off the couch and do something about it. In the meanwhile, infrastructure, income inequality, and loss of worker rights/power have reduced the ability of the poor to actually participate in elections, whether they wanted to or not. So, the problem is part self-inflicted, and part carefully planned by the powers that be.

    The solution is to get politically motivated again, and to make voting more accessible and more interesting to more people than before. Consider this, in the last Guilded Age, people didn’t have television to entertain them when they were feeling trodden upon. There’s a lot of inertia to overcome this time around. I just hope that the electorate not only gets active, but informed.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/11/2016 - 11:40 am.

    It should be pretty amusing to have people believe that the answer to a new gilded age would be to elect a flashy billionaire–you can see him in tophat and tails, like the monopoly character. Ironic indeed.

    The great difference with the gilded age is that the lives of most Americans now are better than those in the rest of the world. The US economy is doing better than all of the economies in the world and our employment rates are better–it should be striking to a knowledgeable person that we are doing better than the countries that embraced austerity that the Republicans seem to love.

    So in some ways, this dissatisfaction is rooted in an ignorance of the circumstances of the world, aggravated by the lives of the “rich and famous” that constantly parade in front of our faces through the media, combined with drumbeat of “Obama destroying America” attitude that there is some better result that should have been obtained through a mythic other action.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/12/2016 - 07:05 am.

      A Large grain of Salt, Please

      The US economy may well be doing better than the rest of the world, but that’s setting the bar way too low, as other countries’ economies are in lousy shape. And keep in mind, we’re doing better in the macro sense, but the wealth our economy creates is being horded by the .1%. Who is sharing in te increased productivity? Not those doing the work, that’s for sure.

      Saying our economy is doing better is like ignoring my broken arm because my neighbor has a broken leg.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/12/2016 - 08:05 am.

        But the US economy does not operate in a vacuum. It operates in a highly interconnected world where it appears that chronic under-employment is the trend (fewer people needed to make all of the things that people want or need). So it may not be perfect here, but they are worse virtually everywhere else. So what then do you say we should do? Borrowing the ladder that your neighbor broke his leg on will not make your life better.

        And by the way, from the perspective of the rest of the world, our “broken arm” looks more like a sprained elbow.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/11/2016 - 12:01 pm.

    My 2¢

    The Gilded Age analogy has worked for some time, and I’ve thought it appropriate since the days of Ronald Reagan. At least at a personal level, that’s when I first felt the effects of wage stagnation while the 1% were touting American prosperity, It depends upon from where you’re viewing the economy…

    Ms. Kahler’s last phrase seems especially apropos if the society and its major political parties are in a mood to nominate a couple of “outsiders” for a run to the Oval Office. Mr. Sanders’ program is, no doubt, upsetting to the powers-that-be, and while I can’t bring myself to support Mr. Trump, I note that “Make America Great Again” not only presumes that the country and its economy are being describes as somehow falling into the 2nd rank without, from a factual standpoint, actually doing so, but it’s also just a slogan. Trump apparently doesn’t really believe he’s going to be held accountable and responsible for a nation of 300 million because he doesn’t yet have a program that merits examination. “Make America Great Again” doesn’t qualify as a program…

    It’s easy to see why a Trump nomination would be terrifying to any number of “establishment” people, since he pretty much personifies the “loose cannon,” especially as a Republican standard-bearer. He can fairly be labeled as “unorthodox” on any number of fronts, and can fairly be described as racist and sexist, just for starters. Portions of the Republican base that support him have decided they no longer need to conceal their racism and sexism, which – in a perverse sort of way – is kind of refreshing, but nonetheless isn’t a worldview I want to see in the oval office. Trump seems confrontational enough that I have qualms about putting him next to the red telephone, or whatever device it is now that presidents have to be near in order to set off, or prevent nuclear Armageddon. What characterizes him so far is ideological inconsistency, which is why voters inclined in his direction ought to inform themselves. He’s not ideologically reliable, and for the powers-that-be on the right, that’s something to be concerned about. Also for the left, though to a lesser degree.

  4. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/11/2016 - 05:41 pm.

    Trump has ….

    taken advantage of every loophole available in the tax as it is now structure to “create his wealth.” In order to do that the person has to start with something well above the current minimum wage or the standard used to place a family of four at the poverty level. In addition to that beginning advantage that person would need to have the lack of scruples to use the corrupt advantages to climb over the backs of others and any sort of moral code we give lip service to. We endearingly call this completion to disguise the brutal nature of the engagement. Truth be told people suffer and die because of this verbally beautified economic activity. Trump is at it’s pinnacle.
    Sanders has struggled against bizarre and twisted nature of this denial of reality of the downside on American Exceptionalism as fostered by the disrespectful manner in which people are pitted against one other in the great Gawd of American Capitalism. If Trump wishes to make America Great again he needs to find different approach. What he suggests will give us more of the same.

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