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.
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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