Taking America Back to the Gilded Age
Editor’s Note: This week's Republican electoral victory was driven by the GOP's ability to sell many American voters on the idea that over-reaching government -- not under-regulated business -- was primarily at fault for the nation's economic pain.
So, the solution, according to the victorious Republicans, is to curtail the efforts of government to ameliorate the suffering of the working- and middle-classes while further deregulating corporations and sparing the rich from paying higher taxes, a Gilded Age solution that harkens back to a century ago, says William Loren Katz:
In 2010, with the blessing of a five-to-four U.S. Supreme Court decision, unlimited money from anonymous corporate sources was allowed to call the nation’s political tune and decide the fate of American candidates for office.
It is hardly surprising that the party best able to tap these funds scored major gains and that reformers, the likes of Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, were turned out of office.
While suspicious of a repentant witch like Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell and some other Tea Party zanies, the voters fell for pro-corporatist Republicans who spouted a heroic narrative of capitalist individualism and a nostalgic version of the supposedly vibrant early 20th Century.
Rand Paul, the clearest voice of the victorious Republican Party, championed the tried-and-true values of American individualism, extolling the unregulated freedoms and robust capitalism from this earlier time.
Politicians often evoke warm and fuzzy feelings for “the good old days,” but this nostalgia is usually for a past that never was. Some pols make up the history while others “misremember” it.
In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan fondly recalled the 1920s and 1930s when “we did not have a racial problem.”
Others might think back more accurately on a South of lynching, legal discrimination and disenfranchisement for Blacks, and on a North of de facto discrimination, anti-Black race riots and all-white Major League baseball.
In praising the early 20th Century, Rand Paul was correct that it was a time of few government efforts to regulate business. But he also might have mentioned there were no pure-food-and-drug laws, no progressive income tax, no votes for women, and a U.S. Senate called “the Millionaires’ Club.”
He also did not discuss how “robber barons” amassed fortunes with scant regard to legalities, how government protection of “free enterprise” made corporations masters of the political and economic landscape, how working families lived in misery, and how middle-class aspirations rarely flowered.
In 2000, when George W. Bush came to power (by another five-to-four Supreme Court vote), he also gazed nostalgically at this earlier era when a politician’s wealthy patrons (what Bush might call his “base”) had no taxes to worry about and the protection for consumers amounted to the slogan, “let the buyer beware.”
When Bush advocated privatizing Social Security as a chief goal of his presidency, my wife, Professor Laurie Lehman, and I thought it was time to remind everyone what life was like for real people in the early 20th Century.
We put together a collection of 22 autobiographical writings by ordinary people of the day – a coal miner, sweatshop operator, union organizer, policeman, farming wife, shoe-shine boy, Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican immigrants, and Black sharecroppers.
Casting the book from their standpoint, we called it The Cruel Years: American Voices at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. My Introduction filled in the background sounds and stress of an unlamented era for most.
“Hearing the words of these people is a requirement for a truly democratic society,” wrote Howard Zinn in his Preface.
At the outset of the Bush years, we wanted to warn Americans what it would mean to repeal the social safety net, to leave banks and corporations to self-regulate, and to let a wealthy elite run public policy.
We tried to explain the consequences for real people from the working- and middle-classes who would fall back into the financial abyss. If voters knew the truth, we thought, they would surely reject that option.
Still, in this election year, pro-corporate politicians felt free to offer their cuddly fictions of a time – a century ago – that, in reality, produced happiness for only a few. Still, many American voters seem to have been sold.
But when the rosy tales of a Rand Paul persuade voters that this was the best of times, we are in trouble.
People need to look back clearly at this past to understand where these politicians want to take the nation now. The free enterprise system that arrived at the dawn of the 20th Century brought with it a grim and gloomy inequality.
One per cent of the population owned as much as the other 99 percent. A small elite, sitting on the boards of dozens of companies, controlled 40 percent of U.S. industry and their monopolies and trusts dominated economic life.
The media surrendered early. In 1900, the New York Times proclaimed “Millionaires will be commonplace and the country will be better for them, better for their wealth, better for the good they will do in giving employment to labor in the industries which produce their fortunes.”
The wealthy justified their comfortable catbird seats.
“We accept and welcome great inequality of wealth and environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial in the hands of the few, as not only being beneficial, but essential for the human race,” Andrew Carnegie declared.
In Chicago, retail store magnate Marshall Field made $600 an hour and paid his clerks $3 to $5 a week, after they had put in three years of satisfactory service.
Chauncey Depew’s steel mill laborers worked from six in the morning to six in the evening, seven days a week, in 115-degree heat for $1.25 a day.
Legislators, presidents and judges bowed to the affluent.
Bankers Magazine in 1901 announced “the business of the country … is gradually subverting the power of the politician, and rendering him subservient to its purposes.”
Tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt boasted he could “buy up any politician” and claimed reformers “the most purchasable.”
“We hire the law by the year,” claimed a railroad magnate.
The 14th Amendment, designed to protect the citizenship rights of former slaves, was altered by the Supreme Court to mainly protect corporations as “persons.” This was just the high court’s first twist of the 14th Amendment to serve the powerful.
[In 2000, five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to justify stopping the Florida vote count, discarding thousands of ballots disproportionately from poor and minority districts, and making George W. Bush president.]
Similarly, laws intended to limit the powers of business were turned to the advantage of the wealthy. The Sherman Act of 1890, passed to curb monopolies, instead was used to stop strikes and jail union leaders.
Government officials dutifully identified corporations with the public good. When choking industrial smog blanked Chicago, a leading politician said smoke was beneficial to children’s lungs.
Governments saw no need to protect workers from unsafe working conditions despite shocking numbers of deaths and injuries every year.
President Benjamin Harrison noted in 1892, “American workmen are subjected to peril of life and limb as great as a soldier in time of war.”
A Texas court ruled that “as long as men must earn a living for their families and themselves by labor, there must be … oppression of the working classes.”
President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill to hand seed grain to Texas farmers stricken by a drought, saying “it weakens the sturdiness of our national character.” Instead, he gave rich bondholders $45 million more than the value of their bonds.
Republican and Democratic presidents used the Army to crush nationwide strikes.
Government concern for the upper class and neglect for everyone else had these consequences: widespread poverty, child labor, and homeless families. Homeless children (100,000 in New York alone) scrounged for food, searched for shelter, and begged.
Employers at mills and mines preferred to hire children since at 50 cents a week, they were the cheapest. Ministers and other influential opinion leaders stepped forth to proclaim that work kept children out of trouble.
“The most beautiful sight that we see is the child at labor; as early as he may be at labor the more beautiful, and the most useful does his life get to be,” said Asa G. Candlers, founder of Coca Cola.
Working children suffered an accident rate in factories double the adult rate and saw their plight less favorably than did the silver-tongued apologists for industry.
At a Philadelphia textile plant boys and girls unfurled banners reading, “We Want to Go To School!” “More Schools, Less Hospitals!”
The painful truth is that the start of the 20th Century was not a golden age, except for those with the gold. It was a dark and desperate time for much of the American population.
Their century-old cries – from the poor, from mothers and children, and from a neglected middle class – must be remembered again.
The United States does not have to follow today’s disciples of Ayn Rand back to a century that produced enormous wealth for a few and misery for the many.
We owe those who did the hard work of building this country and creating a more equitable society an honest recounting of their pain, their sacrifice and their enduring contribution.
We must not forget the real lesson of that history: that a strong middle class – not a stark division between rich and poor – is the true engine of progress and prosperity.
We are the posterity of those hard-working people who gradually ended the vast disparities of the Gilded Age and made sure that the nation’s wealth was shared more justly.
However, we are now faced with a well-financed and well-organized movement that is determined to turn back the clock. There is much to do. And we should get cracking.
William Loren Katz is the author of forty U.S. history books and editor of another 212, and his website is WILLIAMLKATZ.COM . This essay is based on The Cruel Years [Beacon Press, 2002]
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