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Racial Wealth Divide

Republican Nostalgia for the Gilded Age

Research & Commentary
November 19, 2014

by Claire Goldstene

 Though Republicans often feign nostalgia for the 1950s, they are actually more nostalgic for the Gilded Age.

By Claire Goldstene

At least since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has feigned nostalgia for 1950s America.

At least since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has feigned nostalgia for 1950s America.

The Republican Party today could be rechristened the Party of the Second Gilded Age. Hostility to abortion and affirmative action, deregulation of industry, tax breaks for the wealthy (i.e., “job creators”), and union-busting embody an attempt to undermine the progressive social programs that came out of the 1960s, as well as the economic reforms of the New Deal.

But the Republican Party’s effort has an even longer backward reach. Republicans are deeply committed to undoing the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century that curtailed the power of large corporations and the extreme inequality of the first Gilded Age. In fact, one might say Republicans are nostalgic for the first Gilded Age as they have worked so hard to recreate it.

However, they don’t talk openly about this Gilded Age nostalgia. At least since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has celebrated the “American” values of 1950s suburban life – hardworking, white homeowners, where men worked outside the home that women contentedly cared for, and where it was agreed that what was good for GM was good for America. This version of an idealized fifties offers emotional sanctuary from tougher questions about race, gender, sexual relations, corporate power, and America’s place in the world. It has played especially well since Barack Obama entered the White House. [pullquote] A mythical version of 1950s America offers emotional sanctuary from tougher questions about race, gender, sexual relations, and corporate power. [/pullquote]

There are at least two problems with this rendering of history.

First, behind the fantasy about American domestic life before the “culture wars” of the sixties are the very agreements among business, labor, and government that Republicans are committed to eliminating: the 8-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, workers’ compensation, access to healthcare, progressive income tax, the right to collectively bargain, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and assured retirement pensions. The broad economic prosperity of the white middle-class during the 1950s was brought about and sustained by these progressive reforms, not through individual striving as Republicans like to claim.

Second, while the nostalgia being sold is for the 1950s, the real nostalgia is for the 1880s and 1890s. [pullquote] While the nostalgia being sold is for the 1950s, the real nostalgia is for the 1880s and 1890s. [/pullquote]

The modern corporation emerged during the late-nineteenth century and was subject to almost zero regulation. Strongly influenced by the Social Darwinist creed of “survival of the fittest,” businesses pursued massive profits through machine-driven production, unsafe working conditions, child labor, substandard pay, and consolidation into oligopolies. The results were troubling: severe economic depressions in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, countless job-related injuries, high unemployment, and vast disparities of wealth. Robber barons occupied opulent mansions while the immigrant working-class resided in cramped tenements. In 1900, the United States Industrial Commission classified between 60 and 88 percent of Americans as either poor or very poor.

This was the first Gilded Age. It was when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific (1886), that corporations possess natural rights, a decision that set the precedent for Citizens United. Courts declared unconstitutional nearly all legislative attempts to improve working conditions. Meanwhile, corporate and railroad tycoons simply bought politicians. [pullquote] The modern corporation emerged during the late-nineteenth century and was subject to almost zero regulation. [/pullquote]

But the first Gilded Age also saw the rise of organized protest. Industrial workers began to ask how a society of such wealth could tolerate widespread and growing destitution. This question was epitomized in Henry George’s bestselling book, Progress and Poverty. The result was a concerted effort, through local, state, and federal legislation, to limit the unchecked dominance of corporations by breaking-up trusts, creating public-health agencies, introducing the direct election of U.S. Senators, establishing publicly owned utilities, and instituting a progressive income tax. In varying degrees, all of these reforms have been consistently targeted by today’s Republican Party, and now by the Tea Party. [pullquote] Today, just as in the first Gilded Age, organized resistance to corporate power is emerging among workers. [/pullquote]

This country has already suffered through an era in which corporate interests were given free rein to pursue profits and increase share price with little regard for the social consequences. And, today, just as in the first Gilded Age, organized resistance to corporate power is emerging among an anxious middle-class and low-wage workers. Ballot measures to increase the minimum wage have passed in municipalities across the country, fast food workers have demanded $15 per hour, and the Occupy mantra of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent has entered the national political discourse.

Given the stakes, it seems insufficient to say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And perhaps even less comforting to note that while the first time is tragedy, the second time is farce. That is, we know better. Thus, we can either choose the lessons of history that brought prosperity to the many or those that brought excessive wealth to the few.

Claire Goldstene has taught United States history at the University of Maryland, the University of North Florida, and American University.  She is the author of The Struggle for America’s Promise: Equal Opportunity at the Dawn of Corporate Capital (2014).

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