Are Republicans Nostalgic for the Gilded Age?

By Claire Goldstene

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 is a Davis Resident. She 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).

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

26 thoughts on “Are Republicans Nostalgic for the Gilded Age?”

  1. Frankly

    Thanks for the article but is poorly done and a strong indication that the writer is either a DNC operative mouthing the same old tired talking points of class war, gender war and any other type of groupism that can be leveraged for Democrat wins… or the writer is simply ignorant and not willing to do the hard work to really research and understand what the GOP stands for.

    Here is a little GOP education.

    First let’s agree that the modern Democrat party is controlled by the liberal wing of the Democrat party.  So when I refer to Democrats, I refer to liberals and those that call themselves liberal-progressives (whatever that is).  By the way, liberal Democrat congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is the most disliked national politician in the US at this point.  So maybe in a few elections the Democrat party will once again go back to a Kennedy Democrat party.

    But back to the points…

    The Democrat-waged groupism wars are just a front for the Democrat money and power pilfering machine.  It is all about wealth and power.  It always has been and it always will be.  There are those that earn wealth and influence (power) through private enterprise.  These are the economic producers that are the base engine of the economy.  Without them government would not exist unless government owned and controlled the industries and markets.  And this is certainly the goals of much of the Democrat party as made clear by Obamacare.  But unless and until Democrats can turn the US to a collectivism model, there are those that pilfer their wealth through political connections.

    So let’s just ignore the groupism wars.  Because they are false and ginned up.  Women are jumping from the Democrat party en mass.  Blacks are more slowly coming around.  Hispanics also have shifted away from the party of the left.
     
    People are less and less buying the crap from the Democrat machine.  The smart people in these groups see that they are only being used by the top-dogs in the Democrat party machine to help them gain and retain wealth and power.

    But for all Americans, what remains is the class war. 

    Don’t we always hear “It is the economy stupid”?   For the general population it always is and always will be.

    And for their economic class war, Democrats blame successful people and private business and urge much greater income and wealth taxation, especially of the reviled top 1% of earners, along with more government spending and controls—higher minimum wages, “living” wages, comparable worth directives, CEO pay caps, etc.

    Democrats say inequality is a problem because rich people save too much. So, by transferring money from rich to poor, we can increase overall consumption and escape “secular stagnation.”

    But rich people don’t “save” (or “horde”… the more well-loved label in the diction of the left crusade)… they INVEST.  You know… that “invest” word that Obama has disingenuously embellished to explain his tax and spend policies.   Rich people don’t stuff their money in a mattress or passbook savings account.  Rich people are generally rich because they take risks with their money investing in things that provide a return.  Rich people are the source of capital for business to start and expand.  They are also the primary source of tax revenue to pay for essential government services and infrastructure… and to fund our national defense that allows Democrats the freedom to protest the very industrialism that enables them to have the freedom and free time to protest.

    In the end we only have two models to choose from.  The Democrats are pulling for greater collectivism.  They are pulling for larger government, more ownership and control over production and wealth creation, more tax and redistribution.  They say that this is to bridge inequity, but it does not work that way.  It is a lie to the unknowing population to garner the votes needed for the Democrat politicians and their pals to pilfer more money and power.  And in this model political power is the Holy Grail.  Because when you get political power, as President Obama has clearly demonstrated and our local Democrat public unions have demonstrated, you cannot easily be stopped from implementing policies that give you even more money and power.

    But cronyism results when power determines wealth. Government power inevitably invites the trade of regulatory favors for political support. We limit rent-seeking by limiting the government’s ability to hand out goodies.

    So when all is said and done, the inequality warriors (aka Democrats) want the government to confiscate wealth and control incomes so that wealthy individuals cannot influence politics in directions they don’t like. Koch brothers, no. Public-employee unions, yes.  This goal, at least, makes perfect logical sense. And it is truly scary.

    Prosperity should be our goal. And the secrets of prosperity are simple and old-fashioned: property rights, rule of law, economic and political freedom.  A limited government providing competent institutions. Confiscatory taxation and extensive government control of incomes are not on the list.

    Republicans are the true progressives.  They are economic progressives.  And economic progress more than anything solves inequity.  In fact it is the only thing that solves inequity. 

    Democrats are a dying party.  They must seek reformation or risk a tide of popular discontentment that will make the last six years a de minimis blip on the United States political landscape.

    1. Don Shor

      Democrats are a dying party.

      I know many people who feel both parties are declining and are wedded to outdated ideologies. I think you saw that in the California electorate this year to some extent. If the parties nominate a Bush and a Clinton for 2016, a lot of middle-ground voters may just give up.

    2. hpierce

      Frankly… you reject “groupism”, and lumping people together and ascribing views/motivations to them as a class?  You could do standup comedy!  Thank you for my laugh of the day!

      1. Frankly

        I don’t have a problem with human categorization.  My major was in marketing.  This is is done and it is useful.  There are undeniable trends and statistics.  I find that stuff fascinating in a behavior science context.

        What I am talking about is the Democrat trend to wage groupism war against the GOP.   According to the Democrat party machine narrative, Republicans hate every group except white males that watch NFL.

        Those that wage group war are despicable… lacking any real compelling ideas for leading.

        If I were interested in the Democrat party remaining strong, I would worry about this… the reliance of negative branding of the GOP and groupism wars… especially when it is a trumped-up media-circus-enabled thing.  Because the air will go out of it and Democrats will be left standing without a platform.

  2. Davis Progressive

    “Thanks for the article but is poorly done and a strong indication that the writer is either a DNC operative mouthing the same old tired talking points of class war, gender war and any other type of groupism that can be leveraged for Democrat wins… or the writer is simply ignorant and not willing to do the hard work to really research and understand what the GOP stands for.”

    i thought we agreed that attacking the writers means we don’t get guest writers????

        1. Frankly

          Do you think being called a DNC operative is “attacking”?  Interesting… you would think with your political leanings you would see that as a complement.

          And I didn’t say the writer was stupid.   I pointed out that there was demonstrated ignorance of the subject matter.

        2. South of Davis

          I’ve never called Frankly a RNC “operative” but I have called him out for repeating RNC “talking points” (he probably heard on Fox News).  Unless I thought someone was an actual “operative” I would not call them out but it is important to call out “talking points” (that are often designed to be “true” but “deceptive”)…

  3. Anon

    This article made me cringe.  If this article had been written about Democrats, with accusations of extreme liberalism run amok, that would make me cringe.  IMO the problem is that the media tends to pander to the extreme elements of both parties, so that what the public hears is nonsense from both sides that is inflammatory, trots out talking points that are stale, and does not represent the ideals that most who are registered with either party believe.  Moderates in either party have either left politics, or are just not being heard.  Junk journalism is ruining this country.

    1. South of Davis

      Anon wrote:

      >  IMO the problem is that the media tends to pander to the

      > extreme elements of both parties, 

      The “media” panders to the extremes since it sells papers and gets ratings.  No one wants to see my rational pro-choice Republican friends talk to my rational anti-amnesty Democrat friends about a parcel tax because the “lower tax” Republican will just calmly debate with the “higher tax” Democrat until they agree on a number.  It is better TV to watch a crazy right winger slamming his fist on a bible screaming “NO NEW TAXES” to a crazy left winger that wants to double all taxes (and get every Mexican that comes here on welfare and food stamps)…

  4. DavisBurns

    I appreciate the article.  It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion.  The democrats are as complicit and the rebuplican in concentrating wealth in the hands of the few because both parties are beholden to wealthy masters. The upshot is the country has moved so far to the right Republicans wouldn’t vote for many of their former presidents.  Since Bill Clinton and the New Democrats the only difference between the two parties is the democrats still make a feeble attempt to provide patches for a rotten social safety net and they aren’t as eager to rape the environment, but they can be persuaded to ecerything but drill baby drill.  The difference is depressingly small but still there.

    I find it more and more distasteful to read the comments on the board because the issues aren’t discussed as much as it is used as an echo chamber for Fox News (say it often enough and it will be true and don’t bother with facts) or a right wing diatribe.  All I read are regurgitated ideas repeated as nauseum and name calling.  I have better uses for my time.

    1. Anon

      “The democrats are as complicit as the republicans in concentrating wealth in the hands of the few because both parties are beholden to wealthy masters.”

      I would absolutely agree with this statement.  But I hardly think the country has moved “far right”!  LOL  It is more about the revolving door system that exists between Wall Street/banks/big business and the governmental agencies that are supposed to regulate them.  Even though we pay huge amounts of money to these agencies to regulate business, the federal gov’t is not very good at it.  Gov’t agencies are rife with conflicts of interest and personnel are often “bought” by business with porn/prostitutes/other perks.  Congressional oversight of these agencies is an absolute joke.

    2. Frankly

      This was covered well enough…

      But cronyism results when power determines wealth. Government power inevitably invites the trade of regulatory favors for political support. We limit rent-seeking by limiting the government’s ability to hand out goodies.

      Business will pursue greater profit/returns.  If government controls the purse, then business will go there.

      In fact, political spending correlates with the size of government.

      You want less of what you complain about, then advocate for smaller government.

  5. Miwok

    Given the stakes, it seems insufficient to say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    It seems this is an opinion piece written by a History Professor. But she speaks to current events with a biased look at History. I would have expected more, and relevant cliches notwithstanding, she injects more opinion than my Freshman English Prof would allow.

    I also don’t see anything in there about Land Grants to the Railroads, or the Environmental disasters that still have an impact on the West?

    Is the Democratic push for immigrant workers because they have no concept of benefits, 8 hour days or 40 hour weeks that she says Republicans are dedicated, according to her, eliminating? And why would a Democratic President advocate for abusing workers in this manner?

    When it comes to what Party the Rich employ to do their bidding, I find that is usually expedient to their interests, not ideology.

  6. tribeUSA

    Yes, the melodrama that the D and R teams put up on the stage is getting tiresome, I don’t see why we should feel we need to pretend to take their antics of antagonism seriously, it mainly amounts to a lot of hot air, and quibbling over which team should carry the penant.

    Many  communist governments took over control of big business,  merging big finance/big business into government party official control, and the party officials became wealthy while the population languished. Currently, we have the final stages of consolidation of the big finance/wall street take-over of the federal government, merging government into a division of big finance/big business. Same end point, different routes.

     

    Meanwhile, the consolidation of a greater and greater proportion of the nation’s wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people continues apace.

    1. Miwok

      I used to produce Local Access TV shows where people of this ilk would get a show to rant as they wished, and it was educational occasionally and entertaining always. But when I went to a Union rally to get footage, the voices were strident and scary from the leadership with talks of Revolution and Violence. The leadership was not in the least advocating for their people.

      To me this immigration “reform” seems more like union-busting. They just don’t seem to get it yet..

    1. Frankly

      I think this election was a bit of a revolution.

      Interesting about the GOP.  It is younger and more diverse.  First black Senator from the South since Reconstruction.  Appointed by a Tea Party politician by the way.

      The Democrats are getting long in the tooth.  Out of touch.

  7. Tia Will

    First let’s agree that the modern Democrat party is controlled by the liberal wing of the Democrat party”

    No, let’s not.I can’t even agree with your initial premise. I am a liberal. President Clinton in my opinion was not. President Obama in my opinion, is not. What people do not seem to realize is that where they place politicians on the liberal to conservative scale is dependent upon where they themselves are on that spectrum. Frankly sees the world in terms of absolutes. Anyone significantly to the left of him must be a liberal. But on my scale, there are very, very few people to the left of me whether in political office or not. No wonder that we rarely agree when we cannot even agree on the most straightforward premise.

  8. DavisBurns

    GOP younger and more diverse!?

    as compared to what?  The GOP four years ago? Score a tiny point. But they were 99% white and mostly male so it’s an insignificant change.  They are NOT younger and more diverse than the Democrats.  Wow a black senator.  Too bad your party hates Obama because he is half black.  I’m convinced race is the only reason they have made blocking his every move their primary goal.  All the reasons they give are just a cover for racism.

    1. Barack Palin

      I’m convinced race is the only reason they have made blocking his every move their primary goal.  All the reasons they give are just a cover for racism.

      Baloney,  just because one doesn’t like the policies of a half black president doesn’t make them a racist.

      Second, the average age of Democrats in Congress has been older than Republicans since the 104th Congress, this is now the 114th Congress.  The age gap between the two is wider today than it’s been in a long time.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for