Ray Ginger put it in two absolutely brilliant books–Altgeld’s America and The Age of Excess–even the Republicans thought that they wanted to live in Abe Lincoln’s America, where when you are young you split wood into fence rails and go to law school at night and when you are middle-aged you become a lawyer and get rich and when you are old you enter politics and save the union and free the slaves. They wanted to live in that kind of world, of upward mobility, in which opportunity is wide open even to the son of a penniless and not very successful rural farmer.
By 1890 they discovered that they weren’t living in Abe Lincoln’s America at all.
As a result in the First Gilded Age you had two political movements. The Democratic, left, farmer, labor, semi-socialist, Populist Movement on the one hand. The mixed bipartisan Democratic and Republican, urban, Progressive Movement on the other. Both of them were desperately eager to change America, to repair the flaws of the Gilded Age, to reduce inequality, to make the economy work for everybody–or at least for every white guy–and even to grant women the vote.
They wanted this so much so that someone like Republican President Theodore Roosevelt–as aggressively a partisan an animal as you would ever see–would place his loyalty to the Republican cause second to his loyalty to his progressive principles for American reform. He was happy denouncing Democrats as communist anarchists, but equally happy denouncing rich republicans as “malefactors of great wealth” who desperately needed to be controlled.
Theodore Roosevelt wove his political career out of being head of the Republican party and head of the Progressive Movement. And at the end non-Progressive Republican President Taft simply offended him one time too many, and Roosevelt decided to blow up the Republican Party and hand the presidency to Woodrow Wilson from 1912-1920.
That was the history of America from 1880-1920 or so. After 1920 you do get a Republican Gilded Age resurgence under Harding, Coolidge, Hoover–very corrupt, especially under Harding. But by the late 1920s Progressivism is rising again–even Hoover is running as a Progressive. Then when the Great Depression comes Franklin Roosevelt comes in and he takes the entire progressive agenda off the shelf and promptly begins to implement it.
We haven’t had anything like that over the past thirty years.
And here I’m simply going to throw up my hands and say that I don’t know why.
It’s in a great mystery to me. As an economic historian I like to look at political economic patterns from the past and to say we should learn from these and generalize them and take them as providing some insight into the present and the future. In general, we economic historians are extraordinarily successful. There are lots of lessons to be drawn from the first age of globalization for the second. There are lots of lessons to be drawn from the high school-ization of America for the college-ization of America and for education elsewhere in the world. There are lots and lots of lessons to be drawn from the Great Depression for today.
But the political economy of Gilded Ages? Why the first Gilded age produces a Populist and a Progressive reaction and the second, so far, does not? There I throw up my hands and say that my economic historian training betrays me. I have no clue as to what is going on here.
I'm an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a Faculty Research Fellow at National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in the Public economics group. You can follow me on twitter @omzidar.
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