Déjà vu all over again

Today’s grotesque growth in the fortunes of the super-rich and parallel degradation of the condition of the middle class and poor, as well as the corruption of our politics, point to a replay of the notorious Gilded Age of the last part of the 19th Century.

Most of us are aware of the similarities between then and now, but a captivating lecture by a noted historian drives home the realization that the Gilded Age 2.0 is upon us. Holy Cross Professor Edward O’Donnell outlines the dominant characteristics of the original Gilded Age:

  • Declining opportunity. Everyone had assumed that any Americans who worked hard and applied themselves could do well and make a decent living. That stopped being the case.
  • Growing gap between the rich and poor. While people knew some inequality was inevitable, the extreme inequality of this period was unacceptable. In 1890 the top 1% held 51% of the wealth. (And now? By 2010, 54% of wealth was in the hands of the top 1% and the gap is still growing.)
  • Big business corrupting democracy. Great wealth carried with it “tremendous unelected and seemingly unassailable power,” O’Donnell reminds us. The Pennsylvania Railroad had such power that they had their own office in the state capitol and the company’s lobbyist was referred to as the “51st senator.”
  • Labor-capital conflicts. Tensions continued to grow as conditions for workers worsened and wages fell. Between 1880 and 1900 there were 37,000 strikes in the country, many of them violent, with owners bringing in private forces and often state troops, since the governments invariably sided with the businesses.

Countering the unrest were fables of self-made men and Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories of poor boys rising to respectability through hard work, self-denial, and good moral character.

The problem was, of course, that the thirst for profit demanded more and more of workers, and conditions became downright inhumane. Families struggled to simply survive, much less advance.  Yet the rags-to-riches mythology chilled any sympathy for those in poverty.

An especially popular writer of the time, Rev. Russell Conwell, said, “There is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings.”  His book Acres of Diamonds sold a million copies, and he gave over 6,000 sermons on the topic.

Andrew Carnegie preached the same gospel, saying “While the law (of competition) may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest.”

Such talk was used to justify an inhumane system. The unsuccessful were, by definition, unfit.

Sound familiar? Just the other day, Daily Show host Jon Stewart took down Fox News, showing video clips of Fox anchors and commentators calling the poor “moochers,” “leeches” and “freeloaders.”

The only good thing about the Gilded Age was that it finally caused people to cry out for change, bringing about a dramatic series of reforms that we now know as the “Progressive Era.”

Sounds like a plan….

Judy Goldsmith