Lessons we can learn from America’s First Gilded Age

America is going through a dark time. All around us we see dysfunctional government, rising income inequality, growing poverty, incredible levels of political corruption, and increasing racism.

Those problems spark social unrest, violence, and increasing political extremism. The good news is that America has triumphed over such conditions before in the first Gilded Age (roughly 1870-1914).

In 1900, America’s situation seemed hopeless; a billionaire class of robber barons controlled the government and owned the government. The press called a corrupt US Senate the Millionaires’ Club. Workers had no rights, the poor were getting poorer, and the rich were getting richer.

Ordinary Americans felt the rich rigged the economy against them. Small businesses could not compete with giant corporations and workers felt they had no rights.

The Plutocracy Owned Everything

Those circumstances fueled violence; including riots, assassinations, bombings, lynching, police brutality, and open warfare labor and management. Extremist groups; such as the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), and the Western Federation of Miners, believed violence was the only solution.

By 1900, many Americans believed inequality doomed their country to revolution. There was a widespread fueling that democracy was dead, and the plutocracy owned everything.

One of the most popular politicians of the era was Socialist Party spokesman Eugene Debs (S-Indiana). Debs’ political program was simple: he wanted to abolish capitalism.

Another popular figure was Democratic demagogue William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska), the Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) of the early 1900s. Bryan became a national figure; and the most influential person in the Democratic Party, by channeling the frustrations of conservative rural whites.

Similarly to Trump, Bryan’s popularity came from the growing white rage at coastal elites. Like Trump today, Bryan wanted to return America to a past Golden Age, the Jacksonian Democracy of the 19th Century. Bryan’s program was vague, but he promised to restore the lost power and influence of white, Christian, men and restore rural America to its traditional place at the center of American life.

Against this backdrop, many Americans felt powerless because corporations and political machines dominated all politics. Reform was impossible because millionaire politicians throttled any effort to fix the system.

The End of the Gilded Age

In 1900, America’s political situation seemed hopeless to reformers. Yet over the next 20 years the United States experienced an incredible wave of reform.

By 1920, America had an elected US Senate, a Central Bank, effective antitrust regulation, primary elections, an income tax, and secret ballots. Reformers were taxing billionaires and breaking up giant corporations such as Standard Oil. Furthermore, the United States was on the verge of the greatest expansion in voting rights in history, giving women the vote.

Incredibly, the late Gilded Age reformers did the impossible they amended the United States Constitution itself for reform. The 17th Amendment mandated direct election of US Senators.  The 19th Amendment gave women the vote. The 16th Amendment allowed a federal income tax.

Today, we hear that amending the Constitution for reform is impossible. That argument would sound familiar to a time traveler from the year 1900. Indeed, 1900 American probably thought the notion of constitutional amendments for an income tax, women’s vote, and elected Senators insane. All those amendments became reality within 20 years.

Lessons from the Gilded Age

So how did the people of the late Gilded Age, or Progressive Age, achieve those great reforms? What lessons can 21st Century Progressives learn from their turn of the 20th Century predecessors?

I think the greatest lessons Gilded Age Progressives have for 21st Century reformers have include:

First, focus on the big goals. I think one reason why today’s reformers fail is that concentrate on small or incremental changes. They try to tweak the system rather than fix or replace it. This attitude preserves the plutocracy because the elite can always undo the tweaks or manipulate the system for its advantage.

The Socialist Party platform included abolishing the US Senate and giving Congress the power to override US Supreme Court decisions. Politicians realized they had to accept massive reforms to save the system and preserve their powers.

Politicians became terrified when a man capable of winning the presidency; former President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York), began proposing similar reforms. In 1912, Teddy totally unnerved the elite by winning more Electoral College votes than incumbent President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) as a third-party candidate. Roosevelt won 88 Electoral College votes and carried six states.

Today’s plutocrats are free to laugh all the way to the bank because today’s reformers do not scare them. The easiest way to scare plutocrats and their political puppets is to propose real reforms and fight for them.

Second weaponize the Media

One reason the Progressive movement of the 1900s succeeded was the cadre of radical journalists known as Muckrakers.

For example, the writers of the popular McClure’s magazine exposed many of the ugly realities of the era. Notably, McClure’s writer Lincoln Steffens exposed corruption in city and state and government. Steffens’ colleague Ida Tarbell publicized the corrupt and illegal methods of billionaire John D. Rockefeller Senior used to build his Standard Oil Monopoly.*

An unsung hero of the late Gilded Age was press baron William Randolph Hearst. The US Senate’s own website credits Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine for creating the political environment that led to the 17th Amendment.

In 1906, Cosmopolitan published David Graham Phillips’ series Treason of the Senate. In nine articles, Phillips’ showed how robber barons and large corporations corrupted the Senate. Phillips showed how big money blocked reform.

Before, the 17th Amendment State Legislatures elected US Senators. That situation allowed millionaires to buy seats and political machines to appoint Senators.

President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) attacked Phillips’ stories because he felt Treason of the Senate was too tough on his political ally, U.S. Senator Chauncey Depew (R-New York). Treason of the Senate inspired Roosevelt to invent the term Muckraker to mock crusading journalists.*

Shortly afterwards a bribery scandal forced Depew to resign, proving part of Philips’ claims, and embarrassing Roosevelt. Politics played a role because the staunchly Democratic Hearst concentrated his attacks on corrupt Republican Senators.

Today’s commentators need to keep the Gilded Age muckrakers in mind when we see modern attacks on the media. In particular, I think we need to fear efforts to discredit journalists with “fact-checking.”

Today’s digital media provides a platform for a new generation of muckrakers, including Rising’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, Matt Talibi, and Glenn Greenwald. However, the Woke prophets of political correctness are moving to silence such voices or at least drive them out of the mainstream media.

Third Mobilize a Mass Movement

I think a major reason reform succeeded in the late Gilded Age was the creation of mass movements.

Today’s reform movements;’ such as Trumpism and the Bernie Sanders fan club, fail because they focus on populist leaders. These movements center on the delusion that “electing our glorious leader will fix everything.” The Trumpists elected their glorious leader and got nothing.

Gilded Age reform failed when it focused on populist leaders such as Bryan and Roosevelt. However, the reform succeeded when it generated mass movements such as the Suffragettes.

The plutocracy could survive or coopt populist leaders such as Bryan, but it could not resist the power of mass movements. The mass movements elected hundreds of reform politicians and scared many establishment figures into signing off on reform.

The Progressive Era shows mass movements; especially mass movements that refuse to compromise, are the key to reform. For instance, Black Lives Matter influences public opinion and corporate policies because its followers will take to the streets. I think Sanders’ followers could achieve similar success if they will follow BLM into the streets.

Similarly, the Trump movement scares many Republican leaders because its members are in the streets. I do not think US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) would defend Trump if there were no “Stop the Steal rallies.” Conversely, I think the Trump movement will fail if it does not start fighting for real goals instead of fantasies.

Fourth Reforms can backfire

The monumental failure of America’s 20th Century Progressive Era was race. African-Americans’ freedoms and political power shrank during the Progressive Era.

Most of the Progressive Era reformers refused to discuss race or challenge such horrors as lynching. One reason the Progressives failed African Americans was disenfranchisement.

Southern Democrats stripped most blacks of the vote; which created an apartheid regime in the South. Given that reality, even such reformers as Theodore Roosevelt were afraid to challenge Jim Crow.

Another reason Gilded Age Progressives ignored race was the focus on economic issues. Almost all their focus was on economic issues such as corruption, income inequality, unions, and corporations. The reason for this was that most Americans believed economic inequality threatened them.

Today, the situation is reversed with progressives with race-obsessed progressives who refuse to discuss income inequality. One result of this is that racial equality increases as income inequality rises.

That’s a reverse of the 20th Century paradigm of growing racism and rising economic equality. One result of that paradigm was the Civil Rights Movement, a nonviolent revolt of African Americans against the political system.

I wonder if we will see something similar in the 21st Century with workers or middle-class Americans revolting against the economic system. Perhaps some sort of debtors’ revolt; such as the one advocated by the Debt Collective.

I think the modern political system’s obsession with race drives the resurgence of racism and the growing popularity of racists such as President Donald J. Trump (R-New York). To explain, some working and middle-class whites now see racism as an act of protest against an economic system they view as hostile to their interests.

Similarly, many 20th Century workers saw socialism and Communism as similar protests.

 Fifth Keep the Faith because reform takes a long time

One reason why charismatic leaders; such as Trump and US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), fail is that their promises of instant change never materialize. The Progressive Movement shows genuine change takes years or decades.

For example, the Progressive Movement began in 1896, with William Jennings Bryan’s surprise capture of the Democratic presidential nomination. However, it wasn’t until 1912-1913 that the Constitutional Amendments became reality.

Notably, all four of the major presidential candidates in 1912; President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio), Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey), Colonel Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York), and Eugene Debs (S-Indiana) were Progressives.  The race’s issue was not reform, but how far reform should go.

Similarly, many of the reforms proposed in the Progressive era, such as Social Security, did not become law until the New Deal era of the 1930s. For instance, Theodore Roosevelt proposed Social Security during his 1912 Progressive presidential run.

Accordingly, I think today’s reform movements will yield vast changes, but it will take time. For instance, I think it could take a decade or longer to enact Medicare for All or Basic Income.

The First Gilded Age shows America can overcome corruption and income inequality. However, it will take time, faith, patience, and hard work to overcome those evils. Only future history will tell if today’s Americans have those qualities in the Second Gilded Age.

*For an excellent overview of McClure’s and its influence, see The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismbyDoris Kearns Goodwin.

*See The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismbyDoris Kearns Goodwin page 481-483 for TR’s reaction to the Treason of the Senate.