“Are We Living in A Second Gilded Age?” is an ongoing examination of the parallels between the first Gilded Age (1870-1900) and what many contend is a Second Gilded Age (1980-present). A key source of these musings is my forthcoming book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the First Gilded Age (Columbia University Press, June 2015).
Americans have long loved to celebrate centennials and sesquicentennials of major events in national history such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the start of the Civil War, and the March on Washington in 1963. Of course, no such commemoration occurred in 1970 to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Gilded Age (1870-1900). But it’s useful to imagine for a moment what such an event might have looked like. Given the context of 1970, it’s not hard to imagine the primary theme that would have dominated speeches, museum exhibitions, and documentary films: The Gilded Age was a period of extraordinary growth and innovation, but also dangerous levels of poverty and inequality that threatened the integrity of America’s cherished republican values; this threat was eventually checked by the efforts of social reformers who empowered the state to place limits on corporate power and adopt policies aimed at promoting the common good over raw individualism. Americans in 1970 were riding the greatest period of economic growth and prosperity in the nation’s history (from 1946 to 1973 the U.S. economy grew by an average rate of 3.8%). And they were living at a time of the greatest level of economic equality in the nation’s history. It seems likely that the average American in 1970 would have viewed the Gilded Age as a dark and ugly chapter in American history that few would want to repeat.
And yet, since 1970, a rising chorus of scholars, activists, and social critics has emerged to warn Americans about rising corporate power, wealth inequality, and poverty and the threats they posed to the nation’s republican values. By the 1990s some began to invoke the phrase, “Second Gilded Age,” to describe this era in an attempt to conger up images of an age of unrestrained robber baron industrialists and financiers, roiling social conflict, and a widening chasm between rich and poor.
This pessimistic view of the direction in which the United States was heading really took off in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 that triggered massive job losses and home foreclosures and a bitter debate over how the federal government should respond. Since that moment, references to the Gilded Age and invocations of a “Second Gilded Age” have become increasingly popular in public discourse. A quick search of the Lexis-Nexis database for the term Gilded Age shows 11 articles employing it in the 1970s, 76 in the 1980s, 184 in the 1990s, and 541 in the 2000s. And the trend shows no sign of abating as the period 2010-2012 already has generated 450 articles. Many books since 2008 now bear the phrase Gilded Age in their titles, such as Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), David Grusky and Tamar Kricheli-Katz, eds., The New Gilded Age: The Critical Inequality Debates of Our Time (Stanford, 2012); Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, Who Cares?: Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age (Princeton, 2010), Susan P. Crawford, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Yale, 2013); and Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi, eds., Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories from the New Gilded Age (NYU Press, 2011).
This sudden return of Gilded Age to common American parlance reflects a keen awareness of the eerie similarities between the United States of today and that of the last third of the nineteenth century. The nation then and now was consumed with intense debates over wealth inequality, labor unions, immigration, terrorism, women’s rights, family values, money in politics, voter eligibility, Wall Street recklessness, political polarization and paralysis, religion vs. secularism, individualism vs. the common good, free market capitalism vs. regulation, wars of choice vs. diplomacy. If we take a closer look at just one of these issues, we learn that in 1890 the top 1% of Americans owned 51% of all wealth, while the lower 44% owned just 1.2%. Income taxes, inheritance taxes, and other measures adopted since the early 20th century reduced wealth disparity significantly by 1979 to 20.5%. But since 1980 the trend has shifted dramatically back toward increased wealth and income inequality. By 2010 the top 1% owned 35.4% of all wealth, leading to the sudden popularization of the pejorative phrase “the 1%” among progressive protesters like the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Those who claim that the United States has entered a Second Gilded Age are not invoking the tired and thoroughly misleading notion that “history repeats itself.” Instead, they are guided (knowingly or unknowingly) by a maxim offered by Mark Twain, the man who coined the phrase, Gilded Age back in 1873: “The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” It is the ways in which our times rhyme with the late nineteenth century that many Americans who possess a sense of history find so disturbing.
In this series of articles I will explore this rhyming between the First Gilded Age and the Second Gilded Age. History does not offer a specific map, formula, or blue print for dealing effectively with contemporary social, economic, and political challenges. Yet we study history in part because we believe it allows us to understand where we as a society have come from and why things—institutions, ideas, practices, customs, and power arrangements—are as they are. We believe these insights have the capacity to guide individuals and societies as they make the choices that will shape the future. “Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past,” Daniel Boorstin once quipped, “is like trying to plant cut flowers.” In the late nineteenth century the United States faced a host of vexing challenges regarding policies related to economic opportunity, democracy, citizenship, freedom, and human rights. Likewise, the United States in the early 21st century also faces a great many problems that remind us of that past Gilded Age. What choices the American people and their political leaders make in the coming years will, as they did in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have a profound impact on the future vitality of their nation and its cherished values.