Why Next to No Political Reaction to the Second Gilded Age?, by Brad DeLong:
...During the Gilded Age of the 1890s and 1900s you had strong political movements
saying "something is going remarkably wrong with this, this isn’t the country we
thought we were going to live in"...
Brad DeLong: ...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
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
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.
(This is speculative, but I'll give it a shot) I would certainly start by noting the different levels of initial national
wealth -- we started from a much higher base this time -- and the presence of
social insurance. If we didn't have food stamps, unemployment compensation, and
other private and public social backstops to help people through tough times, and a relatively high level of initial wealth
to rely upon, the effects would have been much more severe and the response to the Great Recession might have been more like the response to the Great Depression. But as Brad notes, it wasn't just the reaction to the Great Depression that produced a populist movement, it existed before the Great Depression hit. I think you can see elements of a populist movement in recent decades, but it's nowhere as strong as prior to the Great Depression. Again, I think part of this is different levels of initial wealth and the existence of a large middle class, but maybe there is something else too.
I think it matters a lot whether we think of inequality as arising from a problem in the system as a whole, or as the result of individual failures. When people think it's the system as a whole -- the rich and powerful are scheming to hold everyone else down (e.g. robber barons) -- mass movements are more likely than when it is viewed as simply the failings of individuals. I think many people viewed the last few decades as a time of great opportunity. If you weren't rich, or at least doing very well, it was because you hadn't tried hard enough. Anyone who wanted a decent job could get one if they were willing to put out the requisite effort. The Great Recession changed that somewhat, but even now many people want to blame our problems on the poor decisions of individuals, some even try to cast blame for the recession on the decisions of low income households to try to buy houses, rather than some inherent failure within the capitalist system.
Let me back up. Prior to the Great Depression, there was a battle between those who believed the system was at fault (and hence pushed populist remedies) versus those who thought some people were simply less capable and destined to be poor no matter what we did to help them -- it was the duty of the head of the household to provide for their family, and those who didn't were looked down upon. They must not be trying hard enough, they were lazy, etc. But the Great Depression made it clear that trying hard wasn't always sufficient. People who had been able to support their families their whole lives, and were determined to do so during the depression no matter what it took, couldn't. It wasn't a matter of individual effort, or how hard one tried, these was simply no work to be found for great numbers of "upstanding" citizens.
If the people who were known to be willing to do whatever it took to provide for their families could not, then it must be the system, not the individual that was a fault and this was a key idea that allowed social insurance to be passed after the Great Depression. The money wasn't going to no good, lazy people who didn't deserve it, it was going to people who deserved to be helped when the capitalist system, which was known to cycle ruthlessly through booms and busts, let them down. People needed insurance against events that were out of their individual control.
This time around, it came as a bit of a shock that they system could still let us down. Many people thought we were beyond Great Depressions/Recessions -- hence the claim above that most failings prior to our recent troubles were viewed as individual rather than the fault of the system. But even though people began to realize it wasn't always a matter of individual effort and ability, since we already have many social insurance protections in place the outcry this time isn't to produce a bunch of new social insurance programs to protect the vulnerable as it was after the Great Depression. Instead, it led to a renewed realization of the value of social insurance (at least I hope this is true) and the fight presently is to maintain or expand what we already have versus scaling back our social protections. I think that, without the Great Recession, our social insurance programs would be even more vulnerable than they are presently. Thus, unlike Brad, I think there have been noticeable effects in shoring up "populist" support for these types of programs. But where I agree, and what I see as puzzling, is why the reaction from those who depend upon these programs hasn't been even stronger. Why are these programs vulnerable at all?