During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, there was a great deal of money to be made. A class of men known as tycoons became insanely wealthy and a sharp divide grew between the haves and have-nots in American society. In an age that embraced ideas of social Darwinism, the rich came to believe that they deserved to be rich, that by the act of being rich they were better than everyone else; not only in the sense that wealth made them better but in that being better made them wealthy. Those who were poor, under- or un-employed or starving on the streets deserved their lot in life. They were poor because they were inferior.
The Gilded Age was the starting point of the Progressive movement in America, and is it any surprise? It was a time when women had no rights, blacks had no rights, workers had no rights, an age when children were worked to death in horrible conditions, and adults too. The common people had no remedy, no retirement, no health insurance, no laws to protect them from the awful conditions of their lives, lives made more brutal by the rapacity of the rich tycoons who literally lorded it over them from mansions that still inspire awe today.
The industrialization of the country, which brought so much wealth to so few, left most of the rest struggling to get by as wage laborers, working for someone else in the factory or on the farm. And wealth influenced and co-opted the government at all levels, through unregulated campaign contributions, vote buying, and similar machinations.
It’s not a pretty picture. Beatty emphasizes “the grinding poverty, the bloody racial hatred, the violent labor strikes, and the corrupt politics that also characterize that era.” The similarities to our own age are clear: “once again a yawning gap has opened between rich and poor, and political influence is available for the taking by anyone willing and able to pay.”
This is the world the complete lack of regulation created. This is the world Republicans would have us return to.
It was in the wake of this era that businesses came together at the invitation of President Taft and created the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The government used to work closely with the corporations. You might say the corporations owned the government. The corporations liked it this way. They made money, they got rich, and the government helped them do it, allegedly in the interest of the United States.
Beatty points out the William Jennings Bryan changed all that.
Breaking with the sterile anti-statism of his party, Bryan said that government should be active on behalf of the people. That’s the turn in the Democratic party. Essentially, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and the rest followed where Bryan led. Government should act to protect the people against private power, through anti-trust. It should act with old-age pensions, and with workers’ compensation, and the like. Bryan is often rendered as a backward-looking pastoralist. But in fact, he began modern politics, because he introduced the populist impulse into the Democratic party—the idea that government should support the people.
The corporations didn’t like this. They never did. It was about them, they said. They somehow inserted themselves into the Founding documents as “We the Corporations” and now the Supreme Court has even ruled that like us, corporations are people. It is now legal to buy elections; it is even legal to do it with foreign money. The corporations fought tooth and nail against the progressive movement and they are fighting still, and they seem to be turning the tables on us.
Unregulated capitalism gave us the evils of the Gilded Age. Unregulated capitalism gave us the crash of 2008 that has left not just America, but much of the world, reeling. This is the Republican promise: more rape of America and of the American people so that a few rich people can get richer, so that corporations can ignore regulation or even by the votes to have it cast aside, so that they can do whatever they want to whomever they want to get richer. Be damned to the planet and to the people who live on it. Answerable to no one, they will foist a new Gilded Age upon us.
And the Chamber of Commerce would ease their way. Look at some of the backward-looking stances taken by that body:
- Pro-Social Security Reform
- Pro-Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Drilling
- Pro-Offshore Oil Drilling
- Pro-Nuclear Power
- Pro-corporate globalization/free trade
- Against taxation increase on businesses
- Against raising Minimum Wages
- Against many union-supported polices
- Against the Affordable Health Care for America Act
- Opposes the Scientific opinion on climate change
These are all stances that should chill the heart of any American who believes in equality and in the rights of the common people. These are all policies that serve the rich and the rich alone, that serve to widen the gap between rich and poor and to consolidate power (and government) in the hands of a few.
And Glen Beck is the Chamber’s big supporter. According to Media Matters,
This week, Fox News host Glenn Beck joined News Corp. as a major backer of the Chamber of Commerce: Beck’s call for donations to the Chamber on the October 14 edition of his radio show earned him on-air praise from the group’s top brass and drove so much traffic to the Chamber’s contribution website that it crashed.
Apparently an adherent of the view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so-called populist warrior Beck implored his audience to fork over their hard-earned cash to corporate darling Chamber of Commerce, “just because the Obama administration hates them.”
The Gilded Age was a pretty awful time unless you were that top 1% of the population. Things were great for them. They could legally rape the rest of us – and they did. And they want to again. And the Republicans want to enable them. The Party of Big Business, they want to re-introduce us to the world our forefathers knew, a world where our betters could use us into the grave to line their pockets. They get their Golden Parachutes; we don’t even get a retirement.
That’s the world they want. Is it the world you want?