“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” – Attributed to Mark Twain
What struck me while reading through this chapter, is how similar the Gilded Age was from our current political and economic situation. While women and people of color are much more integrated into the politics, the system works about the same as it did back then.
Wealth and Poverty
The Gilded Age was marked by the simultaneous existence of extreme poverty of the many and excessive wealth of the few. While workers toiled to get what pittance they could from the collective value they produced, their employers took the rest and lived lavishly.
While the poor lived in squalor in cramped tenement buildings, the rich were hosting incredibly expensive parties where they liked to pretend that they’re European royalty. Ironically enough, they were doing the very thing that prompted the French Revolution over a century earlier which saw the end to the lives of many royals at the hands of angry, destitute peasants.
Two Parties of the Same
The two party system of the United States saw very little action in this era because they are both parties by and for the rich and powerful. As the textbook states, “Political paralysis stemmed from the power of corporate interests to use huge donations to political parties and bribery of lawmakers to stymie legislation they deemed harmful to their interests.”
Political machines took advantage of the devastating poverty at the time by giving the poor the illusion that they had someone on their side in politics. In reality, they simply bribed the poor by helping them pay for things they needed in exchange for votes.
The Creation and Destruction of Populism
As people began to see that the two old parties left a lot to be desired for the average person, many began to seek new politics. The People’s Party rose from this dissatisfaction. The party was founded upon acknowledging and solving the sources of many societal ills facing the average person as opposed to simply alleviating some of the symptoms.
Seeing the People’s Party’s potential to upset the status quo, both parties set out to destroy their credibility by describing them as idealists with lofty and impossible pursuits. Despite this, however, the party succeeded in making great gains in the 1892 election. As the text states, they elected “almost 1,500 candidates to state legislatures, three governors, and five senators and ten representatives to Congress.”
As promising as it was beginning to look, The People’s Party simply was no match for the established powers of the day and, in the end, dwindled and disappeared.