A historian explains why we keep comparing today to the Gilded Age.
Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate and one of the 19th century’s richest men, made an offhand remark while bragging about his wealth to a newspaper reporter in early 1892: “It isn’t the man who does the work that makes the money. It’s the man who gets other men to do it.”
Several months later while on vacation in Scotland, Carnegie sent a telegram approving of his deputy’s decision to unleash a private army on strikers and their families at his steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, sparking a bloody gun battle that left at least 10 dead and dozens seriously wounded.
Carnegie was getting other men to do the work.
Accounts like these pepper tales of the Gilded Age, the period in US history roughly from the end of the Civil War to the start of the 20th century. They have made the term “Second Gilded Age” a convenient shorthand for affluent arrogance and economic inequity today.
The term “Second” or “New Gilded Age” has been appearing in print for nearly four decades, describing everything from the junk-bond 1980s to the internet-bubble 1990s, and the Collateralized-Debt-Obligation 2000s to the top-1-percent 2010s.
As a historian of US class relations, I understand the appeal. The comparison — though superficial — keeps working because economic inequality keeps growing, and most Americans associate the Gilded Age first and foremost with excesses and egotism of great wealth.
But those who use the phrase “Second Gilded Age” to criticize contemporary inequality are also paying unintended tribute to Carnegie’s logic. They are trying to get a previous historical era to do the work of offering critiques and solutions for this one’s problems. Our grasp of both eras suffers for it.
The Gilded Age comparison beguiles us — and not even as much as it could
The temptation of the comparison is understandable on storytelling grounds alone. Gilded Age elites cut a detestably memorable and therefore useful profile, from shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt spitting, “The public be damned!,” to financier Jay Gould boasting that he could “hire one-half the working class to shoot the other half to death.”
Railroad sleeping-car king George Pullman knew how loathed he was: he arranged to have his coffin sealed with lead and buried at night in a steel-and-concrete vault 8 feet deep, lest workers desecrate his corpse in revenge for the way he exploited them in life.
Even Gilded Age parties rankle democratic sensibilities. Amid a global depression in 1897, New York millionaires including banker J.P. Morgan and real estate heiress Caroline Astor spent several fortunes impersonating ancien régimeroyalty at a Waldorf Astoria costume ball while the unemployed huddled in the streets outside.
The very phrase “Gilded Age” conjures cartoon visions of such individuals. They seem an ideal historical comparison for today’s “bailout billionaires” who purchase politicians, award employees accused of sexual harassment with rich exit packages, and spend millions to hire rock stars for birthday parties.
Yet historians such as Steve Fraser and James Livingston have rightly objected to the notion that today we are in a second Gilded Age. They point to the stark economic contrasts in the two eras: industrialization, rising working-class wages, and violent class conflict in the first Gilded Age; de-industrialization, falling working-class wages, and what Fraser calls “acquiescence” to exploitation — including modern phenomenons like mass stock ownership, the gig economy, mass indebtedness, and more — today.
Recent wildcat strikes and the election of democratic socialists to Congress have made this last claim somewhat less tenable than it was before 2016, but relative to the Gilded Age’s literal class war, the upsurge in resistance remains mild.
Yet the problems with the “Second Gilded Age” idea don’t end with the flawed historical similarities. In some ways, those it omits are more telling.
It was during the Gilded Age that African-American men — who had just secured voting rights in the 15th Amendment — were disenfranchised through legal chicanery and racist, state-sanctioned violence. The Supreme Court’s 1883 gutting of the first US Civil Rights Act opened the way for the subsequent consolidation of Jim Crow law.
A hundred and thirty years later, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, enabling a flood of state-level Voter ID legislation targeting low-income voters of color. Meanwhile, the pairing of a wantonly violent and racist criminal justice system with laws that impede felon and ex-felon suffrage decimates the black vote.
Soon after the Civil War, the US Army accelerated long-running efforts to expel Native Americans from ancestral lands across the continent, sometimes claiming to be fighting “barbarism and terrorism” as a pretext for Gilded Age projects of occupation and natural resource extraction.
Such justifications for imperial military action echo from the 1870s to the 2000s, whether serving to target Sioux gold in the Black Hills or black gold in Iraq.
The Gilded Age also included white nationalist, anti-immigrant movements. Their legislative culmination was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States.
Last year, President Donald Trump succeeded in imposing restrictions on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He continues, as he has since his 2016 campaign launch, to make political hay by demonizing migrants from Mexico and Central America.
These surface historical parallels seem so obvious. Why don’t they tend to come up in columns decrying our “Second Gilded Age?”
Solutions for Gilded Age inequality won’t work for ours
It might have something to do with how the first Gilded Age ended.
In the liberal historical imagination, the economic reforms of the Progressive Era and New Deal years in the first half of the 20th century — primarily higher taxes, stricter regulations of business and finance, and greater government investment in public enterprise — vanquished Gilded Age inequality.
This happy version of the story has many heroes, most of whom tend to be middle-class intellectuals and technocratic politicians: muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell who exposed robber barons, government appointees like Frances Perkins who fought to protect workers, and seemingly anti-laissez-faire presidents like Woodrow Wilson and the two Roosevelts.
Little wonder that the usual proposed solution for the “Second Gilded Age” is either a “second Progressive Era” or a “New New Deal.”
But this understanding distorts the history of the demise of the Gilded Age’s inequality and misleads us today.
Although middle-class philanthropists and technocratic politicians gave voice to policies that began to curtail inequality, they did not generate the conditions that made such policies either politically possible or effective. That took decades of widespread, sustained, and explicit anti-capitalist organizing from working people — in labor unions, youth groups, radical political parties, and coalitions of mass protest — from the 1870s through the 1940s. Cold War liberalism’s backlash against such radicalism was fierce and helped fuel the rise of the right.
Progressives and New Dealers also achieved their reforms by reaffirming the Gilded Age’s ideological and legal commitments to white supremacy, imperialism, and xenophobia. The mainstream labor movement marginalized radicals and underwrote imperial nationalism. Signature New Deal legislation — the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act — discriminated against women and African Americans by excluding domestic and agricultural workers, valorizing the white male family wage earner.
The “solutions” that ended Gilded Age inequality, in other words, became a crucial seedbed for our own era’s historically distinct expressions of inequality.
The “Second Gilded Age” is a gilded analogy. We have not been through all this before. We won’t emerge from it by reanimating the politics of the past. New solutions are wanting.
Unlike Carnegie, we don’t have the luxury of getting others to do the work.
David Huyssen is the author of Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920. He is working on a new book about the socialist who created the hedge fund, and teaches Modern American History at the University of York in the UK. Follow him on Twitter: @davidhuyssen.
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