Writing near the turn of the 20th century, the great American scholar, memoirist, and novelist Henry Adams observed that politics has “always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” The robber baron Jay Gould took this to heart when he explained his own theory of staying on top: “pay one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
If you think you’re hearing echoes of our own time in the politics of the Gilded Age, you’re right. In his new book The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics, the historian Jefferson Cowie observes: “The Republicans sought to retain the power of the native-born Protestants, support industry, and [lead the battle] against a raft of ‘intruders.’” Republican Congressman Fred S. Purnell said he found “little or no similarity between the clear-thinking, self-governing stocks that sired the American people and this stream of irresponsible and broken wreckage that is pouring into the lifeblood of America the social and political diseases of the Old World.”
Following the decades of historically low inequality that began with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, America has skidded back into distribution patterns that match those of Gould’s day. Corporate profits are the highest ever measured, and workers’ wages are the smallest as a percentage of GDP. Unions are on the ropes, while the superrich celebrate themselves with bought-and-paid-for politicians and media outlets. It’s no wonder that in today’s mash-up of politics, celebrity, and massive wealth, we have a Muslim-defaming, immigrant-blaming presidential candidate leading the Republican pack who combines all three.
In the previous Gilded Age, religion and ethnicity served as the great disuniters of the working class. In his 2010 book Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States?, the sociologist Robin Archer writes that labor leaders, even in their heyday, “feared that if workers were forced to choose between union solidarity and their partisan and religious loyalties, they would choose the latter, and the unions themselves would be destroyed.” Trump’s occasional nods to economic populism no doubt appeal to some union members, but so too, one suspects, does his scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants.
Cowie argues that the Manichaean ethos of our present-day politics is the norm throughout our history, not the exception. Liberals who consistently hark back to the New Deal as a model for how we can create a fairer, more just social order are fooling themselves. The New Deal era and its aftermath actually represent “a sustained deviation, an extended detour…from some of the main contours of American political practice, economic structure, and cultural outlook.” The government’s focus on the well-being of everyday Americans was the result of “short-lived, historical circumstances…generated by the trauma of the Depression and World War II,” and therefore would be impossible to reproduce today.
Among the most obvious differences between then and now is the integration of people of color into the fabric of mainstream society. African Americans in the South were purposely excluded from the New Deal, a political necessity in the eyes of FDR—and almost all historians—to secure the cooperation of the racist Southern committee chairs in Congress. The civil-rights movement reordered this structure, turning the South red and our cities blue. But the reforms of the Fair Deal and the Great Society focused on individual rights, not on New Deal–style collective action. As Cowie notes: “The most important democratic advances of U.S. history—for instance, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts—stand as milestones in a continuing struggle to expand individual rights.” Ironically, the exclusion of black people from the New Deal was probably fundamental to its success.
“The cultural homogeneity of the postwar era—while deeply flawed, problematic, and forced—made the United States just a bit closer to Northern European–style politics,” Cowie explains, “providing, in Richard Hofstadter’s terms, a ‘social-democratic tinge’ where it existed neither before nor after.” Today, individual-centered slogans like the “right to choose,” “gay rights,” “welfare rights,” and “consumer rights” dominate our discourse.
When 1960s-style identity politics supplanted the New Deal’s class-based appeal among liberals, it was both a return to normalcy and an invitation to the divide-and-conquer strategy that worked so well for the plutocracy in the past. Today’s intra-progressive fights over the centrality of Black Lives Matter, the significance of a female president, and the online manners of “Bernie bros” and their detractors demonstrate just a few of the perils of allowing these divisions to fester at a time when the well-being of everyone but the extremely wealthy is under siege.
Other factors are combining to make a revival of New Deal–style politics seem like a pipe dream. It’s not simply that money is massively more powerful than before. According to The Rise and Fall of American Growth, a new, doorstop-size study by the iconoclastic economist Robert J. Gordon, the era of sustained growth on which the social and economic advances of postwar America rested is gone for good. We can now look forward to an age, as Paul Krugman put it, of “stagnant living standards for most Americans…reinforced by a set of ‘headwinds’: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.”
Beginning midway through Jimmy Carter’s presidency, with the New Deal order wheezing on life support, Democrats tried to save themselves by aping right-wing arguments about government being the problem, not the solution, to the challenges that ordinary Americans faced. By tying themselves to the mast of a corrupt campaign-finance system, they have helped to make it so. Admitting their great mistake in this regard would be a first step; fighting to change it, the necessary next one.