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.