In the US and in several other nations, we seem to be sliding back to a socio-political-industrial-military situation that is similar to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Vast income inequality, nasty divisive partisan politics, chest-thumping nationalism, military buildups and adventurism, and a backlash against immigrants.
Answer by Murray Godfrey:
I think we’re descending back into a more technologically advanced & more comfortable version of the situation that existed in the late 19th century, better known of as the “Gilded Age.” There are so many similarities I should write a book on them.
- Technological advances create a rapidly changing economy resulting in gross wealth inequality where the rich became insanely rich, a beourgening upper middle class, but for those who couldn’t get on the right side of the changes – displacement, frustration and anger.
- Much of that anger was taken out on immigrants, of which there were many, and they were bringing with them rapid cultural changes. Immigration was one of the most divisive issues of the era & many called for immigration restrictions or bans. Some were passed. There was also anger against minorities.
- It was generally an era of economic expansion, but it was boom and bust to the extreme, and those busts hurt the working classes the worst. There were cataclysmic financial crises in 1873 and 1893 due to lack of regulation. They caused depressions that lasted 5–7 years afterward. There was a smaller financial panic and downturn in 1884.
- A rise of nationalism, often ethno-centric nationalism, around the world.*
- There were no particular international threats to the United States, but a vague sense of insecurity, assisted by the sometimes violent activities of extremists around the world (at that time, radical anarchists) and instability in certain parts of the world (at that time – the Balkans, Russia/Eastern Europe, China). The end of the era featured a rapid military buildup by the most technologically advanced countries in order to fight….. no one in particular.**
- Through all this, the U.S. government seemed to do NOTHING to help people, mired in a seemingly unending cacophony of circular arguments and insults. The politics were nasty. Oh the government did some stuff, but nothing of note that makes the cut into most history books. Urban growth & technological innovation makes the history books.
- Politics were extraordinarily divided on a partisan basis – the presidency and both houses of congress were only controlled by the same party for 4 years out of 20 between 1876 and 1896. What’s more, it was divided over petty and personal issues, both within the parties and between them. Every presidential election between 1876 and 1900 was decided by 2 or 3 states and a few thousand votes, usually in New York and Indiana. Five elections in a row were like that.
- Two out of the five elections in the period resulted in presidents who won the electoral college but lost the popular vote.
- Part of the reason for the closeness of the elections was because the party coalitions were disparate but fairly evenly matched. There were defections from both parties to a variety of 3rd party movements too, which meant that the presidents typically won with less than 50% of the popular vote.
- There was a distinct lack of respect, practically virulence, among both politicians and their partisans for the leaders and supporters of their opponents. Democrats and Republicans hated each other’s guts. It was worse than the 1960s.
Despite what anyone tells you about the 1960s/70s, the Cold War was a powerful mechanism of unity that promoted a kind of consensus despite visible protest for/against Civil Rights or the Vietnam War. Despite that, it was possible to forge consensus across party lines from 1945 through the early 2000s. Presidents from Truman to Bush (the younger) were able to do it on a variety of issues, although it started to get harder in the 1990s and Bush’s No Child Left Behind probably represents the last true major bi-partisan legislation in recent history.
Is it going to get worse?
If that history is any guide, it will get worse before it gets better. We could have several more elections similar to the vitriol of 2016. I fully expect Donald Trump to encourage it, since he is a creature that thrives off of it (a 19th century analogue would have been Roscoe Conkling). The characteristics & trends I mentioned above persisted for 3 decades before a consensus on domestic affairs began to congeal circa the early 1900s, in part around the personality of Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s like a person with a weight problem. The United States did not get this way overnight. The weight will thus not come off overnight. I’m not sure how far we’re into this divisiveness problem, but in my opinion the divisions revealed themselves with the 1998 Clinton impeachment. If so, we’re about in the middle right now, hopefully over the hump.
*We can hope that the recent defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands is an indication this is not as strong as a movement as we thought after Brexit and Trump. We still have the more important cases of France and Germany coming up this year
**The arms buildup occurred in most of the powerful nations, all starting in the 1870s-80s more or less and continuing into the 20th century. It erupted into World War I, which started over some inconsequential b.s. I sincerely hope that does not occur again, but we are getting close to “due” for a world conflict, which typically occurred once every 75–100 years or so since the modern era began (~1500). We are currently in year 72 since the last global conflict.
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