An (18)90s Throwback: America and the Second Gilded Age

Nina Henry ’19
Contributing Writer

American politics is experiencing a serious blast from the past: not Delano Democracy or Reagan Republicanism, as has been suggested by both parties, but 1890s style nativism, extreme income inequality and social darwinism.

In the most recent GOP debate, moderator John Harwood told candidates that “Ben Bernanke recently wrote a book in which he said he no longer considers himself a Republican because the Republican party has given in to know-nothingism.” “Know-nothing” is, in fact, a historical reference, not an accusation of ignorance, as Sen. Rand Paul seemed to interpret the statement.

The Know-Nothing political party, which reached peak popularity in the 1850s, was a strongly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic group that limited its membership to white Protestant men. One member described Catholicism, the religion of many new immigrants, as “the ally of tyranny, the opponent of material prosperity, the foe of thrift, the enemy of the railroad, the caucus, and the school.” In the 1850s, popular cartoons showed German and Irish immigrants literally running away with the ballot box, wearing barrels labeled “Lager Bier” and “Whiskey.”

More than 150 years later, Donald Trump spoke of immigration from Mexico: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you; they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

Marco Rubio, another Republican presidential candidate, described the “most important” qualifier for immigration as “whether or not you’re coming here to become an American, not just live in America but be an American.” Many pieces of anti-immigrant legislation, such as the 1870 Naturalization Act, hinged on the idea of assimilation, excluding any culture deemed too “different” to blend into American society. Xenophobic sentiment is nothing new in American political rhetoric. What is surprising is the popular support generated by these statements so many years later.

Another hallmark of the mid-to-late Victorian period was an extreme wage gap. Unfortunately, most records can only trace back to the 1910s, but many economists speculate the U.S.’s rate of income inequality is the highest it has ever been. A 2011 study found that since the late 1970s, the wealthiest one percent of Americans doubled their incomes, while the vast majority of workers’ wages remain stagnant despite historic productivity highs. “The State of Working America,” a publication of the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, found that the average CEO makes over 200 times the salary of the average worker, compared to 30 times in the 1970s.

This trend is not limited to salaries. Between 1860 and 1900, the wealthiest two percent of Americans controlled a third of the nation’s wealth. Most shocking of all, we haven’t returned to Victorian super-inequality; we’ve surpassed it. As of 2011, the wealthiest one percent of Americans control 42.7 percent of American wealth, according to a study done by UC Santa Barbara.

The economic philosophies of the Gilded Age have also returned with a vengeance, most notably social darwinism. Writing for the Huffington Post in 2011, UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich described social darwinism as the theory that “life was a competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive – and through this struggle, societies became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that government should do little or nothing to help those in need because that would interfere with natural selection.”

In his article, Reich claimed that the 2012 presidential election saw this rhetoric used in spades. For example, “Ron Paul was asked at a Republican debate in September [2011] what medical response he’d recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma. Paul’s response: ‘That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.’ In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.” This mirrors William Graham Sumner’s 1883 assertion that “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be … The law of survival of the fittest was not made by man, and it cannot be abrogated by man.  We can only, by interfering with it, produce the survival of the unfittest.”

Historians looking to analyze the upcoming election should look further back than they might expect, as the buzzwords and themes of contemporary politics are becoming increasingly Victorian. American politicians are putting forth theories that would be considered dated on “Downton Abbey:” Immigrants are viewed as criminals looking to destroy America, it’s acceptable that an ultra-wealthy class owns staggering percentages of the national wealth and the social safety net is seen as just a system of entitlement. So get out your monocle and velocipede — it’s time for an 1890s throwback.

One Comment

  1. Dr. Necessitor says:

    Ms. Henry, this is a fantastic opinion piece. I’ve been thinking along the same lines but you actually did the research. Well done!

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