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Election of 2012: A New Gilded Age Election

Cartoon portraying U.S. President James Garfield as a farmer cutting down corruption with a scythe.

Cartoon portraying Guilded Age President James Garfield as a farmer cutting down corruption with a scythe. James Garfield Poster, Library of Congress, PD.

This post is adapted from remarks delivered at a special GAGE Colloquium on “The 2012 Presidential Election in Historical Context.”

The 1873 satirical novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, gave a name to the post-Civil War decades of free-wheeling political corruption and greed accompanied by unprecedented economic inequality. The United States is now experiencing a New Gilded Age, marked by a high degree of social and economic inequality comparable to the first Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, several other points of comparison between the two eras exist in politics, and thus the election of 2012 can be called a New Gilded Age Election.

The degree of inequality in wealth and income now prevailing in the United States, to a greater extent than in most developed and non-authoritarian countries, needs no demonstration. Indeed, as the Census Bureau reported in September, as median income for most Americans fell in 2011 the wealth gap between the richest 20 percent and everyone else increased.

The increasing economic and social inequality has created greater political inequality, and a great gulf between the financial and corporate elite and the middle and lower classes in their exercise of voice vis-à-vis their elected representatives and in relative ability to influence government policy. In the first Gilded Age, as now, the Senate consisted of a “millionaire’s club,” and the Supreme Court devoted itself to protecting corporations and “the money power” over the public interest and ordinary citizens. Then too lobbyists for big business, industrial corporations, and special interests literally bought state legislators and Congressmen. Now big contributors to representatives’ campaigns gain “access,” they say, with the difference between access and a bought vote apparent only to those involved in the exchange of money and votes.

Like the old Gilded Age, too, this is an era of very close elections. The 2008 election proved an exception, but pollsters predict that 2012 will be very close. Polls show that most of the voters who have already decided are evenly split and that the number of undecided is far smaller than usual. Moreover, Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s selection of the far-right wing Republican Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate indicates that—at least on the Republican side—2012 is shaping up as a “battle of the bases.” Admittedly, this has been more true of the Republican-Romney campaign than that of President Obama’s. And the Republicans are not only concentrating on rallying their base, but also have acted to diminish the Democratic base.

“Battles of the bases” characterize the elections of both Gilded Ages. Third parties competed more often in the first, and nothing like the People’s Party of the 1890s seems to be on our horizon, but there have been third party and independent eruptions in the second (1980, 1992, 2000). Challenges to party establishments in the second that might have been third parties in the first have occurred during long-running presidential primary contests. Many Tea Party upsets in the 2010 and 2012 Congressional primaries fall into this category.

Consider too similarities between the 1876 and 2000 elections: the intense competition and closeness of the election; the apparent partisanship of the Supreme Court,  and the Republicans in both instances showing—as historian John Milton Cooper, Jr., put it—“a much stronger will to win.” In 1876 the passions of the Civil War still embittered Gilded Age elections, and did so again in 1888 when the Republicans ousted a sitting Democratic president (Cleveland) while the country was enjoying an economic boom. That year the Republicans won by concentrating resources in a few swing states and by once again displaying “a near-fanatical zeal for victory,” wanting “revenge after having lost the White House in 1884 for the first time since 1860.”

During the first Gilded Age Republican industrialist, politico, and McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna famously said that just two things mattered in politics: money, and he could not remember the second. In our time Rahm Emmanuel, after being elected to Congress, explained to his staffers the facts of campaigning: “The first third of your campaign is money, money, money. The second third is money, money, and press. And the last third is votes, press and money.”

During the late nineteenth century the GOP enjoyed a significant advantage over the Democrats in the money and resources it could devote to winning elections. With the exception of 2008, Republicans during the past fifty years have tended to out-raise and outspend Democrats, and in 2012 that advantage is returning to them. Citizens United (and before it Buckley v. Vallejo), the emergence of Super PACs, as well as tax-exempt groups posing as “charities,” and the laissez-faire approach to whatever campaign finance regulations remain, has moved the power of money in elections to warp speed. Overall, the two ages coincide in having what Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen described in 2012 as an “anything goes atmosphere.”

Another parallel between the politics of the two Gilded Ages exists in partisan efforts to influence the outcome of elections by using various kinds of methods to control voters. In the nineteenth century, factory and mine owners, mostly Republican, used coercion to control workers’ votes. Democrats had far fewer resources to do this but in the cities they  employed gangs of partisans to coerce voters at the ballot box; cultural coercion as well often came into play, with members of ethnic groups demanding group conformity.

In the South it was different. There, the Democratic Party, the party of white supremacy, often intimidated, coerced, or manipulated African American voters, and in places did not hesitate to threaten or use violence. In the South’s Black Belt and elsewhere counties with large African American populations often reported election returns that were egregiously fraudulent. By the 1890s Southern states embarked on a program of simply eliminating black voting with Jim Crow laws and continued threats of violence.  

Since 2010 Republicans have used their control of state legislatures to pass laws making it difficult for Democratic groups to vote. Thirty three states have passed voter identification laws, as well as other measures designed to chip away at the Democratic base, laws affecting African Americans, college students, the elderly, and the poor. The rationale for these laws is to prevent voter fraud, but in fact in-person voter fraud, impersonation, is so rare as to be virtually non-existent.

When Ohio’s Republican secretary of state scaled back early voting opportunities, the Republican chairman of Franklin County, which includes Columbus, commented that “I really… feel that we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African American-voter turnout machine.” In Pennsylvania, after passage of the voter identification law, House Republican leader Mike Turzai commented: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania, done.” In Florida, in the thirteen months that ended in August 2012, 11,365 persons registered to vote, compared to a total of 209,425 during that period before the elections of 2004 and 2008.

Running parallel to Republican sponsored state laws designed to suppress primarily the turnout of Democratic voting groups are well organized efforts by a Tea Party offshoot, True the Vote, to prevent African Americans, college students, and other groups in Democratic districts from casting their votes. Although organized partisans in the mid-nineteenth century, as Richard Bensel has shown, practiced voter intimidation and coercion routinely at polling places in American cities, nothing quite like the Tea Party and its national infrastructure for voter suppression existed then. True the Vote, as the New York Times put it, “descends on a largely minority precinct and combs the registration records for the slightest misspelling or address error.” It then swarms the polls physically and challenges voters, and while almost all its challenges have been without merit, delays, arguments, and intimidation work to reduce Democratic turnout.

The Tea Party can be compared to late nineteenth-century pressure groups such as the women’s movement and prohibition, but none of them, at least up to the emergence of the People’s Party in the 1890s, enjoyed the success of the Tea Party. The Tea Party seems to have largely occupied the body of the Republican Party, pushing it far to the extreme right. It has exercised increasing clout in choosing the GOP’s candidates and in setting its agenda. And the Tea Party ideologues at both the elite and rank and file levels long for an America that existed before the New Deal and Great Society, indeed, before the Progressive Movement.

Thus, in a more significant way 2012 does not resemble the elections of the first Gilded Age. Unlike parties today, during Twain’s era the Republican and Democratic parties differed little in ideology or policies—tweedledum and tweedledee, some said. But today’s parties do offer competing visions: the Republicans would like to return to the weak government and largely unregulated economy of the nineteenth century, while Democrats—much of the time—are committed to using government to lessen the effects of inequality, and largely accept the expansion of government power during the twentieth century. (That the Republicans in power and practice have advanced the expansion of government cannot be explored here.) Yet neither party seems prepared to address the long-term causes of gross economic and political inequalities the Founders of this nation would condemn as undemocratic as well as un-republican.

Ronald P. Formisano is the author of The Tea Party: A Brief History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and the William T. Bryan Chair of American History at the University of Kentucky.

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