Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

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.