8 Ways America's Headed Back to the Robber-Baron Era
Over the past 40 years, corporations and politicians have rolled back many of the gains made by working and middle-class people over the previous century. We have the highest level of income inequality in 90 years, both private and public sector unions are under a concerted attack, and federal and state governments intend to cut deficits by slashing services to the poor.
We are recreating the Gilded Age, the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when corporations ruled this nation, buying politicians, using violence against unions, and engaging in open corruption. During the Gilded Age, many Americans lived in stark poverty, in crowded tenement housing, without safe workplaces, and lacked any safety net to help lift them out of hard times.
With Republicans more committed than ever to repealing every economic gain the working-class has achieved in the last century and the Democrats seemingly unable to resist, we need to understand the Gilded Age to see what conservatives are trying to do to this nation. Here are 8 ways our corporations, politicians and courts are trying to recreate the Gilded Age.
1. Unregulated Corporate Capitalism Creates Economic Collapse
In the late 19th century, corrupt railroad capitalists created the Panic of 1873 and Panic of 1893 through lying about their business activities, buying off politicians and siphoning off capital into their own pockets. Railroad corporations set up phony corporations that allowed them to embezzle money from the railroad into their bank accounts. When exposed, the entire economy collapsed as banks failed around the country. The Panic of 1893 lasted five years, created 25% unemployment, and was the worst economic crisis in American history before the Great Depression.
In the early 21st century, the poorly regulated financial industry plunged the nation into the longest economic downturn since the Depression. Like in the Gilded Age, none of the culprits have served a day in prison.
2. Union Busting
In the Gilded Age, business used the power of the state to crush labor unions. President Hayes called in the Army to break the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; President Cleveland did the same against the Pullman strikers in 1894.
Today’s corporations don’t have to use such blunt force to destroy unions, but like in the past, they convince the government to do their bidding. Whether it is holding up FAA renewal in order to make it harder for airline employees to unionize, Republican members of the National Labor Relations Board leaking material on cases to Republican insiders, or governors Scott Walker and John Kasich seeking to bust their states’ public sector unions, not since before the Great Depression has the government attacked unions with such force.
3. Income Inequality
Today, we have the highest levels of income inequality since the 1920s and the gap is widening to late 19th century levels with great speed. In those days, individuals like John D. Rockefeller had more money than the federal government, while the majority of Americans lived in squalor, poverty and disease.
In the Progressive Era, we started creating laws like the federal income tax, child labor laws and workers’ compensation to begin giving workers a fair share of the pie. For decades, labor fought to increase their share and by the 1970s, had turned much of the working class into the middle class. Today, that middle class is under attack by a new generation of plutocrats who wish to recreate the massive fortunes of the Gilded Age.
4. Open Purchase of Elections
In 1890, copper magnate William Clark paid Montana lawmakers $140,000 to elect him to the U.S. Senate. While most plutocrats did not share Clark’s interest in being politicians, they ensured their lackeys would serve in office, often by offering corporate stock to politicians. Disgusted by this corruption, America in the Progressive Era of the early 20th century created a number of reforms, including the 17th Amendment that created direct elections of senators, as well as a 1912 Montana state law limiting corporate expenditures in politics.