Thursday, October 18, 2012

Politics and Wealth in Isaac's Day

What That "Wave of Prosperity" Is Doing

"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."  Louis D. Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice (b. 1856 - d. 1941)

Ask most people about the Gilded Age and they will perhaps mention the mansions along 5th Avenue in NYC or the elaborate summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island, or they may recall names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Gould.  What they are unlikely to mention are the factory workers, miners, steel workers, and farmers struggling to survive during an era better known for its extravagant displays of wealth.  This is the era during which Isaac Werner wrote in his journal about farmers who signed mortgages when rain did seem to follow the plow and prices for crops were high, only to face foreclosure and starvation when drought, low prices, and higher interest rates defeated hope and hard work. 
Early America, when industry meant local craftsmen--like blacksmiths, barrel makers, tanners, tinsmiths, and millers, or crafts such as candle making, spinning, weaving, and butchering done at home--changed around the time of the Civil War to a nation of steel mills, factories, and corporations.  The United States male population described by Alexis de Toqueville in 1835 as having "...greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world..." had been replaced in only a few decades by a nation of great economic inequality among men.  Vast wealth brought disproportionate power and political influence.
The Gilded Age was the time during which the populist movement was born.  Farmers like Isaac joined laborers to confront the political influence of the wealthy few with the greater voting strength of the many.  Disproportionate wealth distribution during the Gilded Age is similar to current economic statistics referred to as the 1% vs. the 99%.  However, in Isaac's time government social programs to assist the aged, the disabled, and the unemployed were not available, and people literally starved.  Although the People's Party of Isaac's time failed in its attempt to establish itself as an enduring third party, many of the issues championed by the People's Party were subsequently implemented, including social programs and government regulations upon which Americans now rely. 
If you can afford to buy an election you can afford to pay higher taxes!
Today, the political debate about the disappearing middle class and economic inequity sounds very similar to issues debated during the Gilded Age.  The money pouring in to political ads since the Citizens United case was decided by the US Supreme Court has only made the significance of one citizen's vote more doubtful for some Americans, regardless of party affiliation.  (The  sidewalk graffiti posted on facebook garnered "likes" from friends of all political attitudes.)
One presidential candidate has declared that "Corporations are people too," although the definition in Black's Legal Dictionary states that a corporation is "an artificial person or legal entity created by or under the authority of the laws of a state or nation."  Since the creation of people still requires egg and sperm, an artificial person created under the authority of laws doesn't really have what it takes to be a person!  When our nation was founded the distrust of corporations in England was brought to the new land, and early laws reflected that distrust.  Gradually the laws changed, but current distrust of wealth and corporate influence shares much in common with early attitudes, making many voters feel insignificant within the political process, just as the working classes felt after the Civil War when corporations, trusts and monopolies gained power.
In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt wrote:  "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.  To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day."  In Isaac's time the enemies of the working classes were Monopolists, Trusts, Wall Street, and Speculators, who were resented not only because of their disproportionate wealth but also because they used their wealth politically to gain advantages.
Letting the Little Fellow Think He's Driving--When He Isn't
Maintaining the economic balance to keep the United States a land of opportunity for all of its citizens has been a challenge since its inception, and particularly so after manufacturing and industry expanded beyond small, local producers.  The global marketplace is not new either, although it has certainly changed.  Franklin Roosevelt left a definition for what he believed necessary to a strong and healthy political and economic system:  Equality of opportunity for youth and others; Jobs for those who can work; Security for those who need it; The ending of the special privileges for the few; The preservation of civil liberties for all; and The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living."  FDR was a Democrat, but the goals he enumerated would seem to meet with the approval of most Americans. 
Isaac's generation confronted how to accomplish those goals during the Gilded Age; the often-described Greatest Generation confronted meeting those goals while fighting a world war during the Depression and World War II; and the present generation confronts those same goals today.  The two political cartoons from 1890 seem especially applicable as election day 2012 nears.  Is the "Wave of Prosperity" lifting only some of America's citizens while drowning others, and are some Americans being hoodwinked by the wealthy and powerful to believe they are driving political decisions when they are not?  Are these questions as relevant today as they were in Isaac's time? 

Reading Isaac's journal and researching the era about which he was writing intrigued me with political similiarities to our own.  Then as now, each person's vote mattered.  Political views continue to differ, but everyone still has the same precious right to cast a ballot!
Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.    


The Blog Fodder said...

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sandy said...

Lyn, your comments echo my thoughts on media during this election. It is true that bias and manipulation is not new (John Adams/Thomas Jefferson campaign, for example!) but wouldn't it be great if people would try to filter out some of the garbage?