Thursday, October 30, 2014

What's Old is Always New Again

Charles Darwin
After enduring years of debt and struggle, Isaac Werner finally had put that behind.  Unfortunately his financial achievements were eclipsed by his failing health, and he never fully enjoyed the successful farm he had created.  His struggles during the Gilded Age bear much in common with today.  In his time, the disparity between the post-Civil War wealthy men like Jay Rockefeller in comparison to factory laborers, miners, and farmers like Isaac was a new social disparity for Americans, our early history having been primarily a population of working people of similar means producing materials sent to England for manufacture.  It was during the Civil War that the steel mills, factories, railroads, and manufacturing began to change the social landscape of Americans markedly.

Ward McAllister
Charles Darwin's Evolution of the Species was distorted by some to justify a social view never intended by Darwin.  John D. Rockefeller's words reveal this attitude:  "The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest.  The American beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.  This is not an evil tendency in business.  It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God..."  Like-minded men of the Gilded Age had little pity for the squalor of immigrant families enticed to America for cheap labor in factories, miners facing daily danger, and farmers struggling to raise crops for which railroads charged unregulated shipping fees to get the farmers' produce to markets.
Jacob Riis

During this time, journalist Ward McAllister wrote about the extravagant lifestyles of wealthy families, describing the centerpiece for one obscenely opulent dinner in the ballroom of Delmonico's at 14th Street in New York City in 1890 as a:  "...long extended oval table, and every inch of it was covered with flowers, excepting a space in the center, left for a lake...thirty feet in length, enclosed by a delicate golden wire network reaching from table to ceiling, making the whole one grand cage; four superb swans, brought from Prospect Park, swam in it, surrounded by high bands of flowers of every species and variety...[and] above the entire table, hung little golden cages with fine songsters..."  The only thing Isaac had in common with the wealthy guests at this dinner was their mutual pleasure in the music of songbirds!
Political cartoon from 1890s

At the same time McAllister was writing about the wealthy, journalist Jacob Riis was exposing the misery, starvation, crowding, graft and political corruption of NYC's tenement district.  His book, How the Other Half Lives, was published in 1891, including photographs of the desperate conditions of working class families.

Then, as now, the wealthy used their riches not just for mansions and extravagant lifestyles but also to influence politics, and the People's Party, of which Isaac Werner was a member, included laborers, miners, and farmers in a political movement to confront the wealthy at the ballot box.

An interesting article, "Who Rules America:  Wealth, Income, and Power," which can be read at, defines wealth as what is owned minus what is owed, and points to the advantage of great wealth with financial resources available to spend on more than is needed for a comfortable life--those additional resources giving them power.  The article describes the United States as a "Power Pyramid," with the " 10% having 85 to 90% of the nation's stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity...It's tough for the bottom 80%--maybe even the bottom 90% to get organized and exercise much power."

Political cartoon from 1890s
The article supports this relationship between wealth and power with four examples.  First, they are in a better position to make "...donations to political parties, payment to lobbyists, and grants to experts who are employed to think up new policies beneficial to the wealthy."  Second, "...stock ownership can be used to control corporations, which of course have a major impact on how the society functions."  Third, that power can also lead to more wealth through political influence at local, state, and national levels.  And, fourth, the opportunity to do the things that money can buy--whether access to better health, safer jobs, more travel and leisure, among other privileges--becomes a power indicator in itself. 

Both major political parties in America today reflect the influence of power by the wealthy.  Yet, the recent effort by the Senate to act legislatively to change the decision of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case shows a definite split between the parties.  That case, which allows massive spending and influence by corporations and unions through Political Action Committees, has magnified the need for campaign finance reform, something about which most Americans agree, regardless of political affiliation.  The Senate vote attempting to overturn the effect of Citizens United received a majority vote but failed to reach the 2/3rds majority needed when not one single Republican voted in support, despite strong support for overturning Citizens United among Republican voters.

Political cartoon from the 1890s
The impact of Citizens United is nowhere more apparent than in Kansas, Isaac's old political grounds.  According to an article published in The Huffington Post on October 25, 2014, since Senator Pat Roberts's failure to break a 50% majority in the Kansas primary, "Spending by super PACs and dark money nonprofits has exploded by at least 560 percent since then, fueling what will end up being the most expensive Senate race in Kansas history.

Aggravated by the bombardment of political ads on television, I became curious about who was funding them, and my informal observation was consistent with the Huffington Post reporting.  "The biggest spender in the race is Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC founded by the Koch brothers, which has paid out nearly $2 million attacking Orman.  Koch Industries, the private company owned by the brothers, is based in Wichita, Kansas, and has long backed Roberts.  Its employees and political action committee are the leading funders of the senator's political career."  A review of Sen. Roberts's voting record shows that he has been a "forceful opponent of campaign finance reform" and a leading opponent of disclosure of donors contributing to nonprofits.

When I began reading Isaac Werner's journal, I was naturally interested in what he wrote about farming and the social life of early settlers on the prairie.  However, what intrigued me were the many political similarities of his time with our own.  (See "Isaac and the Plutocrats," blog archives April 5, 2012.)  Isaac and other farmers and laborers came together to confront the wealth and power of Wall Street and corporations (which had become even more powerful then through trusts and monopolies).  It seems that the impact of wealth and power vs. the one-man-one-vote ideal of the American democracy is an ongoing political issue! 

Remember, to enlarge the cartoons to enable reading the labels and captions, click on the images.


The Blog Fodder said...

The age old question - why do people vote against their best interests. My mother used to say politicians get money from the rich by promising to protect them from the poor and votes from the poor by promising to protect them from the rich. (not sure of the original source). That constitution you folks in America worship is going to lead to the complete destruction of America as violent revolution by the fanatical left or right seems to be the only way to make changes.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

In my case, at least, you are right about the high regard I have for the Constitution. I have said that bad and foolish politicians come and go, but as long as the Constitution is respected, America will be all right. However, that requires a Supreme Court with justices whose personal agendas do not move the Constitution too far to one extreme or the other, and an intelligent and and respectful citizenry that is not mislead by those who would distort the intent of the Constitution. I certainly hope you are wrong...