Last updated on March 1, 2021
Darn those class commitments, aligning us to our political choices in a democracy, made worse by all those folks who knew they were in that Gilded Age.
“If the future of the Democratic Party is in the rich suburbs, the future of American politics is another long Gilded Age.”
Matt Karp, an associate professor of history at Princeton University, said the rise of identity-based partisan politics could be leading to a second Gilded Age, a time in which society was largely defined by culture wars.
“This is a period, roughly from the end of Reconstruction at the close of the Civil War era into the 20th century, of high-turnout elections, intense hyper motivated electorates, two equally matched parties – Democrats and Republicans – and two coalitions that are voting almost entirely based on a mix of geographic, cultural, ethnic and racial identity,” he told Hill.TV.
Karp, who is also a contributing editor at Jacobin, said in the 1880s and 1890s, someone would have about an 80 percent chance of guessing a person’s political identity based on their individual characteristics.
He said because of the intense focus on partisanship and defeating the other side, politicians during that period did not address economic exploitation and equality, despite it being a major issue.
“Both sides accused each other of being tools of the ruling class. And they were both right because the ruling class was, as usual, ambidextrous and the working class was, as usual, as is in our era, divided between these two parties,” Karp said.
Matt Karp spins another exceptionalist narrative analogy, ignoring the rise of imperialism and the tension between nationalism and pandemics, both operative in each “gilded age”. He relies on the hegemonic party duopoly of Democrats and Republicans even as there were Bull Moose and socialists. In capitalism’s golden age, the ruling class has never addressed economic exploitation and inequality, and still doesn’t.
The Gilded Age has always remained a fanciful periodization no different than the continuing romanticism of robber baron capitalism, much like fetishizing the Gilded Age was some decorative bridge between Reconstruction and Progressive eras’ racism. Contrary to Karp’s claims, if it even exists, class dealignment may be neither a historical process nor a political choice. Karp should have given more evidence of what constitutes class alignment, considering the complexity of late Reconstruction and early “Gilded Age” definitions of class. Eric Foner’s definitions of republicanism come to mind, among many other issues of class definition, including what constitutes a “rich suburb”, considering the national and global financial crises of both gilded ages.
Karp does not specify what class and culture means or rather confuses their less-substitutable meanings, as if intersectionality had no class elements, and political identity was so easily reduced to its hashtags. No differently than in the First Gilded Age narratives, Karp’s Second Gilded Age seems to minimize the effects of then liberal and now neoliberal capitalism’s institutions, as if we remain dumbfounded by corporate property rights. A fundamental commitment to civil rights has always been economic in its last, cultural instance.
Nonetheless, Karp’s contribution to the discourse is important, if only to reframe and reexamine those periods much like the Progressive era also gave us so many more Jim Crow confederate monuments.
The mass inequality of America’s first Gilded Age thrived on identity-based partisanship, helping extinguish the fires of class rage. In 2021, we’re headed down the same path.
No doubt, this Gilded Age analogy shares the defects of all crude historical analogies. It underplays the substantive differences between today’s two parties. The Democrats, despite losing much of their working-class base, retain the entrenched support of organized labor. And the Republicans, while making feeble gestures toward populism, remain far more hostile toward the foundational democratic principle of majority rule.
Forging a real class interest, though, also requires fighting back against a national political order that works to undermine it at every turn. That means a left-wing electoral struggle aimed strategically not just at Republicans, or even at “moderates,” but at the partisan alignment itself — the gargantuan clash of identities that sucks all material politics into the infinity war of blue versus red.
Such an electoral struggle is not so simple as the familiar pundits’ pivot from “culture” to “economics,” especially when “culture” refers to fundamental commitments better described as civil rights. But it does mean refusing the temptation of today’s relentless partisan culture, where party affiliation stands in for personal virtue, and incessant manufactured outrage — over rude tweets, mean op-eds, “foreign” attachments, and shocking episodes of personal misconduct — drowns out real clashes of economic interest.
Class dealignment is both a historical process and a political choice. The history of the Obama presidency underlines the larger forces and figures that have driven the developed world away from class politics. But the history of the Obama campaigns — alongside some elements of the Sanders primary runs — reminds us that other political choices are possible, and other political coalitions are achievable. In the 2017 UK election, Piketty shows, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party also halted the march of dealignment by income and wealth.
As labor organizers battle in the trenches to challenge the power of capital, left electoral politics must continue to fight, against the partisan grain, for a working-class coalition. It is no great mystery why Democrats like Biden, Clinton, and Schumer have chosen the path of class dealignment, which suits both their electoral fortunes and the larger interests they serve. But for the fragile, fledgling Left that has emerged from the Sanders era, no choice could be more disastrous.
This short interview w/@karpmj on how the best analogy for today is not Weimar but late 19th C. Gilded Age America is awesome. The parallels he draws are fascinating, tho I'm sticking with my comparison to Britain in the 1820s in an upcoming article.https://t.co/QzcixYrIKa
— corey robin (@CoreyRobin) February 28, 2021
It remains fascinating how many ignore the metacritical meaning of “gilded”, even as it describes the interior decorating sense of Trumpism.
The term Gilded Age for the period of economic boom after the American Civil War up to the turn of the century was applied to the era by historians in the 1920s, who took the term from one of Mark Twain‘s lesser-known novels, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The book (co-written with Charles Dudley Warner) satirized the promised “golden age” after the Civil War, portrayed as an era of serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding of economic expansion. In the 1920s and ’30s the metaphor “Gilded Age” began to be applied to a designated period in American history. The term was adopted by literary and cultural critics as well as historians, including Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, Charles Austin Beard, Mary Ritter Beard, Vernon Louis Parrington, and Matthew Josephson. For them, Gilded Age was a pejorative term for a time of materialistic excesses combined with extreme poverty.
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