Seeing Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid today on the occasion of Senator Reid’s departure from the Senate was very moving. In his final address to the Senate, he was pointed in his comments and along the way referred to “The Gilded Age.”
Harry Reid bids farewell to Senate after 30 yearsAP Congressional Correspondent
Sen. Harry Reid bid farewell to the Senate Thursday after 30 years in the chamber and more than a decade as top Democrat, a remarkable run during which he shepherded key Obama administration legislation including the sweeping health care law.
But Reid leaves with his Democrats stuck in the minority despite his best efforts, and Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump making plans to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature law as their first order of business next year.
In an uncharacteristically lengthy and personal farewell speech on the Senate floor, Reid warned of “a new gilded age” ahead and lamented how the Senate has changed. He cautioned colleagues to “temper” use of the filibuster, “otherwise, it will be gone.”
So, what was the “Gilded Age”?? The term came into use during the 1920’s and 1930’s and according to Wikipedia, was “derived from Mark Twain‘s 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, which satirized an era of serious social problems masked by a thin gold gilding.” (Reminds me of Trump’s love of gold and his apartment in Trump Tower!)
Gilded Age (1878-1889)
The growth of industry and a wave of immigrants marked this period in American history. The production of iron and steel rose dramatically and western resources like lumber, gold, and silver increased the demand for improved transportation. Railroad development boomed as trains moved goods from the resource-rich West to the East. Steel and oil were in great demand. All this industry produced a lot of wealth for a number of businessmen like John D. Rockefeller (in oil) and Andrew Carnegie (in steel), known as robber barons (people who got rich through ruthless business deals). The Gilded Age gets its name from the many great fortunes created during this period and the way of life this wealth supported.
Years ago, PBS ran a segment of its “American Experience” series focusing on Andrew Carnegie and describes the Gilded Age as follows:
“What is the chief end of man?–to get rich. In what way?–dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.”
— Mark Twain-1871
During the “Gilded Age,” every man was a potential Andrew Carnegie, and Americans who achieved wealth celebrated it as never before. (snip)
While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty.
To those who worked in Carnegie’s mills and in the nation’s factories and sweatshops, the lives of the millionaires seemed immodest indeed. An economist in 1879 noted “a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution.” Violent strikes and riots wracked the nation through the turn of the century. The middle class whispered fearfully of “carnivals of revenge.”
(snip) Corruption extended to the highest levels of government. During Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, the president and his cabinet were implicated in the Credit Mobilier, the Gold Conspiracy, the Whiskey Ring, and the notorious Salary Grab.
Europeans were aghast. America may have had money and factories, they felt, but it lacked sophistication. When French prime minister Georges Clemenceau visited, he said the nation had gone from a stage of barbarism to one of decadence — without achieving any civilization between the two.
Does much of this sound familiar?
Many years ago, as I dreamed of becoming a journalist, I read about muckrakers, devouring The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens and a biography of Ida Tarbell.
Who was Ida Tarbell?
ConnecticutHistory.org has a good summary of what she did…here’s an excerpt of a piece written by Andy Piascik: …
Tarbell Exposes The Standard Oil Company
Tarbell never wrote the biography of Roland but she did write biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln—published shortly after her return to the United States in 1894. She also accepted an offer from McClure to work for his new venture, McClure’s Magazine, where she undertook her most famous work, her expose of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. Her study of Rockefeller’s practices as he built Standard Oil into one of the world’s largest business monopolies took many years to complete. McClure’s Magazine published it in 19 installments.
Her work was a sensation and the installments became a two-volume book entitled, The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904. Tarbell meticulously documented the aggressive techniques Standard Oil employed to outmaneuver and, where necessary, roll over whoever got in its way. A short while later, President Theodore Roosevelt used the phrase “muckraker” (from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress) in a speech in reference to Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and other journalists writing critically about the tremendous power of big business. Tarbell actually objected to the term, for she felt it belittled work she believed to be of historical importance.
As a result of her work, the Supreme Court decided in 1911 that Standard Oil violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, ruling that it was an illegal monopoly. Standard Oil was ordered to break up into 34 separate companies, but in the long run, Rockefeller had huge holdings in the companies and the breakup actually resulted in huge profits. He didn’t suffer one bit…
The Smithsonian’s piece on Tarbell, “The Woman Who Took on the Tycoon “, notes that her efforts helped in the Progressive Era and that “New York University placed her book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, at No. 5 on a list of the top 100 works of 20th–century American journalism.”
So, the question is now, who are the journalists that will “muckrake” during Trump’s time in office? They are out there, we see them tweeting and many websites are trying to do the job but you won’t see them in great numbers on TV. And, how many Americans actually care? New polling shows that Trump supporters are completely ignorant of facts and he will play to them, rather than to the majority of Americans who have no faith in him.
Look at his picks for his cabinet. In almost every case, they represent the complete opposite of ideas he campaigned on. Example: he promised to raise the minimum wage, but appoints a CEO who is adamantly opposed to the concept!
But his crowd continues to cheer, even though many are going to be hurt by his actions.
Trump ran on economic populism and stirring up hate. During the Gilded Age, the excesses of wealthy businessmen stirred up “a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution.” Trump has conned his devotees to revolt against the status quo…but the question now becomes this: Do they ever realized they’ve been conned, and if they do, when do they revolt against Donald Trump, who is himself a robber baron? Or do they simply wallow in their hate and never understand what he is doing?
Unfortunately, there is a good chance that no amount of muckraking will affect Trump unless his faithful suddenly feel pain in their wallets. One has to wonder if even Ida Tarbell could even deal with the swamp that Trump calls home as the Tweets roll out thick and fast.
Nor is there indication that any sudden awakening will propel us into a new Progressive Era. We should be so lucky. But much of the effort needed will have to focus just on RESTORING everything that is lost. Just keeping our heads above the muck to prevent us from sinking completely will be exhausting. The old battles will have to be fought again.
To borrow from Trump….SAD!
Filed under: Current Politics | Tagged: "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today" by Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, big business, Donald Trump, Gilded Age, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, Ida Tarbell, John D. Rockefeller, Lincoln Steffens, Mark Twain, McClure's Magazine, monopolies, muckrakers, President Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive Era, robber barons, Salary Grab, sweatshops, tenements, The Cold Conspiracy, The History of the Standard Oil Company, The Whisky Ring, Upton Sinclair | Leave a comment »