Stuck in a Gilded Age

Today, in the wake of the Great Recession, with crisis now the norm, one wonders if the U.S. economy ever really recovered from the 1970s industrial crisis to begin with. Perhaps, instead of progressing, our economy has somehow regressed—returning to old patterns of the distant past. We live, writes the labor historian Jefferson Cowie in The Great Exception, in a “contemporary version of Grover Cleveland’s America.” That would be the 1880s and 1890s, the ignominious decades of the Gilded Age, when economic inequality ran rampant and concentrated wealth threatened democracy. Or, perhaps, the first Gilded Age, since the early twenty-first century, it is now often said, is the second one. The economic historian Robert Gordon has recently taken this gloomy line of reasoning further. We can, he warns, expect more stagnation, with little improvements to our economic standard of living in the future. In fact, improvement in the standard of living is likely to sputter, to a trend line worse than was the case in the 1880s and 1890s.

Why are things so bad? Cowie, in exploring the late-nineteenth-century origins of the troubled state of U.S. political economy, blames what he calls the “main contours” of American history, which stretch across the centuries and into the present. The catalog includes: a strong anti-statist tradition in American politics; a divisive politics of immigration; political conflict over religion and cultural values; racism; white male working-class unity; and the individualism of American political culture.

– Dissent Magazine

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