By Frank J Biga III -
The title phrase is actually that of a book on the history of the Progressive Movement by Michael McGerr. Yet I think it very much describes the feeling that many of us in the middle class have towards the elitist element that has been running our country the last 40 years.
Certainly there are parallels to our time and the Progressive Era of 1890 to the 1930s. Consider the following:
Many workers in both eras face declining real wages at least partially due to mass immigration. Both eras had lively debates about monetary policy. Both eras faced major changes in the manner in which goods were produced and in which people worked. The Progressive Era ended with major changes to government, our Constitution, the rights of labor, and the monetary system. Certainly those in power today should heed the lessons of this history. Because back in the Progressive Era the reform ideas were met with the same contempt and derision that today’s reformers receive from the elite. And in the end major changes were made – changes that very few in the beginning of the Progressive Era would have dreamed of.
For instance, on monetary policy, the Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, called for an effective end to the gold standard of the time which had a deflationary effect on the economy. His Populist Party and then later the Democratic Party called for a moderate reform which would have allowed more money to be backed by silver as well as gold. This would have been inflationary, but in an era of mild deflation this may have been necessary.
It certainly was for the farmers of the country. Their cries for help from their government started with movements like the Grange and the Farmers’ Alliance as early as the 1870s. They wanted debt relief. Yes they were in a perfectly competitive industry that has never made long run profits, but they were also the backbone of the country that provided the foodstuffs necessary for industrial expansion. An allegorical book was written on this whole struggle – The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum.
But their cries for help were met with haughtiness and disdain by the elitists of the time. Conservative Senators like Nelson Aldrich, Marcus Alonzo Hanna and Congressmen like Speaker Thomas Reed, backed by the “robber barons” ensured that most such reforms were either quashed in the Congress , defeated at the ballot box or reversed at the Supreme Court. Other groups of Americans were also calling for reforms – the wage earners suffering under harsh conditions in the factories were calling for an 8 hour day. Some groups also called for a halt to immigration so as to reduce the supply of labor enough to ensure modest real wage increases.
But these pleas were mostly ignored as well. Union organizers were also rebuffed as their ability to bring workers together to bargain as a unit was stymied by the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which forbade any combination which “restricted trade”.
Eventually, as their lack of success led to further misery for their followers, these moderate reformers had their movement taken over by the more aggressive, more organized, and more radical Progressive Movement. And the results were far worse than anything the Populists and Grangers would have done.
An example would be in monetary policy. Instead of an expanded Gold and Silver Standard, we have a Fiat Money standard managed by the Federal Reserve that has resulted in a 99% devaluation of the dollar since 1913. Instead of only an 8 hour day, businesses got saddled with social security taxes, unemployment insurance taxes a minimum wage, and host of other regulations on relations with labor.
Unions were not only given the right to collectively bargain, but they also got the right to a closed shop in many states. Instead of just a a reduction in tariff rates, our government has virtually eliminated them and substituted an income tax that has reached peacetime highs above 80% in the 1950s. Talk about Repeal and Replace!
So, an admonishment is in order to those in the GOP hierarchy who dismiss the many valid concerns of the working class who, like the Populists of old, are asking for moderate reforms which would include limiting immigration and controlling the border, signing better trade deals which might include the use of tariffs or quotas and reducing the influence of large corporations and special interests while listening to the concerns of the people instead. Such reforms would be modest and would reinvigorate our body politic and restore our middle class.
Because history shows that if concerns like these are ignored, the discontent grows fiercer and it leads to more determined and even more radical opposition. Such an opposition, if it gets in to power, might require changes to the current party model where each state sets up its own delegate selection process and then those delegates select the nominee to one where a national party election is held and the nominee is directly chosen by the people. Don’t think that’s possible? Look at the 17th Amendment. And then if it goes that far, the fierce discontent might then require the next logical step – abolishing the Electoral College. This is not that farfetched.
The lack of dealing with the manifold problems with health insurance in the 1990s and 2000s led directly to Obamacare. Are peacetime tax rates of 90% in our future if middle class problems aren’t dealt with? Maybe so.
Is this the type of future the GOP cognescenti wants? Doubtful. Hopefully it’s looked a few moves down the road. Donald Trump has been mocked due to his less than thorough understanding of the arcane rules of the convention process. The GOP insiders do know all the angles on this. But they haven’t exactly been chessmasters when it comes to accommodating reform amidst major changes in society. Just look at the history of the Progressive Era.