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The Promise of Diplomacy as the United States Withdraws
The so-called Gilded Age in the United States began with the Compromise of 1877, which settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 by awarding the White House to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from three Southern states. In the short term, the compromise effectively ended Reconstruction. In the longer term, it empowered white terrorists in the South and led to a major realignment in U.S. politics that weakened the federal government’s ability to govern the “Money Power,” the term used by critics at the time to describe the forces that were steadily taking over markets and political systems.
By 1900, one percent of the U.S. population owned more than half of the country’s land; nearly 50 percent of the population owned just one percent of it. Multimillionaires, who made up 0.33 percent of the population, owned 17 percent of the country’s wealth; 40 percent of Americans had no wealth at all. Black men had been violently and systematically deprived of the hard-won right to vote in the South, where authorities had thrown up every possible barrier—literacy tests, poll taxes, gerrymandering, grandfather clauses—to prevent the restoration of Black political rights and the growth of Black economic power. After a quarter century, it had become impossible to see these outcomes as aberrations: monopolization and repression had come to define the American system.
The president was William McKinley, a Republican. Both his 1896 and his 1900 campaigns were fueled by large corporate donations collected by his chief strategist, “Dollar Mark” Hanna. John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company alone kicked in a direct contribution to McKinley’s first campaign equal to more than $7 million in today’s dollars. The resulting war chest allowed McKinley to outspend his populist Democratic rival, William Jennings Bryan, by a factor of 20. Rockefeller was one of a handful of men who controlled the monopolies that had come to dominate virtually every sector of the newly industrialized economy. Men such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan had built up power by acquiring a foothold in various markets and then destroying or buying out their competitors. These magnates defended their dominance by claiming they merely represented new, more efficient systems and technologies. They had enormous access to capital, with a long leash from creditors on Wall Street.
At all levels of government and in every part of the country, these “robber barons” used their tremendous wealth to stop or avoid regulations and subvert the democratic process. Their most memorable invention was the trust, a legal entity that allowed them to hold power in multiple companies. To create trusts, they had to get around certain state laws, and so they played U.S. states against one another, driving a race to the bottom as states rushed to attract their capital by changing the rules to allow for more and more corporate concentration.
But throughout the Gilded Age, American society was beginning to change in ways that would eventually challenge the robber barons and the political class they controlled. Massive shifts were underway in the country’s labor force and demographics. In 1880, fewer than three million American women worked; by 1910, that number would triple, and the women’s labor movement organized some of the first industrial strikes and successfully pushed for major reforms. During the 1880s, as agriculture declined and the pace of industrialization quickened, as many as 40 percent of rural towns lost population. Meanwhile, cities were growing rapidly. Immigrants were arriving in massive numbers—20 million between 1880 and 1914, at first mostly from northern European countries and later predominantly from southern Europe. The new arrivals established political clubs, institutions, and machines, remaking the electorate.
As the robber barons decorated their palaces and mused about their public responsibilities, slums and tenements were rife with disease, farmers struggled under crushing debts, and factory workers and miners risked death and dismemberment to eke out a living. Meanwhile, the chorus of dissent that had been rising since the 1870s grew louder, as farmers, factory workers, antitrust leagues, labor unions, and local-level politicians joined forces. Three groups emerged as the main opponents of the status quo: the populists, the progressives, and the socialists. What all three realized, to varying degrees, was that the root of the inequalities of the Gilded Age was the extreme concentration of market share, wealth, and political power. American socialism fell short as a political force, but the Populist and Progressive movements—which overlapped and merged in important ways—became powerful vectors of change.
The parallels with the present day are obvious, and it has become commonplace to hear the current era described as a new Gilded Age. As the journalist Barry Lynn points out in his book Liberty From All Masters, the robber barons shared with today’s high-tech monopolists a strategy of encouraging people to see immense inequality as a tragic but unavoidable consequence of capitalism and technological change. But as Lynn shows, one of the main differences between then and now is that, compared to today, fewer Americans accepted such rationalizations during the Gilded Age. Today, Americans tend to see grotesque accumulations of wealth and power as normal. Back then, a critical mass of Americans refused to do so, and they waged a decades-long fight for a fair and democratic society. On the other hand, today’s antimonopoly movements are intentionally interracial and thus avoid a massive failure of the populists and progressives of the late Gilded Age, who abandoned Black Americans even though they had played a crucial role in fostering both movements.
Over time, the ultrarich and the many well-compensated professionals who are always available to do their bidding chipped away at the progress that the Populist and Progressive movements achieved. Today’s populists and progressives would do well to remember what are perhaps the most important lessons of those limited victories: the struggle against inequality is primarily a fight against monopoly power in its many guises, and because monopoly power is never race-neutral, that fight cannot truly succeed unless it does so in an inclusive way.
Of the three main forces challenging the Gilded Age status quo, the populists emerged first, beginning in the 1870s. Their movement was concentrated in the South and the Midwest but was not monolithic: there were Black and white populists, urban and rural populists, and populists from different faith traditions. All shared a set of core goals: loosening monetary policy, strengthening interstate industrial regulation, breaking up the trusts, allowing the direct election of U.S. senators, and establishing a national income tax. In an alliance with the last remnants of the Radical Republican faction, the driving force behind the expansion of rights during the Reconstruction era, the populists successfully pushed through several pieces of legislation. The first was a national campaign finance reform law, the Pendleton Act of 1883, which outlawed many forms of political patronage. Next came the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the first federal law regulating the monopolistic practices of the railroad industry and forbidding railroads from treating different users of its service differently. The Sherman Act of 1890 was the first federal antitrust law, although it was quickly gutted by the Supreme Court. In 1894, Congress established the first peacetime federal income tax—but it met an even harsher fate, as it was struck down altogether by the Supreme Court.
After crushing electoral defeats and infighting, the Populist movement faded in the early twentieth century, but the core of its antitrust agenda was absorbed by the leaders and organizers of the Progressive movement. Compared with the populists, the early progressives were a less socioeconomically and geographically diverse lot; most tended to come from upper-class urban Protestant backgrounds. They sought to combat the excesses of the Gilded Age by making government more efficient, meritocratic, and transparent. They wanted to reshape American society and restore the American soul through cleanliness, purity, moral uprightness, and charity. They decried slums, party bosses, and drinking and advocated the rapid assimilation of immigrants and the expansion of public education.
The merger of populism and progressivism was never total, and as a result of lingering tensions, two distinct strains of progressivism emerged. Populist progressives bore a deep distrust of concentrated, unregulated private power and believed it was incompatible with democracy. Elite progressives were more likely to worry only about monopolies that were clearly involved in price fixing or corruption scandals, but not about ones that distorted markets or political systems through entirely legal means. Along these lines, Theodore Roosevelt, a leading elite progressive, distinguished between “good trusts” and “bad trusts.”
The much smaller American socialist movement had been a part of the Populist movement in the nineteenth century and then emerged as a distinct political party in the first decade of the twentieth. Socialists looked at the concentration of wealth and power and concluded that the only way forward was state ownership of most major industries. The Socialist Party had a small but committed base: Eugene Debs, a labor organizer who became a socialist in prison after being convicted for his role in the massive Pullman strike of 1894, ran for president five times between 1900 and 1920 and won six percent of the vote in 1912. But the party never took off, in part because the major labor unions didn’t embrace it and in part because the structure of the U.S. electoral system purposely limits the influence of third parties.
Between the end of Reconstruction and the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, populism, progressivism, and socialism were in constant dialogue at every level of government. They were also frequently at odds with other schools of thought, such as corporatism, which celebrated the growing size of big companies as a sign of progress and efficiency and held that although minor tweaks might be necessary, government-aligned industry was the key to growth.
The most clarifying political moment of the era came with the 1912 presidential election, when corporate concentration was explicitly on the ballot. Debs, the Socialist candidate, proposed nationalizing big industries. The Republican candidate, William Taft, defended the status quo, pledging to prosecute egregiously abusive trusts but forswearing any fundamental change. Roosevelt, who had served as president as a Republican from 1901 to 1909, failed to secure his party’s nomination this time around and ran instead as the candidate of the Progressive Party, advocating a top-down alliance between government and business that he called “the New Nationalism.” Roosevelt had made his name as a trustbuster. But by 1912, despite the name of his party, he had become a full-throated corporatist. The Democratic candidate, Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey, adopted something closer to a populist approach in an agenda he called “the New Freedom,” which focused on systematically decentralizing private power and more extensively regulating industry.
Wilson won decisively, with 435 Electoral College votes. He quickly moved to put his antimonopoly vision into action. Among the most consequential steps he took was to sign into law the Clayton Act of 1914, which toughened antitrust regulations. As Lynn relates in his book, Wilson sent the pen that he had used to sign the bill into law to Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, the most important labor union in the country. Both men understood that labor policy and antitrust policy were two sides of the same coin: pro-labor laws made it easier for workers to unionize, and antitrust laws made it harder for capitalists to collude with one another and abuse workers. Gompers called the Clayton Act “Labor’s Magna Carta.”
This victory, however, was incomplete. Although Wilson’s antimonopoly agenda benefited workers of all races, his presidency failed to advance the cause of racial justice. In the 1912 election, W. E. B. Du Bois, a leading Black intellectual, had broken with the tradition of Black alignment with the Republican Party to back Wilson. Du Bois, whose book Black Reconstruction is a classic of antimonopolism, chose Wilson in part because of his pledge to take on the trusts and in part because of Roosevelt’s open racism. (Wilson’s own deep-seated racial prejudices were slightly less public.) But Du Bois was left bitterly disappointed when Wilson, after winning the election, shut out Black leaders from key posts and embraced segregation.
Wilson was hardly alone: during those years, white populists, progressives, and labor leaders broadly abandoned Black citizens. For the first 20 years of the Gilded Age, it seemed possible that cross-racial organizing would be successful. Black agrarian populists represented an independent political force in the South, and they worked with their white counterparts. The early American Federation of Labor welcomed Black and white workers. The Republican Party had once embraced Black voters. Wilson had also promised a home for them, and for a brief moment, it looked like the Democratic Party of 1912 might serve as one. But it all came to naught: when confronted with the challenge of building a multiracial coalition, populists and progressives shrank from the task, embracing first helplessness, then racism, and finally segregation—preferring, in the end, to keep the support of white southern Democrats, in a prelude to the dynamic that, years later, would limit the reach of the New Deal.
Like their forebears in the early twentieth century, today’s Americans have experienced decades of growing inequality and increasing concentrations of wealth and power. The last decade alone witnessed nearly 500,000 corporate mergers worldwide. Ten percent of Americans now control 97 percent of all capital income in the country. Nearly half of the new income generated since the global financial crisis of 2008 has gone to the wealthiest one percent of U.S. citizens. The richest three Americans collectively have more wealth than the poorest 160 million Americans. In most industries, a few companies control the field, dictating terms, squeezing out competitors, and using differential pricing to extract cash and power. Three companies control digital advertising, four companies dominate beef packing, and an ever-shrinking number own the country’s hospitals. To turn back this monopolistic tide, today’s populists and progressives should focus on the priorities that drove their forebears: breaking up companies that have become too big (or reclassifying them as public utilities) and making it harder for wealth to buy political influence by strictly limiting campaign contributions.
During the Gilded Age, farmers and workers facing abusive trusts had a problem: certain services worked better when they were national in scope, and there was value in a broad user base. City transit, water delivery, and national railroads needed to be unified, or at least not wholly decentralized. But centralized private power erodes democracy and creates inequality. Populists and progressives solved this problem by applying the ancient principle of “common carriage” to the modern industrial state. Common carriage holds that certain industries serve essential public functions and should be regulated in the public interest—that is, forced to charge reasonable and fixed rates and prohibited from discriminating between purchasers. Gilded Age organizers demanded that the big networked industries be subject to such regulation or be nationalized. For both highly regulated and state-owned industries, they often used the phrase “public utility.” They applied that framework to a wide range of goods and services that were important to society but could not be easily or effectively provided in a decentralized way, such as water, electricity, gas, the telegraph, and transportation. Antimonopolists today are using this same approach, pursuing a blend of breakups and public-utility regulation—demanding, for instance, that Amazon treat all sellers in its marketplace equally and also insisting that Amazon’s marketplace be split from its warehouses and its warehouses split from one another, so that their workers have a chance to unionize.
Like their forebears in the early twentieth century, today’s Americans have experienced decades of growing inequality.
During the Gilded Age, populists, progressives, socialists, and even some corporatists clamored for campaign finance reform—and they made a good deal of progress. In 1907, the Tillman Act banned corporate donations to election campaigns. Three years later, Congress passed the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, which created the first requirement for federal-level candidates to disclose their sources of funding. That was followed by further limits on contributions. The impact of these steps was immediate and long-lasting: on a per capita basis, campaign contributions to candidates for federal office plummeted. Only in recent decades, in fact, have corporate campaign expenditures reached the levels that characterized the Gilded Age. These steps on campaign finance exemplified the populist-progressive nexus: populists in the South and the West supported them because they loathed the grinding power of big corporations; urban progressives backed them because they opposed sinful, wasteful, and corrupt behavior; and elected officials had no choice but to embrace them thanks to that bottom-up support.
In the decades that followed, however, organized money found ways to hollow out these limits. Today, money floods American politics like never before: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, political campaigns spent a total of $14 billion in the 2020 U.S. election. To combat this scourge, today’s activists need to go much further than their Gilded Age predecessors and push for full public financing of all campaigns at the federal level.
This agenda will require a new populist-progressive movement. That prospect seems less far-fetched than it might have just a few years ago. Today, small-business owners and warehouse workers are joining forces in new grassroots groups that are taking on today’s monopolies and putting the plight of nonwhite people front and center. One such organization is Athena, a diverse, multiracial coalition whose nonwhite leaders argue that Amazon has been particularly abusive to Black workers and has had particularly damaging effects on minority-owned businesses. Meanwhile, national political figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic-aligned independent from Vermont, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, regularly rail against abusive monopolists, as do many other Democratic members of Congress and state attorneys general. David Cicilline, a Democratic U.S. representative from Rhode Island and the chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, recently wrapped up a remarkable 16-month-long investigation into Big Tech, gathering over a million documents, interviewing hundreds of experts (including me), and calling the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google to testify before Congress. The resulting report calls for “structural separation,” or the breaking up, of Big Tech companies; nondiscrimination regimes for companies that have big network effects (a form of public-utility regulation); the overturning of harmful court decisions; and the enforcement of existing laws against abusive behavior—a regulatory agenda that could easily be extended beyond Big Tech.
Also important is the way in which the report frames monopoly power as the root of inequality and a threat to democracy. “American democracy has always been at war against monopoly power,” Cicilline said at a committee hearing last July. He noted that Big Tech platforms, like the trusts of the Gilded Age, “enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses, and enrich themselves while choking off competitors. Their ability to dictate terms, call the shots, upend entire sectors, and inspire fear represent the powers of a private government.”
Antitrust has the potential to bridge the partisan divide that has paralyzed U.S. politics in the past decade. Recent polls have shown high levels of support for trustbusting among Republicans. And a number of GOP members of Congress enthusiastically participated in Cicilline’s investigation. In the end, they issued a separate report, mostly agreeing with the Democratic majority report’s diagnoses but stopping short of endorsing its prescriptions. Most Republican leaders have done little more than use populist language; none has stepped up to support antitrust actions. That could change, however, if their voters become more focused on the issue.
Standing in the way of a new populist-progressive antimonopoly movement will be elite politicians and their deep-pocketed corporate backers. Another impediment will be an incrementalist tendency among contemporary progressives. Excessive concentration of wealth and power is not an isolated issue that can be dealt with via modest reform; it is the operating system of the contemporary United States, and it needs to be fully overwritten. Bottom-up anger and a thirst for more democracy could overcome these obstacles—but only if today’s activists avoid the errors of the Gilded Age reformers who abandoned their Black allies. Today’s populist-progressives should not minimize the connection between concentrated wealth and racial injustice—they should highlight it, and foster a broad, multiracial coalition. If they fail to do so, any victories they win against today’s robber barons will prove hollow, and the cause of democracy will be set back once again.