Why so little reaction to the new Gilded Age? Because we're back in Reconstruction

by John MacBeath Watkins

Brad DeLong brings up this very important question here. I posted the following in the comments section, but it's not showing up there, so maybe I did it wrong or maybe his system for moderating comments is as slow as mine.

Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va. / from a sketch by Jas E. Taylor., 1866

It strikes me that since the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the following year, we've been in a slow-motion re-litigation of Reconstruction. Those Acts violated the conservative sense of propriety about the positional status of racial groups. We now have a Republican Party that is based in the South and relies in presidential races on whites for almost 90% of it's votes.


You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

That's from a 1981 interview with Lee Attwater. When you consider some of the racial symbolism on the signs at Tea Party rallies, you can see that the alleged economic agenda of the party is really an outgrowth of the ethnic panic some whites are experiencing in a nation soon to be majority non-white, a panic Attwater would have understood easily and exploited masterfully.

In short, for many, the people losing ground in the last 30 years have had a ready scapegoat in those than whom they used to automatically have greater status. The very rich who are politically active have shown themselves adept in dividing different groups of the 99% and exploiting their anxieties. They develop agnotology as a science to create exactly the right kind of ignorance.

The result is a kind of politics waged as war by other means, in which even a zero-sum gain is often out of reach, with one side willing to take a loss if it hurts the other side more.

In addition, of course, we've tried out many of the solutions to inequity that were proposed in the Gilded Age. Marxism and Fabian socialism proved to be a bust. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Social Security have made economic busts more tolerable.

But changing demographics mean that the coalition that has brought Republicans so much success over the past 40 years or so is unlikely to be as successful in the future, which makes me wonder if inequity is waiting in the wings as our next obsession on the national agenda.