Today’s Gilded Age and Populism

This entry is from an interview between Bill Moyers and Nell Painter, historian and author of Standing at Armageddon. You can hear the entire interview of about 15 minutes, and read more about Ms. Painter at:

They talk about the secret of “class” discussions and what populism is and how it rose from the People’s Party, Farmer’s Alliances, the Grange and the Green Backers. At that time the people said that “Our interests are not the same. And the money power– money power or later in the early 20th century, the plutocracy; that those people were acting in their own interests, not in ours.” From that movement came some important safeguards in our economy and culture. Those safeguards have been weakened significantly in the past 25 to 30 years, and we are once again facing the encroachment of big money, big corporate power, and big non-populist influence shoving our country into the same inequality and poverty of 100 years ago. 

These lines are from the end of the interview, but summarize the dangers we face now. Ironically, she is talking about why two populist presidents, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, decided to push for populist policies in America during the time of the so-called Gilded Age.

We have come full circle in the last 100 years and are once again in a Gilded Age. It’s time to bring populism back and reinstate an America as a citizen state, not American as a consumer state under corporate power.

To the interview excerpt:

BILL MOYERS: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, both men of property championed the cause of people against the big corporations?

NELL PAINTER: Because they realized that not standing up to gross economic power risked ruining their country, risked incredible disorder, risked asking for Armageddon. In– after 1907, but certainly after the populist and after the great– hard times of the 90’s, and the strikes, and the riots and all the disorder of the great upheaval. Theodore Roosevelt realized that he couldn’t just let the bankers and the railroads call the tune. Because they would run the country into the ground. Franklin Roosevelt, looking at the Great Depression, and the strikes, and the riots, and the marches realized once again that government would have to step in and put a hand on the side of ordinary people. That the system cannot run by itself.

BILL MOYERS: You are a historian. You’re an historian, and not a prophet. But are we standing at Armageddon today?

NELL PAINTER: I don’t think we’re ever standing at Armageddon in the United States. Because we do have lots, and lots and lots of safeguards. And one of our safeguards is simply our huge size. Nobody can move us around very quickly. Everything takes a lot of time. I don’t think we’re going to have a revolution in the United States. So, in that sense, we’re not standing in Armageddon. And we never will. However, we certainly are standing at a critical moment, in which we decide whether or not to continue as, in Bryan’s terms, “An empire,” or whether we want to return to our roots as a democracy.