Once upon a time, there was an election widely heralded as the most divisive presidential contest in the history of the republic.
On one side was an establishment candidate funded by deep-pocketed elites. This group held entrenched political interests, manipulated the media and maintained the status quo.
Its candidate was a familiar and reliable ally who would ensure that the current, increasingly corrupt and crony-driven political machine would roll on.
On the other side stood the populists. These unsophisticated rabble-rousers were located far from the power centers of New York City and Washington, D.C. They felt disenfranchised, exploited and ignored.
The rapid technological changes of recent decades were both dizzying and confusing. An unwelcome influx of immigrants threatened their values and way of life.
These ordinary Americans found their representative in the unlikeliest of candidates: a classic anti-politician who drew massive and passionate crowds.
This candidate inspired the frustrated masses with his unconventional rhetoric and consistent messaging that the game was rigged against them. His anti-establishment economic policies promised to upend the cozy world of the political elites.
The upcoming election was the last chance for ordinary people. And the outcome would determine the direction of the United States for decades to come.
Of course, I am describing the election of 1896.
The establishment candidate was Republican William McKinley, hand-picked by Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan.
The populist firebrand was William Jennings Bryan.
In a rhetorical tour de force, Bryan delivered the most famous speech in American political history at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It concluded with the words: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
History Does Not Repeat…
I recently revisited the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in U.S. history – the years between 1865 and 1920.
The parallels between the social and political climate of that period and today are remarkable.
The Gilded Age – a phrase introduced by Mark Twain – was a time when an emerging nation torn apart by the Civil War rebuilt itself into the largest and most powerful economy in the world.
Think of the United States as the China of its day.
The Gilded Age was also the era of the giants of American business: steamboats and railroads (Vanderbilt), steel (Carnegie), oil (Rockefeller), banking (Morgan), and electricity (Edison).
This period of rapid economic and social upheaval also led to an increase in economic inequality.
From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the nation’s wealth, while the top 10% owned roughly three-quarters.
Promises of achieving this wealth foretold the rise of Horatio Alger Jr. – a fictional character who inspired thousands to rise, if not to “riches” then at least to “respectability.”
New technologies revolutionized the life of the average American.
Railroads transformed perceptions of distance. The telegraph ensured that information now traveled at the speed of light. Electric lights – that first lit the city of Wabash, Indiana, and J.P. Morgan’s mansion in New York City – turned night into day. The Wright brothers conquered the sky. Henry Ford took Americans on the road.
At the same time, there was massive labor strife – like the Haymarket riot in 1886 and the Homestead strike of 1892.
Worker discontent led to the rise of labor unions. Some Americans even started to flirt with the promise of a more egalitarian, positively un-American promise of socialism.
In 1919, the United States saw more than 3,600 labor strikes and dozens of anarchist bombings that targeted U.S. senators and the attorney general.
In one of the most underappreciated chapters in American history, on May 1, 1919, federal authorities across the country mobilized to suppress the outbreak of a full-blown socialist revolution – inspired by recent worker-led revolutions in Russia and Hungary.
Large-scale immigration also inspired fear and loathing among ordinary Americans. Too many dark-skinned Italians and Eastern Europeans working in Carnegie’s steel mills threatened to dilute both American blood and culture.
A Chicago minister penned and popularized the “Pledge of Allegiance” in 1892 to ensure the loyalty and patriotism of a new generation of American immigrant youth.
I still had to recite it in my Pittsburgh elementary school every morning more than 80 years later.
… But It Does Rhyme
Today’s parallels to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era are clear.
Like then, our world is characterized by technological upheaval that has disrupted previous ways of life and displaced an entire generation of workers.
Like then, massive wealth is highly concentrated. Today, the top 1% of Americans earn nearly a quarter of the country’s income and control an astonishing 40% of its wealth. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos are today’s Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Rockefeller.
Like then, traditional ethnic groups feel marginalized by a new tidal wave of immigration. At the same time, previously silent minorities are noisily asserting their rights.
Closing the Historical Loop
The populist candidate, Bryan, ultimately lost the election of 1896 to the establishment candidate, McKinley, 51% to 47%.
Bryan also fell short in a rematch against McKinley in 1900, and Bryan’s personality-driven movement petered out.
In contrast, in 2016, the populist candidate, Donald Trump – call him the Bryan of his day – prevailed over the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.
How the political winds will shift in the upcoming election of 2020 is unclear.
No matter what the outcome, the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era reminds us that the current political, social and cultural upheaval in the U.S. has parallels with the past.
Democracy in America is noisy and often gut-wrenching.
But the wounds it opens will heal with time. And in the end, the United States will survive and prosper.