“The Gilded Age,” a satirical novel by Mark Twain, was set in the late 1800s, an era that came to be known by the same name. This was a time of enormous industrial growth and unprecedented entrepreneurship, invention and innovation.
But this progress was also accompanied by incredible greed and corruption during which the wealthy elite gained obscene riches and opulence and flaunted it. The wealthiest classes also held the real political power during this time, not the president and Congress; and certainly not the people.
The Gilded Age was a period of relatively weak presidents and a powerful, largely corrupt, bought-and-paid-for Congress. The prevalent American myth back then was that anyone could make it with hard work. But the sobering reality was that most could not, no matter how hard they strived.
But this age of rule by the wealthy few was eventually moderated by the emergence of the Social Gospel and the Progressive Era under the leadership of reform president Theodore Roosevelt. But the Progressive Era conditions were also less than ideal. They were flawed by institutionalized racism, including wholesale lynching, and a burgeoning nationalistic imperialism largely inspired by T.R. himself.
In a “Perspective” essay some years ago in The Progressive Christian magazine titled “End of the Second Gilded Age,” former Methodist pastor and professor of Christian ethics Phillip Wogaman asserted that a second Gilded Age began with the Reagan administration and ended with the “Great Recession” in George W. Bush’s second term.
Early in the Reagan era the stock market reached new highs and created new millionaires, rekindling an insatiable hunger for wealth. And as in previous economic booms the income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest grew ever wider. Homelessness became increasingly evident and the number of Americans without health insurance reached a deplorable 47 million. Skyrocketing education costs became a shameful byproduct of the widening gulf between the affluent and the struggling masses. Low-paying but dependable jobs became more insecure as many industries abandoned America for cheaper labor and lower taxes abroad. But many economists believe the real culprit in job loss was the microchip and automation.
The economy began to weaken late in George W. Bush’s first four years and his second term has become known as the Great Recession. Today we are well into a recovery that began in the last year of Obama’s first term when plunging national income and job losses were turned around.
We still have persistent problems today that aren’t being addressed: making health care a universal right as every other industrialized nation has done a half-century ago; making college and vocational education once again affordable; the development of safe, renewable energy sources; realistically addressing the problems of the homeless, including the underlying mental health issues; substantially reducing the national debt which, of course, probably entails raising taxes; broadening global trade agreements to include protections for workers and the environment; and finally, working harder for world peace and collective global security.
Recovery in the Progressive Era began with spiritual indignation. But due to the diminishing involvement today in almost every U.S. religious denomination we can’t depend on much leadership from that sector. It has been said that the times create the leader. Does anyone see another Teddy Roosevelt on the horizon?