It has become difficult to not recognize that we are firmly in the grip of a second Gilded Age. Not only is this return obvious in the homage – if not hysteria – that marks a return to the dream worlds of consumption, commodification and a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, but also in the actions of right-wing politicians who want to initiate policies that take the country back to the late 19th century – a time in which the reforms of the New Deal, the Great Society and the Progressive Era did not exist.
This was a period in which robber barons, railroad magnates and the super-rich spread their corrupting influence throughout the political, economic and cultural landscapes – without having to deal with irritating social reforms such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, child labor laws, environmental protections, affirmative action, civil rights, union rights, antitrust laws, a progressive income tax and a host of other reforms. This was a period when money flowed and privilege shaped practically all aspects of American life, making a mockery out of democracy and imposing massive amounts of suffering on the vast majority of Americans. Women could not vote and were seen as second-class citizens, blacks were treated harshly by Jim Crow policies, young people were exploited through harsh labor, education was limited to the elite, inequality in wealth and income reached extreme disparities, slums festered, and politics was corrupted by the moneyed classes.
In time, protests emerged among students, workers, unions, women, people of color and others to address these injustices. Labor became a potent force in the first half of the 20th century. Then blacks mobilized a formidable civil rights movement, women’s groups organized to address a range of injustices, students infused new life into the drive for democracy both within and outside of higher education. Gay, lesbian and transgender groups – along with a number of other marginalized and oppressed groups – fought to gain basic civil rights. But these movements not only produced notable victories in deepening and expanding the promise and possibilities of a substantive democracy, they also were the object of a powerfully organized backlash on the part of conservatives, who organized a right-wing cultural revolution that successfully rolled back many of the progressive gains that emerged in the first and second half of the 20th century.
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