Making sense of the mindless hysteria we’ve witnessed in opposition to the presidency of Barack Obama and his efforts to deal with the legacies of Bush-Cheney is not as confusing as you may think. There is a constant theme to all the protests and obstructionism by the Republican Party and – to some extent – by the TEA-Partiers. Those who President George W. Bush called “the Haves and Have-Mores” have a burning desire to restore the plutocracy of those last golden years before the 20th century – the Gilded Age.
The United States, for all practical purposes, was a plutocracy from 1869 to 1901. A plutocracy (pronounced “plew tah’ crah see”) is a government that is ruled by the few who have gained wealth through business and industry and is primarily for their benefit. This is not the same as an aristocracy (pronounced “air is tah’ crah see”), which is the rule by those who inherited their land and wealth. As a rule, aristocrats possess a sense of noblesse oblige – those lucky enough to be born into wealth or privilege are obligated to help those who were not so blessed.
Because he helped the needy during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt was accused by the Republicans of being “a traitor to his class.” But, they were mistaken: FDR was not a plutocrat; he was an aristocrat. The Kennedy brothers (John, Robert, and Edward) were all feared and resented by the Republicans for the same reason.
What do they hate about today and what was so attractive about the Gilded Age that makes the Republicans and TEA-Partiers want to return there? It was a time before those horrible presidents whom they consider to to have been socialists or communists: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. When the plutocratic Bush-Cheney administration made such a mess of things and almost brought the country to complete ruin, it was obvious that the country was going to need another one of those awful presidents – but this time it’s going to be worse! Barack Obama is Black!
Also, the plutocratic Gilded Age did not have the following atrocities: (1) the income tax; (2) government regulations of industry – like the Pure Food and Drug Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency; (3) serious efforts to protect public lands from industrial and private development – like an official National Park Service and the creation of national monuments, forests, and wildlife refuges; and (4) Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, legalized collective bargaining for labor, minimum wage laws, Roe v. Wade, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.
During the Gilded Age, the capitalistic system, which amassed great wealth in the hands of the few, did not evenhandedly benefit everyone else. The working class, the consumers, and the farmers did not have the support of the plutocratic government of the day. The people were left to the mercy of the so-called “Robber Barons” of the railroads (Cornelius Vanderbilt), oil (John D. Rockefeller), steel (Andrew Carnegie), and finance (John Pierpont Morgan).
Consequently, various “isms” or “ists” rose in the 1880’s and 1890’s to offer alternatives to capitalism: Socialists desired government ownership of the means of production; Communists wanted all the people to share ownership in the means of production; and Anarchists recommended that no government at all was the solution; and Populists advocated the government’s regulation of Big Business so as to reform the evils of capitalism and make it work for the good of all. The Populists were the largest in number; but with leaders known as “Pitchfork” and “Barefoot,” they lacked the respectability necessary for success.
It was President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, who adapted populist ideas into Progressivism, a movement that dominated the two decades from 1901 to 1920. TR’s worst enemies were his fellow Republicans – they objected to his program to offer a “Square Deal” for all. TR couldn’t understand why they would rather have a socialist, communist, or anarchist revolution and risk losing the whole system rather than reforming what was wrong with capitalism. He referred to his Republican opponents as “the lunatic fringe,” but it was they who retook control of the party when TR left office.
“The lunatic fringe” certainly seems to be leading the Republican Party today. Their blanket opposition to reforming the health insurance system with its primary purpose of gaining profits for shareholders or reforming the financial system that brought on the Great Recession is typical of the plutocracy. The neo-conservative and radical-reactionary party leaders don’t believe in bipartisanship or compromise and want to turn the clock back to 19th century standards: Big Business should have the freedom to do whatever it wants without any government regulations that might protect the people or the environment.
The Supreme Court recently endorsed that goal with its 5 to 4 ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC decision. Four radical-reactionary justices (Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) and one conservative (Anthony Kennedy) voted to overturn virtually all the campaign finance reforms of the last century and ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts on our elections.
The TEA Party activists, while sympathetic to the plutocratic Republican Party’s issues, is actually opposed to the Republican Party. Curiously, this bunch never protested Bush-Cheney’s incompetent governance or exorbitant deficit spending or expanding the huge national debt until Barack Obama became president – and then they amazingly blamed him! TEA-Partiers appear to be those who are satisfied with what they have and fear that any change may adversely affect them, so they don’t seem to care about anyone else.
They broke with the Republicans when George W. Bush chose to avoid a Second Great Depression. When faced with what his policies had produced, Mr. Bush surprisingly did what had to be done and bailed out the irresponsible mega-banks! Like anarchists, TEA-Partiers seem to feel that the government should have done nothing and allowed an international financial meltdown.
Ironically, the first TEA Party event was financed and orchestrated by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), one of many right-wing organizations founded by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers (Charles, 73, and David, 68) to advance their Republican corporate agenda. The AFP, the Kochs’ primary political unit, is based in Washington, DC; has chapters in 23 states including Arkansas; and specializes in rapidly forming “grassroots organizations” against any progressive issue that comes up.
Regulated Capitalism has proved to be the best of all the “isms.” Sadly, ever since the Reagan Era of the 1980’s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we’ve disastrously been returning to the unregulated capitalism that we had during the plutocratic government of the Gilded Age – running completely amok under Bush-Cheney – and the result is the current Great Recession. Expectedly, the Republicans and the TEA-Partiers want to do little other than continue the tax cuts for the rich, but that’s what helped get us into this mess in the first place.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published April 2, 2010, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.