The period from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until just after the turn of the century is known as the Gilded Age. It is the time of big railroads, big banks, and big steel.
Men like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon made themselves wealthy by monopolizing trade and corrupting government then built grandiose homes and earned the appellation robber baron. Economic inequality reached historic levels and children starved while Morgan and Mellon decided where to build their next 75 room mansions.
Teddy Roosevelt earned a reputation as a trust buster through his efforts to curb the most egregious excesses of such men. Roosevelt didn’t attack all trusts or monopolies, only those he felt took excess profits and failed to provide good, efficient services or high quality products.
While his public face was that of a protector of the common man, he was very much a supporter of capitalism, who believed that strong government provided necessary balance. Economic inequality continued to increase through the Roaring ’20s proving that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t go far enough.
Just two decades after Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, the national economy took a nose dive into what became known as the Great Depression.
It took reformers like Teddy’s nephew Franklin Delano-Roosevelt and his vice-president, Texan John Nance Garner, to push back against the avarice of the robber barons’ successors and set the stage for the rapid growth in the middle class after the end of World War II.
Roosevelt and Garner were forced to compromise with southern Democrats and withhold some of the protections and benefits from domestic help and farm workers, who were often minorities, in order to pass their legislation. Those left out were unable to fully enjoy the benefits of the vibrant economy.
Two decades later, another reformer was needed and Texan Lyndon Johnson took up the banner to expand those benefits to the grandsons and granddaughters of slaves and other minorities. Like all reformers before him, he also had to be pushed by those who suffered under the existing system and he had to accept compromises in order to move forward.
While each of these great reformers’ efforts were necessary, they have never been enough and soon after LBJ left office the legislation and regulations that protected the middle class were weakened or reversed.
It has been 50 years since LBJ, and once again economic inequality has reached record levels with just three men holding as much wealth as the bottom 50% of Americans combined.
In 2020, we have an opportunity to elect a reformer who will turn back the tide of avarice that threatens the fabric of our society and prevent another Gilded Age or Great Depression.
I hope you watched the two nights of Democratic presidential candidate debates and recognized that some of them will move us forward while others just offer the status quo. Sanders, Warren, Harris and a few others offer a chance to restore balance to our economy. Biden, Hickenlooper and the rest would happily settle for scraps off the table of the new robber barons of Facebook, Amazon, and Apple.