“Explanations for our current political volatility abound: toxic partisanship, the ever more fragmented and strident news media, high unemployment, economic upheaval and the clamorous upwelling of inchoate populist angst,” wrote Stanford University historian David Kennedy in an excellent essay in the New York Times following the 2010 elections. “But the political instability of our own time pales when compared with the late 19th century. In the Gilded Age the American ship of state pitched and yawed on a howling sea of electoral turbulence.”
The Gilded Age is the name given to the era following the Civil War, roughly from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century. It was a period of intense political competition between the two parties, with a string of presidents that few now remember. “Generations of American scholars have struggled to find a coherent narrative or to identify heroic leaders in that era’s messy and inconclusive political scene,” writes Professor Kennedy.
Yet, the Gilded Age was also a time of major innovations and rapid economic growth. The country kept moving on and making progress, including the development of railroads, steel and factories of all sorts in what is often referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution. The telephone and electricity were both invented and initially deployed during this period, as was the world’s most comprehensive public education system. By the beginning of the 20th century, the US emerged as one of the world’s industrial and economic powers, as well as an increasingly prosperous and powerful country.
I thought of Professor Kennedy’s essay when reading The America that Works, a special report on US competitiveness in the March 16 issue of The Economist. “Luckily, dysfunction in Washington is only one side of America’s story,” is the tag line in the report’s overview article. As was the case in the late 19th century, this is a tale of two very different Americas.