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Gilded Age

Welcome Back to the Gilded Age and Other Dangers to American Democracy

A recent television documentary on the History channel provided much interesting information, and unfortunately, brought to light some parallels with regard to what’s happening in American politics today. The series was entitled “The Innovators, Men Who Built America”. It covered the lives and economic pursuits of Cornelius (Commodore) Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller Sr., Andrew Carnegie, John Pierpont (JP) Morgan, and Henry Ford. The details of how these entrepreneurs worked together, and in competition with one other were quite interesting and informative.

One piece of information in this series stood out however:

In the year 1896 (a presidential election year) a populist by the name of William Jennings Bryan, had come upon the scene. He was a charismatic, rabble-rousing speaker (see his famed ‘Cross of Gold’ speech) and preached that big business was the curse of the common man, and needed to be curbed. Bryan at the time was the leading contender for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (he later did become the nominee).

Three of the above mentioned gentlemen (Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan) [Vanderbilt had died in 1877 and Ford was not yet on the scene] saw this as a threat to their wealth, influence and power.

In a secret meeting the three of them decided on a plan of action–which can succinctly be summed up in a quote by JP Morgan: “We can buy our own President”.

“[O]ur nation is facing a crisis of liberty if we do not control campaign expenditures. We must prove that elective office is not for sale.”

From there, the three of them invested today’s equivalent of 20 million dollars each into the campaign of William McKinley. Bryan was outspent five to one. This was also in the days prior to union organization when one out of every eleven steelworkers was dying on the job.

Roosevelt Campaign finance

Four years later they, with other anti Roosevelt Republicans, helped engineer the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt on the ticket as Vice President. At the time, Roosevelt (as governor of the state of New York) had become well known as a reformer who thought that big business was getting to be too powerful and needed regulation, which had started earlier with the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

Unfortunately for the above mentioned trio of entrepreneurs, William McKinley was assassinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, leaving Roosevelt (as the new President) free to pursue further anti-trust legislation and file a number of anti-monopoly lawsuits.

These started with the railroad monopolies held by JP Morgan, and culminated with the breakup of Standard Oil into some twenty odd smaller companies. Also, at this time, Unions were in their early stages of organization and were starting to gain popularity with workers. Roosevelt even had strong feelings about corporations getting involved in politics as demonstrated by this quote from a speech given in August of 1910.

It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced. Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption in our political affairs.”

To get an idea of how all of the above relates to what is happening today, let’s take a look at Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate, and the Koch brothers, Charles and David.

These conservative, anti-union libertarians have spent millions to support conservative and libertarian candidates. The largest contributor has been Sheldon Adelson with Charles and David Koch not far behind.  Unfortunately this is possible due to the fact that the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has ruled in favor of large corporations with regard to the “Citizens United” and “McCutcheon vs. FEC” cases. Attempts by progressives to pass legislation reversing these SCOTUS decisions, have unfortunately been successfully thwarted by congressional libertarians and conservatives. Now many of you reading this might be thinking, “Why should we be concerned about all of this stuff? Well, let’s answer that with another graphic.

Koch Brothers financing

The graphic above gives an example of how much money is currently being utilized for the 2014 midterms. And that’s just by these two gentlemen. We can also add a term here that has real bearing to this discussion: PLUTOCRACY.

Webster defines this as 1. Government by the wealthy  2. a controlling class of rich men. Is this what we really want our country to become? Apparently some libertarian and conservatives in our government would like to see that happen.

One of the worries is what might happen were conservative libertarians to take control of the senate.

“Almost certainly, Republicans would pass bills with items similar to what’s been in the budgets written by Paul Ryan over the past few years: reducing Pell grants, food stamps, and money for renewable energy. They’d target the EPA as Grover Norquist has suggested, and they’d almost surely go after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new agency created by Dodd-Frank that reins in the bad practices of banks and other lenders. They’d try to change the oversight of this CFPB giving business interests more control, or take it out from under the Federal Reserve Bank, where it is now housed, which could reduce its authority.”

This is just the beginning. We haven’t even talked about attempting to privatize social security, voucherizing Medicare, doing away with Medicaid and dismantling our public school system. For those of you reading this article, who disagree with the premises above I would suggest you read previous articles posted on this web-site by this author, “What’s Happened to my Parents’ Republican Party”, Failure of the so called “Trickle Down Economic Theory” and “Analyzing Private vs. Public Enterprise” (where the Koch brothers attempt to influence higher education is also discussed).

And for an in depth look at the American Economic System the following books. “Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People”, by Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein. “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future”, by Robert B. Reich. “The Gardens of Democracy” by Eric Lau and Nick Hanauer. “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” by Ha-Joon Chang. And the best one of all, “Land of Promise” An Economic History of the United States”, by Michael Lind.

Having documented all of the above, there are in fact other members of the top 1% (other billionaires), who do not have the social darwinistic libertarian point of view held by Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have given billions of dollars to fight poverty and improve healthcare worldwide. Warren Buffett is known for his advocacy of the “Buffett Rule”, and billionaire George Soros has given billions for liberal causes such as the legalization of recreational marijuana.

One final graphic about this situation by an honest conservative, Barry Goldwater, from a speech in 1983:

“[O]ur nation is facing a crisis of liberty if we do not control campaign expenditures. We must prove that elective office is not for sale. We must convince the public that elected officials are what James Madison intended us to be, agents of the sovereign people, not the hired hands of rich givers, or what Madison called factions.”

The Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson are not the first plutocrats to attempt to control the US Government. In one of the above mentioned articles published previously on this web-site by this author, “What’s Happened to my Parents’ Republican Party?” reference is made to the Joseph Coors family. Fellow anti union, social Darwinist libertarians who, as with the Koch brothers and Adelson, have contributed large amounts of money in the 1970s to establish right wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. Information on their activities of this period can be found in the excellent book, “The Coors Connection” How the Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism, by Russ Bellant.

This book was written in 1988 but still very relevant. One final comment with regard to the Koch brothers, Charles and David; what more can we expect from a couple of fellows whose father was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. For an additional interesting article on the Koch brothers check out a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine “Inside the Koch Brothers’ Toxic Empire.”

The opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Haps Magazine.

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About Gene Gerth

Retired US Army, Retired Eighth Army Entertainment Director, Former Adjunct Assistant Professor - University of Maryland University College Asian Division, Busan City Chapter Chair - Democrats Abroad ROK

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One comment

  1. To be fair to the original gentlemen who built America, Rockefeller and Carnegie. Both became very philanthropic in their later years as exemplified by The Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller Center in New York, Carnegie Hall and the numerious Carnegie libraries nationwide.

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