Book Review: Michael McHugh, The Second Gilded Age

Book Classification : Nonfiction - Modern History - Social Issues & Current Events

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The Second Gilded Age: The Great Reaction in the United States, 1973-2001 , by Michael McHugh
Paperback - 300 pages
First Edition, January 28, 2006
Published by University Press of America

ISBN-10: 0761834524
ISBN-13: 978-0761834526

Book Review by
Ed Bloomer

When I was working on the assembly line at General Electric in 1979, a boss came down one day and gave each worker a share of stock worth $3.00. I tore mine up and threw it in the trash. Even so, the company kept it on record, and from time to time in the 1980s and '90s contacted me to say that the stock had split and increased in value. To make a long story short, by August 2001, that lonely share of GE stock had multiplied like capitalist loaves and fishes into 90 shares-now worth $4,500. Not being much of a capitalist, I gave away my totally unearned loot to my family or the Catholic Worker community. Even so, when I imagined from this one example just how much the rich, the near-rich and the obscenely rich must have increased their wealth during this time, I understand just what Michael McHugh meant when he called it a Second Gilded Age .

Anyone interested in politics, culture and race will certainly be enthralled with this book! It describes the cycles of US History from the time of the First Gilded Age (1873-1901) to the Second a century later. Both were periods of laissez faire capitalism, of Robber Barons who exploited new technologies to establish giant industries such as John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil in the 19th Century or Microsoft a hundred years later. In these capitalist heydays, wealth and incomes are highly concentrated in the hands of the top 10% of the population, while the living standards for most of the population stagnated or declined. Far from protecting and defending the interests of the common people, politicians serve the oligarchy during these Gilded Ages, while manipulating the voters through the calculated use of racism, religious and cultural issues, law and order and nationalism. It is no accident that these capitalist heydays are also the heydays of right-wing populist movements like the Ku Klux Klan and Moral Majority.

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Michael McHugh ,
The Second Gilded Age: The Great Reaction in the United States, 1973-2001

McHugh compares these Gilded Ages with what he calls the Historical Exception Period of 1945-73. He shows us how prosperity after World War II, when the American Empire was at its strongest, also gave working people social democratic and modern liberal capitalist welfare state. Building on the New Deal and Fair Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, the New Frontier of John Kennedy and the Great Society Lyndon Johnson created programs that uplifted the city's and fed the hungry plus Medicare, which enriched the elderly with help on their medical expenses. As a result of the Second Reconstruction of 1954-65, new laws were passed to protect minorities in voting rights, affirmative action and desegregation of schools and work places.


"In 2005, columnist Ted Rall asked the question: 'Why do the poor and the middle class, who get screwed by Republican policies, vote for them anyway?' One important answer was that, 'they were willing to take an economic hit for their heartfelt beliefs' on cultural, religious and national security issues, although another would be that they had little choice or suffer from what Karl Marx called 'false consciousness'. For whatever reason, America had no class parties, and in 2000, 46% of people making $100,000 or more voted for Al Gore, while millions blue-collar whites voted Republican. One of the most important questions this book will try to answer in the following chapters is why, 'millions of Democrats and Republicans alike routinely cast votes that work against their narrowly defined economic self-interest.' But are either motivated by non-economic issues or do not vote at all."

© 2007 Michael McHugh.
Reprinted with the
permission of the author.

In the 1968 election, the Vietnam War was tearing the fabric of the nation apart. Nixon beat out Humphrey for the presidency. Nixon was the last president of the Historical Exception Period and the initiator of the Second Gilded Age. He promised to dismantle the Great Society programs that benefited poor women with children the so called 'welfare queens'. He was effective in manipulating the backlash of white voters, which Republicans called the Southern Strategy. Nixon also used the issue of 'law and order' to erode the gains which minorities and working people had gained during the Historical Exception Period. Reelected in a landslide against George McGovern in 1972, only the Watergate break-in and his disgrace and his ouster from office prevented him from establishing a new Republican majority. Nixon self-destructed in 1974, but the conservative backlash endured and prospered despite this.

Even so, with the declining economy and massive public distrust of government and politicians, the Second Gilded Age was being ushered in. Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 by labor minorities and the Old New Deal Coalition, but he was basically a moderately conservative southern Democrat. In the last two years of his term, Carter had on the drawing board massive increases in military spending, the neutron bomb, and the B-2 bomber-all of which robbed the poor and it took. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was the High Noon of the Second Gilded Age, which featured huge cuts in social spending longstanding hostility toward civil rights for minorities, the Draconian age of more prisons, tougher penalties and ushered in a backlash against gays, feminists and minority rights. Reagan and his advisors were experts in using the Southern Strategy, beating Carter and Mondale with issues of culture, race, flag-waving and family values.

By the 1990's, after twenty years of declining living standards, the majority of voters were alienated from the political system and favored a third party candidates, from Pat Buchanan on the right and Ralph Nader on the left but. In the 1992 election Ross Perot stole enough white votes from George Bush Sr to hand the election to Bill Clinton. Like Carter, he was a moderately conservative southern governor, who made promises about improved social programs and universal health care, but was unable to keep them. Once again using cultural and racial backlash issues, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich seized both the House and Senate in 1994.Their Contract on America was a radically free market version of capitalism to which Clinton accommodated with a welfare 'reform' law that dumped the poor into the street. Thanks to this 'triangulation' strategy, Clinton was elected for a second term in 1996. By then, the Stock Market was riding high, although by 2000 -2001 its bubble began to look deflated even before 9/11. This Gilded Age version of 'prosperity', like that of the 1920s or the First Gilded Age, was concentrated mostly at the top. In an election that further disgraced the political system, George Bush, Jr. came to power in 2000 thanks to a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. His War on Terror and Second Oil War brought about big deficits, high inflation with big tax cuts and breaks to the rich.

I cannot do this book a great enough service. In The Second Gilded Age , Dr. Michael McHugh has given a concise critique of the history of the workings of our society and political system in an amazing way. This book should be read by scholars or anyone who is concerned about the future this country and our world. It at least offers the hope that the Gilded Ages are cyclical and that although they might have seemed endless at the time, they have never been the last word in history.

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The Second Gilded Age: The Great Reaction in the United States, 1973-2001
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Book Description from the Author

When I was young, I was very conservative, a big supporter of the Moral Majority and a Cold Warrior who voted for Ronald Reagan.It wasn't any one thing in particular that changed my mind and caused me to move left. I read Howard Zinn's book, PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, which really opened my eyes and told me things about this society that I'd never heard before. Then there was a two-month visit in Mexico City, where I saw the vast slums and extreme poverty that I had never imagined existed, and heard about how the International Monetary Fund was imposing 'austerity measures' on the country.

At that time, I also began to have great misgivings about US foreign policy in Central America, backing these brutalitarian regimes in places like El Salvador. I heard from guys in the Special Forces just what kind of war the US was fighting down there, with torture and execution of prisoners. It was then I began to seriously study the whole American Empire from a new point of view, and undertand that this Central American War was just like Vietnam and many other places over the years.More or less, I decided to drop out of the whole system. I lived on a commune in Missouri for a year and a half, then I worked for the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center for a year before moving to Des Moines to direct the Catholic Peace Ministry.

It was in Des Moines that I got the idea for my book, THE SECOND GILDED AGE . During the stike against Bridgestone-Firestone in 1995, all the union members were fired and 'permanently replaced'. Of course, I'd heard about this type of thing for years, but now I had a chance to see it firsthand. No one on the state or federal level would lift a finger to help these people who had basically been fired for going on strike.It was then I realized that 1995 was really a lot like 1895 and that the Gilded Age was repeating itself. I had long known about the conservative-reform cycles in US history, thanks to Pete Forcey at the State University of New York, but I realized that the Gilded Ages were about double the length of 'normal' conservative eras like 1919-32, for example or 1946-62. I also thing the backlash against the previous reforms was more severe than in other conservative cycles. In these periods, the state is openly allied with the very wealthy and big business interests, which was obvious with presidents like Reagan, but also with Clinton and his support of NAFTA and the WTO, indifference to working class problems and so on.I left the US in 1995 and did not return for 11 years, but I spent that time writing THE SECOND GILDED AGE . I was angered but not surprised by the corrupt election of 2000, which was really a 'selection' by five conservative justices of the Supreme Court. I was shocked by 9-11, to be sure, but I also understood that the US had done a great deal to create this whole monster when it spent billions arming the holy warriors in Afghanistan. They were indeed very anti-communist, but then it turned out that they hated the West as well.I regard the war in Iraq as just another episode in the long history of the US trying to maintain control of the oil resources in the Middle East -- installing 'friendly' governments there that will follow its instructions. As with Vietnam, though, it's not working out as well as they planned. It all part of a very familiar pattern in the Third World, depressingly familiar, but the rulers of America are trying to impose the same system everywhere and have been since World War II.They don't always succeed, however.

In this book, you can read about the American aristocracy and how it controls the "democratic" political system with big money, and manipulates and diverts the masses with flag waving, Bible thumping, racism and general fear and paranoia.

Imagine an oligarchy that controls just about all the wealth and power in the American Empire, especially so in periods like the Gilded Ages? How does it maintain its position all out of proportion to its numbers?

Naturally, it uses old-fashioned methods like the military, police, prisons, and the death penalty. Indeed, it spends vast amounts of money on these coercive methods. In the 1945-73 period, a common assumption was that these would fall by the wayside in favor of more postmodern, postindustrial methods of social control, such as the social welfare state, drugs, and the whole therapeutic culture. This did not happen, and in fact, the welfare state was actually weakened during the Second Gilded Age, although not abolished totally.

In addition, this system also uses propaganda and near-monopoly control of information, particularly through television and the mass media. It feeds people a steady diet of consumerism, family values, nationalism, and fear. t also uses religion, as most regimes have throughout history, although fundamentalists have been very effective at adopting their message to the mass media, too and politicians use them all the time.

Then there is the massive power it exerts through economic controls -- more or less the power over people's food, clothing and shelter. There is very little challenge to this elite control over the workplace and working life in general. From the New Deal up to the 1970s, labor unions and their allies in the state apparatus somewhat mitigated this elite control over economic activity, but that is no longer the case today. People who have a family and requite two incomes to maintain an adequate level of consumption are particularly trapped by the system in this way.

Naturally, the ruling elite also use money to straight out buy and bribe politicians; it happens every day. These days, it can cost a billion dollars or more to buy an election cycle, plus all that money for lawyers and lobbyists. They buy men like Reagan and Bush, who mouth cliches about God, country, freedom and apple pie,etc. to manipulate the voters. There are many issues that they use to divert attention away from social class and the fact that a narrow elite owns nearly everything in this society, such as hostility to minorities, abortion, homosexuality, crime, law and order and so on.

All in all, it is a highly effective system of control, and has kept wealth and income more unequally divided than in any other Western country. It also maintains rule over most of the power nations in the world, although there have been some failures, such as Vietnam or Iraq. Its the same system all over the world, but more brutal in places like Africa, South America, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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The Second Gilded Age: The Great Reaction in the United States, 1973-2001
by Michael McHugh