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The New Republican Gilded Age

The basic idea is to reconfigure the American state to serve only the interests of business

"Capitalists used their money to bribe politicians en masse to great effect, but probably their most important colonization of state power was through the courts." (Photo: Illustrated | Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images, ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images, AP Photo)

"Capitalists used their money to bribe politicians en masse to great effect, but probably their most important colonization of state power was through the courts." (Photo: Illustrated | Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images, ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images, AP Photo)

The Republican Party has the run of the federal government. What sort of society do they wish to create? The Gilded Age — an often-overlooked period from the mid-1870s to 1900 — provides some important lessons.

The Gilded Age is part of the subject of an important new history by Richard White, The Republic For Which It Stands, the most recent entry in the Oxford History of the United States series. It's both an excellent piece of historical scholarship and an insightful view of what happened the last time the current Republican ideological platform was put into practice.

The basic idea is to reconfigure the American state to serve only the interests of business: forbidding as much regulation of industry as possible, and using violent state power to suppress the inevitable backlash from the rest of society. America once had much of its democratic nature cored out by rapacious capitalists. It could happen again.

1. Capitalist tyranny. The Gilded Age was a time of rapid industrialization, and the concomitant consolidation of gigantic fortunes. Andrew Carnegie in steel, Cornelius Vanderbilt in railroads, J.P. Morgan in finance, and above all John D. Rockefeller in oil — such men built up incomprehensible piles of wealth with monopoly businesses, and therefore enormous political power. (Surrounded by lickspittles and yes-men, and isolated on vast estates, these men also tended to become weird shut-ins — sound familiar?)

Capitalists used their money to bribe politicians en masse to great effect, but probably their most important colonization of state power was through the courts. The vicious, parasitical financier Jay Gould developed the trick of using the judiciary to smash the working class after losing a strike in 1885. He sued one of his railroads with the other, thus driving it into federal receivership and making its workers federal employees. Hey presto, he could get legal injunctions and National Guard troops to smash the next strike in 1886.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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