The United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s was startlingly similar to today. Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed – all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being. The parallels are indeed so striking that the foregoing description could have been written virtually word-for-word about our nation today. Looking back to a time Mark Twain disparagingly called the Gilded Age turns out to feel eerily like looking in the mirror.
Of course, other commentators have already spotted this troubling similarity. They have rightly warned that without a change in course, Americans today will have been guilty of allowing an ugly chapter in our history to repeat itself. But this comparison – remarkably apt as it is – inevitably begs the question of what actually came to pass the last time our nation found itself in such a troubling state of affairs. Clearly, the doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties of the late 1880s were never fulfilled – the fear that the American project was headed irretrievably off the rails proved unfounded. So how did we get from the last American Gilded Age to our current predicament? What happened in the intervening century?
From “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam