The Striking Parallels Between Our Time and the Late 19th Century

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tags: election 2016, Trump

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian in Albany, New York. SUNY Press published his book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's Historyin 2015.

Many historians, along with millions of other Americans, are still trying to understand what led to the surprising result of the presidential election. Many experts seemed to miss or underestimate important forces and factors that were beneath the surface and deep-seated. Donald Trump seems to have appealed to a type of nostalgia, a vague feeling that things are amiss in our nation, that they were better at some unspecified time in the past, that our values are being undermined, and that returning to some version of the past status quo would restore American well-being.

Part of the unease is due to the continuing threat of terrorism, including intermittent terrorist incidents in this country. Part of it is rooted in the discouragement, despair, and anger of people who lost jobs during the recession and never regained them, or have been able at best only to secure low-salary, insecure jobs. Part of it is the reaction to the decline of cities and other communities where companies have left and jobs have vanished. To many Americans, things seem to be drifting out of control.

Trump encapsulated the feeling of alienation and apprehension in superficial but catchy campaign slogans – "Crippled America," "The System is Rigged," and "Make America Great Again." His rhetoric cut through complexity, simplified issues, and gave people a way of framing and interpreting what seemed to be happening to them and their nation.

Where can we look for historical insights? One place is a book by Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).

A pattern of bewilderment and search for order. In the closing years of the 19th century, as described in The Search for Order, Americans felt buffeted and stressed by the social and economic disruptions caused by industrialization, mechanization, urbanization, and immigration and the economic depression that began in 1877. These forces subjected the network of isolated "island communities" that comprised the U.S in the late 19th century to "a general splintering process" and produced a sense of "dislocation and bewilderment" in the minds of people still rooted in the Protestant values of small-town community life. People felt alienated, confused, apprehensive, swept along by large, impersonal forces beyond their control, similar to what many voters apparently felt in the recent election.

They were searching for patterns, order, ways to make sense out of impersonal forces. That seems similar in some ways to what large numbers of Americans are experiencing today and helps account for the results of the election. Wiebe elaborated on these themes in ways that may offer some insight into the current electorate's feeling of apprehension and alienation from traditional political leaders.

Sweeping change bewilders people. The late 19th century media emphasized growth, development, and enterprise. "An age never lent itself more readily to sweeping, uniform description: nationalization, industrialization, mechanization, urbanization. Yet to almost all of the people ... these themes meant only dislocation and bewilderment. America in the late nineteenth century was a society without a core. It lacked those national centers of authority and information which might have given order to such swift changes." People "tried desperately to understand the larger world in terms of their small, familiar environment" of family, church, and community. "They tried, in other words, to impose the known upon the unknown, to master the impersonal world through the customs of a personalized society. They failed...." which exacerbated their feeling of anxiety and alienation.

People feel exploited by powerful forces. Wiebe repeatedly emphasizes the vague apprehension in people's minds that systems were out of kilter and people were being victimized by powerful, sinister forces. Reformers, mostly ineffective, played on that feeling. "In almost every instance, these reforms followed an identical catechism. God had meant man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor in his own locality; powerful, invisible agencies – the great corporations, the wizards of finance, a ring of political bosses – had learned the ways of growing fat off the rights of others; reform must release the community from their grip."

Society becomes "distended" "As the network of relations affecting men's lives each year became more tangled and more distended, Americans in a basic sense no longer knew who or what they were. The setting had altered beyond their power to understand it, and within an alien context they had lost themselves." Wiebe titled the condition "the distended society."

Organizations ineffective in guiding the search for order. Traditional organizations, e.g., local churches and fraternal organizations, seemed as perplexed as their individual members about what was happening. Organizations espousing particular causes or remedies were not any more effective. "Like so many free-floating particles, groups of worried citizens tossed about, attached themselves to a cause, then scattered again. Many crusades attracted them; none seemed to hold them fast." Wiebe calls these "mildly adhesive movements" and gives as examples the Knights of Labor, the Nationalist Clubs inspired by author Edward Bellamy, and farmers' alliances.

Political parties stereotype and demonize each other. Wiebe emphasizes that prior to the progressive period, there usually wasn't much difference between the two major parties. But partisanship could be vicious. "Ignorance and intolerance ... mattered a great deal." Attack politics was the norm. "Antagonists confronted each other behind sets of stereotypes, frozen images that were specifically intended to exclude discussion. Reinforcing the faithful's feeling of separateness, the rhetoric of antithetical absolutes denied the desirability of any interchange. If ... the issue was civilization versus anarchy, who would negotiate with chaos?.... Honors for distortion divided about equally [between the two major parties.] "

The Populist Party never catches on. A new party, the Populists, organized in the 1890's, reflected public anxiety and disillusionment with the two established parties. But the party never became a significant political force. In the South, it was concerned mostly with issues of rural poverty resulting from market forces; in the West, it was more focused on railroad rate regulation; it had little appeal for town or city dwellers in the East. To many people, its anti-business rhetoric and insistence on currency inflation seemed like "a concrete embodiment of ... anarchy." It lacked organizational coherence; "the Populist Party expressed its commitment to local autonomy by an almost anarchic organizational independence." The Populist Party sputtered out of existence by the turn of the century due to multiple weaknesses, says Wiebe, including "the insubstantial organization, the invitation to mercurial leadership, the utter confusion in local tactics, the dearth of funds, the barriers to expansion, the tremendous burden of fighting political battles from the outside."

Presidential campaigns drove partisans to extremes. Even when the two presidential candidates were similar in outlook and intentions, partisans often vilified the nominee of the other party. In 1896, there was a significant difference: Democrat Williams Jennings Bryan, who was also endorsed by the Populists, represented the West, rural and village values and currency inflation; Republican William McKinley was more attuned to Eastern politicians and cities and city values, big business, and sound money. Republicans condemned Bryan as a proponent of anarchism and mob rule. Democrats called McKinley a puppet of Wall Street and big business interests. "In the long American tradition of political slander, very few campaigns matched this one in scurrility and in sheer emotional release .... [Partisans] simply read their opponents out of American society. [Republicans asserted] the Democrats had issued 'a declaration of war against civilization.'.... Fear proved highly profitable for McKinley's campaign manager, Mark Hanna." McKinley won. The campaign had been one of extreme hostility, but hostility, to some degree, was a notable factor in all of the presidential campaigns of the era.

An assertive professional middle class and the progressive movement finally bring order to society and government. Things finally settled down, Wiebe contends, but not until the early 20th century. It was the emergence of a new middle class in the early 20th century – largely urban professional men, but also some women – who shifted old values such as "frugality, promptness, foresight, [and] efficiency," off stage and espoused new values such as "continuity and regularity, functionality and rationality, administration and management" in order to manage twentieth century problems. It wasn't so much that they had "found" order as that they had brought in new paradigms and systems for managing complexity. This new value system led the new, proactive, assertive middle class to see "the need for a government of continuous involvement" and to emphasize executive power and administrative applications. The Progressive movement, with its insistence on government intervention in the economy and support for social justice, was the triumph of this new bureaucratic mentality. "Throughout the pattern ran the central theme of modern reform: functional specialization, continuity, adjustment. And behind it rested the assumptions of a bureaucratic order: a society of ceaselessly interacting voluntary groups assisted in their course by a powerful, responsive government," Wiebe concluded.

Donald Trump's presidency seems unlikely to herald a modern reform movement comparable to progressivism. It is not clear yet just what sort of new order he envisions. But by casting back through history, we can gain new insights into the feelings of dislocation, drift, helplessness, neglect, and disillusionment with traditional political leadership that helped elect him.

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