The Democratic Party’s establishment is in denial about the ways in which concentrated riches are warping society and contributing to the disunity it seeks to heal.
” . . . Just as the 2008 recession ushered in the election of the first black president, a subsequent white backlash, and a rebirth of left-wing populism led by figures such as Warren and Sanders, the economic hardships of the late 1870s inspired both worker activism and racist retrenchment. In times of economic hardship, it was not a difficult matter to discredit Reconstruction as an attempt to raise ignorant black laborers above white men who were entrepreneurial, responsible, and refined. Nor was it difficult to justify government intervention on behalf of Big Business while condemning such intervention on behalf of workers. The rich, after all, had earned it, or they wouldn’t be rich.
Foner documents how former antislavery figures such as Horace White of the Chicago Tribune “condemned agrarian and labor organizations for initiating ‘a communistic war upon vested rights and property,’ and insisted that universal suffrage had ‘cheapened the ballot’ by throwing political power into the hands of those influenced by the ‘harangues of demagogues.’” Antislavery publications such as The Nation “linked the Northern poor and Southern freedmen as members of a dangerous new ‘proletariat’ as different ‘from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.’” With Reconstruction ended, capital took advantage of the stability of its aftermath to expand convict leasing, a new regime of forced labor that white southerners would impose to replace slavery and keep the region’s black labor force captive and subordinate. Big industries—lumber, railroads, mining, and others—would take eager advantage of this system of neo-slavery to boost their profit margins.
The end of Reconstruction coincided with the Republican retreat from civil rights. But that retreat was precipitated by deep-seated fears over workers in the North and South seeking labor reform, income redistribution, and regulation of industry. “The South sensed the willingness of Big Business, threatened by liberal revolt, labor upheaval and state interference, to make new alliance with organized Southern capital if assured that the tariff, banks and national debt, and above all, the new freedom of corporations, would not be subjected to mass attack,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America. “Such a double bargain was more than agreeable to Southern leaders.” Racism not only threatens democracy and prosperity; it accrues tremendous benefits for those already leading lives of plenty.
America’s political parties are now as polarized as they were at the end of Reconstruction. And just as at the end of Reconstruction, a multiracial party whose ranks include both frustrated workers and wealthy capitalists finds itself at a crossroads, with no certain options for healing the nation’s divides or its own. As ever, America’s gilded class regards the possibility of higher taxes and redistribution as a greater threat than a resurgent racist authoritarianism that imperils America’s still-young experiment in multiracial democracy. The latter, after all, does not jeopardize its profits.Into this divide steps Patrick, a man who went from poverty on Chicago’s South Side to the heights of both business and politics, practically an avatar of the old free-labor ideal that animated the 19th-century Republican Party, an ideal whose blindness to how concentrations of wealth warp politics and society leaves it ill-equipped to deal with the threats to democracy and prosperity America currently faces. The paradox for Democrats is that the candidates who understand this appear less likely to prevail in the general election, and those who have yet to grasp it may be better positioned to unseat the president.
In Polarized America, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal argue that economic inequality and polarization reinforce each other. Economic suffering and ideology foment anger toward minorities, who are blamed for that economic suffering. The very wealthy exploit those divisions to sustain their streams of income, which in turn makes it less likely that redistributive legislation addressing that economic suffering can be passed . . .”