From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age:
The New Deal in Context

FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932

FDR and farmers
FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932
Photo Credit: Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, arguably one of the forgotten eras of U.S. history, grew out of earlier, also largely erased reform efforts. The Grange Movement’s roots are in the mid-19th century when, after the Civil War, Midwestern farmers organized to oppose the monopolistic railroads and grain elevator companies that charged exorbitant rates to move their crops to market. At its peak, the Grange Movement had over 850,000 members in several states.

By the late 1800s the Farmers’ Alliance, another populist movement, fought back the robber barons. It grew to three million members, spreading the gospel of farmers’ co-ops, conservation, and mutual aid through a network of some 40,000 lecturers and organizers. The movement eventually led to the Populist Party, which garnered well over a million votes in the national election in 1892. Its platform included nationalizing the telegraph, telephone, and railroads, a graduated income tax, and “postal savings banks,” a solution often cited for today’s struggling postal service.

As the Farmers Alliance waned at the end of the century, muckrakers exposed Gilded Age injustice and corruption. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency as a “trustbuster.” His successor, Woodrow Wilson, oversaw passage of the progressive income tax.

Following World War I, Wall Street went off the speculative deep end, bringing on the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal revived many ideas of the early Progressives, including those of FDR’s cousin, Teddy.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Labor’s gains in the 1930s came out of FDR’s push for legislation requiring collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to organize, providing a counterbalance to corporate power. Empowered, unions pressed for the progressive reforms that raised the standard of living for the middle class and provided some economic security to the elderly, disabled, and poor.  Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Grange members, and supported creation of a cooperative farm loan association to limit foreclosures. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944 posited that all humans have inherent economic rights.

The country’s turn to the Right in the 1980s and neoliberal austerity ever since gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the needy. Free market economics unleashed deregulation and moved to privatize the public sector. Union membership has fallen precipitously—thanks in part to so-called “right-to-work-laws.”

Graduation Day protest

Student Debt
Graduation Day protest
Photo Credit: Nation of Change

There are signs of resistance. The American Postal Workers Union has formed Grand Alliance Save our Public Postal Service. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local activists, and city governments have sued the U.S. Postal Service over the sale of historic post offices to private developers. And millions of young people saddled with student debt are beginning to demand relief.

As history has shown, these are how reform movements start, and how Americans can come together again to address the biggest wealth gap since the Gilded Age.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

Inequality for All


Robert Reich

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, the ubiquitous economist and Living New Deal Advisory Board member, is taking his message of economic inequality to the masses.  Reich, a UC Berkeley professor and a prolific author, is also an accidental movie star. His documentary “Inequality for All” sounds the alarm about the country’s widening economic gap– its causes, implications, and what we can do about it.

“Inequality for All” opened on September 27 and is showing in theaters nationwide. Like Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film about global warming, Reich’s film offers an engaging lecture. This time the “inconvenient truth” is the evaporating prosperity of the American middle class. Reich answers why since the 1980s Americans that have jobs are working more and earning less.

Reich was U.S. Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, during which time unemployment in the U.S. dropped to the lowest level in thirty years.
Reich and Bill Clinton met when they were Rhodes scholars at Oxford University. Today Reich is a road warrior, traveling nearly non-stop and drawing crowds and media attention wherever “Inequality for All” is playing.

The film created a buzz when it premiered at the star-studded Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Since then, Reich has left no media stone unturned. He writes a daily blog, maintains a popular website, uploads his talks to YouTube, and has a vast Facebook following. He has recently published op-eds in The New York Times
and Salon.

“Inequality for All” has been reviewed in such divergent publications as the Huffington Post, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Salt Lake City Tribune. Reich has appeared on the PBS News Hour, CNN, The Daily Show, Bill Moyers, and Democracy Now. You can watch him in action on The Colbert Report, for example. Conservative talk show hosts like Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly regularly rail against Reich, but refuse to debate him.

Either way, Reich is reaching the choir and beyond. His message: Inequality is bad for everyone. Let’s change it.

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Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.