Foreign Policy In Focus

By Marc Palen

Worried critics decry the similarities between the corruption-laden late 19-century American Gilded Age and the crony capitalism of today.

“We are recreating the Gilded Age,” notes labor historian Erik Loomis. And Robert Reich, the former Democratic labor secretary under Bill Clinton, explains in the Nation that “we’ve entered a new Gilded Age, of which Mitt Romney is the perfect reflection.” Edward Luce of the Financial Times calls this a “new age of populism,” with Wall Street executives representing the Robber Barons of yore.

In their analysis, Loomis, Reich, Luce, and other critics have astutely focused their turn-of-the-century analogical critiques upon the economic fallout from market deregulation; nativist anti-immigration sentiment; union busting; massive income inequality; voter repression; Mitt Romney’s relationship with Bain Capital; and the undue influence of “today’s robber barons” upon American democracy.

Similar historical lessons surrounding the problems of global trade and foreign policy, however, have gone neglected.

The New Gilded Age’s New Imperialism   

Historical parallels, while certainly enlightening, can also be taken too far. Some caveats are therefore needed.

For one thing, the relationship between the government and corporations is quite different now from what it was in the Gilded Age. For instance—unlike the recent government bailouts of corporations under George W. Bush and Barack Obama—during the economic depression of the 1890s, it was Wall Street that bailed out the federal government. In 1895, with American gold reserves sinking to new lows, Democratic President Grover Cleveland turned to J.P. Morgan to replenish the federal gold supply, an economic stimulus that J.P. Morgan effectively repeated amid another economic panic in 1907.

Critics have also ignored the fact that extreme protectionism—not some Social Darwinian free market—dominated the Gilded Age U.S. political economy and oversaw the era’s long-term economic depression. The Republican Party proudly stood upon the Gilded Age protectionist platform, with Uncle Sam patriotically brandishing the economic nationalist standard from atop high tariff walls in order to keep cheap European goods and Asian immigrants from landing upon American shores.

Alternatively, the Gilded Age’s free traders—the once-famous liberal reformers known as Mugwumps—were the loudest critics of American imperial expansionism and militarism. These idealistic anti-imperialists sincerely believed that free trade would ultimately lead to world peace. They also became incessant laissez faire thorns in the protectionist side of the Republican elephant at the imperial turn of the century, when the United States acquired a colonial empire from Spain in 1898.

In stark contrast to these early free-trade anti-imperialists, today’s Republicans—the self-proclaimed ideological defenders of the global free market—avidly led the post-9/11 jingoistic charge into Iraq. Owing to this Middle Eastern boondoggle and the ongoing Afghanistan occupation, Americans have once again become fed up with seemingly endless war, military interventionism, and out-of-control defense spending.

Indeed, a noteworthy new Stimson Center study illuminates how a large bipartisan majority of Americans would support sweeping cuts to military spending, with about two thirds of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats favoring a very sizeable average decrease of nearly 20 percent—percentages that the looming specter of sequestration now offers.

Yet rather than advocate a fiscally conservative reduction of the enormous U.S. military budget, Mitt Romney has called for substantial increases, promising to grow the Pentagon budget by more than $2 trillion over the next ten years. He has also surrounded himself with many of the same neoconservatives who got the United States into its post-9/11 interventionist quagmires.

To put it mildly, this is an odd and decidedly hawkish proposal, one that neither fixes federal deficits nor placates a war-weary realist public. But it is quite in character for the out-of-touch poster boy of the New Gilded Age.

Protectionist Revivalism

Romney certainly makes himself an easy scapegoat for the global problems of the New Gilded Age. Through partisan lenses, however, critics have missed the bipartisan forest for Republican trees. They scratch their heads wondering why Democratic politicians seemingly stand idly by while the Republican Party singlehandedly drags the United States back into an unsavory past.

But blame for the corrupt policies of the New Gilded Age does not lie entirely in Republican hands. The devolution of the U.S. political economy has been a bipartisan effort. And both parties are sounding more and more like Republican ghosts of Gilded Age past.

Obama and Romney are even now pulling upon populist heartstrings and calling for the same kind of economic nationalist policies that were once so strongly touted by the GOP of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Buy American” programs, protective tariffs, and the demonization of global market competition are once again acceptable political ammunition for the election-year salvo.

Obama’s nativist attacks against Romney for shipping jobs to China are proving particularly effective, and Romney has correspondingly returned populist fire by labeling Obama the true “Outsourcer-in-Chief.”

At the same time, both candidates have been tight-lipped of late regarding Asian pivots, free trade agreements, and trans-pacific partnerships. Both men have begun a dangerous walk along the precarious free-trade tightrope.

Obama previously caused a stir when he criticized NAFTA on the 2008 campaign trail, and afterward dragged his heels before finally signing U.S. free-trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. More recently, the Obama administration hit Chinese energy companies with a new round of tariffs, exacerbating the ongoing protectionist Sino-American “tit-for-tat.” Not to be outdone, Romney has threatened to start a trade war with China as his first act in the Oval Office.

Much as it did in the economically tumultuous Gilded Age, such anti-globalization sentiment finds resonance with a financially desperate American public. “America for Americans” and “No Free Trade” slogans could easily line the side of a Tea Party rally as they once peppered Gilded Age Republican presidential campaign trails. In recent years, Republican voters have in fact expressed their “broadening resistance to globalization,” while U.S. multinationals are seriously considering a “new American industrial policy” and Democratic-leaning American unions increasingly condemn global labor competition.

“Globalization” has become a dirty word.

Finding Historical Lessons

How did Gilded Age Americans ultimately correct the myriad economic ills afflicting the nation? American progressives turned to domestic reform, not global retreat. They turned to regulation coupled with greater international trade and investment, not economic retrenchment.

Yet populist insularity is once again proving politically popular. On this point, many of the same critics who warn of a New Gilded Age might be surprised to find that they have much in common with the protectionist Republican Party of yesteryear.

Amid the continuing worldwide economic crisis, we are witnessing a global protectionist resurgence. And the nativism and economic nationalism that pervaded the Gilded Age offer an eerie Victorian reflection of present-day anti-globalization sentiment.

Fears surrounding global competition abound among Democrats and Republicans alike. With the November elections fast approaching, it is a phobia to which both presidential contenders appear more than happy to pander.

But rather than cater to old parochial fears, Obama and Romney should offer new global solutions. History tells us that trade wars, declining exports, and soaring consumer costs are not the answer. Protectionism might make for good politics, but it makes for bad policy.