You often read political commentary comparing today’s America to the late 19th Century — the Gilded Age. “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age,” by Richard White, amzn.to isn’t primarily a political book — it’s primarily history. But it makes the case that the parallels between now and that period aren’t just political hype.
Then as now, we had great wealth side-by-side with poverty. Then as now, we have wonderful technological advances. Then as now, we have the federal government in disarray, with one weak President following another. Then as now, advances in racial equality hard-won in recent decades were being rolled back. But there are also differences of course. Today, racism has to hide behind coded language and denials; back then it was out in the open and mainstream.
“The Republic for Which it Stands” is tough reading, both because it’s very long and detailed, and also because it’s bleak. Racism and income inequality were so prevalent then that it’s hard to read the book without thinking how much worse things can get in the US today. But it’s also hopeful, because during the Gilded Age, progressives laid the groundwork for the American Golden Age of the 20th Century.