Alan Trachtenberg


Synopsis of
Chapter 05: The Politics of Culture


Many intellectuals such as William James were disturbed by the increasing disparity between the economic situation and values of the wealthy classes and the new immigrant labor, but James, for one, also found something unsettling in the astonishing lack of awareness among his peers that a valid lifestyle other than their own might exist at all. James recognized a freshness and adventure in the life of the worker which his fellow New England elites did not know. He felt that a comingling of the worker and the leisure class could be mutually beneficial, and especially that high culture could be a force for social good.

The vision of harmony, education, and self-cultivation that James considered to constitute culture became the official middle-class image of America in the Gilded Age. Culture could offer a middle ground between the squalor of the very poor and the conspicuous wealth of the very rich. However, the institutions that the preachers of the merits of the arts and learning set in place during this era were only made possible by the accumulation of large fortunes. Cornell, Stanford, and the University of Chicago were all made possible through philanthropy, the symbol of the triumph of powerful men in an a world of agression and competition. At the same time, the rise of this new role for culture represented a "powerful idea of the feminine"(147). The elevation of thought and the cleansing of emotions associated with culture seemed an antipode to the masculinized world of business. Culture was the antidote to rowdiness and rebellion, and thus a great instrument for social control. Landmarks such as Central Park were meant not simply as public spaces but as schools of discipline, decency, and good will. It was hoped that culture itself, as a symbol of the hearth and home of upstanding citizens, would counter the looming proletarianization of America.

This symbol of the home eventually evolved into a proposed solution for the problem of the gap between rich and poor. The sociologist, Simon Patten, advocated that the objects of culture be made cheaper, while vices such as alcohol, cigarettes, and gambling be made more expensive. Let the masses develop tastes for more varieties of goods, the argument went, and thus their attention will be turned away from dissipation. This refrain had already been articulated by a number of labor reformers when Patten took it up as his own. These reformers thought that if goods could be made cheaper and workers could be given more leisure time, it was only logical that they would become moral, educated citizens. At the same time that work was being fragmented and the extended family was being replaced by the nuclear family, a greater variety of goods became available to the lower classes that reinforced the idea of security through domestic consumption.


At the same time, a new breed of intellectuals were trying to redefine what American high culture looked like. Men such as E.L. Godkin, editor of The Nation, Richard Watson Gilder of The Century, and also Henry Adams felt increasingly alienated from the pragmatic fray of urban America. These men, from whom we have inherited the idea of the late 19th century as a "Gilded Age", sought to effect a revolution in the American culture of the mind. Their attitudes reflected resentment of Europe as the center of art and learning, and they sought to guide America through an age of barbarism. The programme of these men was often highly elitist and undemocratic, and though they would have great influence over generations of American intellectuals, as a force for political change they represented but one more group in a whole chart of societal arrangements and subcultures based on race, gender, vocation, and region.


In fact, the culture of the intellectual made little direct impression on popular life, where the traditions of the old world held sway. The intellectual felt wholly distanced from the foreigness and meanness of the world of politics. The type of the political "boss" reveals the way men of letters understood contemporary politics. Thomas Nast's stereotyped creation, Boss Tweed, was a typical symptom of such a perspective, which linked Republicanism with civilized society, and corruption and filth with all else. In response, the party regulars heaped scorn on reformers and thinkers, the "miss-Nancys" or "political hermaphrodites" (163).

While this kind of name-calling was going on, the business of politics marched forward with the apparent primary goal of insulating big-businesses from the pressures of mass culture. Thus might the process of industrialization speed along unfettered. The political boss so caricatured by Nast was a terribly necessary component of a political system where elections were fought with the rhetoric of battle. Under these conditions, the first "cultural politics" developed, whereby politicians adjusted their appeals to ethnic, racial, religious, and sectional groups. In effect, politics was being "managed" by a whole hierarchy of party leaders and bosses. Thus, the parties maintained the appearance of a grass-roots organization, even while strategy was articulated from the top down. The boss stood at the intersetion of politics and economics, where the primary value was loyalty, not the Jeffersonian notion of the voter's rational evaluation of policies or ideologies.


Populism evolved as a reaction to this political climate. With it's talk of a "vast conspiracy" of corporate interests and cultural elites, Populism seemed to be a paranoid movement. However, it was also a response to a generation of political experience. It wanted to see results from the ongoing campaigns for labor reform, Prohibition, and the eight-hour day. Primarily, it sought to assert itself against the mundane power of monopoly and political corruption.

The failure of Populism reflects the party's lack of understanding of the new realities of the urban, corporate society it wanted to change. The deeper agenda of Populism was to revise the prevailing methods of politics, to assert the will of the "people", a group for whom Populism though it could speak. The naivete of the idea that one party could stand for the fragmented corpus of American culture was made evident when the Republicans won the 1896 election in a landslide. Populism's failure is at least in part attributable to unresolved questions about American identity. Is it a collection shared cultural values and experiences? Is it simply an apparatus for mediating between competing interests? Issues of power and policy in the Gilded Age were not so important as the issue of American identity, and which party represented its original virtue