Introduction to Gilded Age Politics

In his book The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, Alan Trachtenberg examines the populist movement and its ultimate defeat at the close of the 19th Century. He posits several reasons for its decline, but focuses on the corporate network that worked to either exclude or absorb oppositional movements. However, an examination of the period shows a more complicated dynamic at work.

We can see the incorporative powers of the two major parties at work in several ways. The Republican and Democratic parties solidified as two corporate entities in the United States at this time. Politics shifted from ideological issues to questions of party loyalty. As part of the corporate outreach, corruption (as with Tammany Hall) worked to maintain party loyalists and financially reward continued support. The major parties also incorporated third party politics into their own systems. The beliefs, attitudes, and techniques of the third parties became parts of the major parties.

However, more than incorporational functions caused the fall of third party strength at the end of the 1800s. The biggest third party of the time, the People's Party, self-destructed due to its internal conflicts. The party also, instead of being incorporated, integrated itself into the two governing parties. Finally, the inherent nature of a third party movement helps to defeat these parties.

To fully explore Gilded Age politics, we must look at a variety of issues concerning populism and the third parties.

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