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.