Salena Zito

Another wave is coming, Washington – and “the ‘ins’ may be thrown out, and the ‘outs’ may be thrown in,” according to Michael Genovese, Loyola University political-science professor.

Genovese thinks the economic and political turbulence of the past 12 years are “eerily similar” to the Panic of 1893 and the unsettling election cycles of 1884 to 1896.

Both eras feature fantastic wealth created for a privileged few, fiercely competitive and highly partisan elections, an ineffectual and seemingly corrupt government, and an angry, disillusioned electorate.

And both have had populist movements – the Progressives of the late 1800s, the Tea Party of today – born of economic dislocation that has pressured the status quo, Genovese said.

“The Progressive movement sprang out of this period,” Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown said of the Gilded Age. “Politicians from both parties promised reform, yet few were able to deliver meaningful changes.”

Progressives, she explained, tried to reform America by “professionalizing and nationalizing government, because they believed the problems (of that time) mostly stemmed from powerful state-based party machines.”

Today, many people perceive the opposite problem: Too much Washington, too many experts.

“Thus, it is no surprise that the Tea Party movement aims to downsize the federal government and to raise up the power of the states,” said Brown, reversing the Progressives’ achievements of more than 100 years ago.

In addition to economic distress, that earlier period was marked by deep public dissatisfaction with the way government worked, or didn’t work.

Back then, to the electoral winner went the spoils of patronage jobs for loyal partisans and pork-barrel contracts for supportive special interests – to a degree far beyond anything seen today.

“The booming industrial revolution led to the formation of large corporate trusts, which generated previously unheard-of profits,” Brown said.

Wall Street fat-cats influenced public policy and generally were believed to have bought U.S. senators; crony capitalism was rampant, and it was bipartisan.

Sound familiar?


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.