To rescue democracy, we must revive the reforms of the Progressive Era


In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville offered a prescient warning for “the friends of democracy”. In a chapter called “How Aristocracy Could Issue from Industry” he observed that industrial capitalism would create economic inequality between owners and wage-workers and divide them culturally, morally, and socially.

With the rise of industrial capital, Tocqueville feared there would be no genuine relationships between these two emergent classes. “If ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy are introduced anew into the world, one can predict they will enter through this door.”

Almost 200 years later, Tocqueville’s fears seem prescient. We live in a second Gilded Age – an era of extreme economic inequality and monopoly power. Wages for workers have been largely stagnant for a generation, while CEO pay has skyrocketed. A small number of firms now dominate many sectors of the economy. And the consequence for democracy is dire: study after study in political science shows that government is responsive to the preferences of the wealthy and their interest groups, but not to ordinary people. This creates a vicious cycle in which the wealthy and corporations can rig the political rules to benefit themselves. And the rigged system only makes them wealthier and more powerful. The danger of “a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy” is upon us.

Can democracy survive what capitalism has unleashed? It will depend on what policymakers do and especially what the people – organized on the streets and at the ballot box – force them to do.

At this critical moment, with the age of neoliberal capitalism coming to an end, I am optimistic we can choose wisely and rescue democracy. I have hope because many of the problems of capitalism are not entirely new and because the playbook for taming industrial capitalism already exists. More than a century ago, when industrial capitalism was on the rise, reformers and intellectuals outlined – and adopted – a variety of structures to keep the feral beast within a democratic enclosure.

These reformers recognized that concentrated economic power – in any form – was a threat to freedom and democracy. Concentrated economic power not only allowed for localized oppression, especially of workers in their daily lives, it also made it more likely that big corporations and wealthy people wouldn’t be subject to the rule of law or democratic controls. Reformers’ answer to the concentration of economic power was threefold: break up economic power, rein it in through regulation, and tax it.

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It was the reformers of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era who invented America’s antitrust laws – from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission Acts of the early 20th century. Whether it was Republican trustbuster Teddy Roosevelt or liberal supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, courageous leaders in this era understood that when companies grow too powerful they threatened not just the economy but democratic government as well. Break-ups were a way to prevent the agglomeration of economic power in the first place, and promote an economic democracy, not just a political democracy.

In other sectors, however, monopoly seemed almost necessary. It made more sense to have a single telephone network in America, given the high costs of building the network and the importance of having everyone on it. So here, reformers of the Progressive Era championed public utilities regulation. Democratic control would be preserved through legal restrictions – regulation of rates, universal service obligations, and non-discrimination rules. Public utilities regulation was a way to ensure that the basic infrastructure of industrial capitalism remained under democratic control, rather than being able to control democracy. This basic infrastructure also ensured that economic democracy could flourish; small businesses and individuals thrive when they have access to the preconditions of modern life at fair terms and for a fair price.

Outside of utilities, regulations prohibited unsafe and unhealthy practices – food and drug laws, child labor laws, workplace safety laws. Reformers pushed for the internal regulation of corporations, calling for the expansion of cooperative ownership and the creation of “industrial democracy,” and the country ultimately settled on labor union collective bargaining to both empower workers and rein in managers. It was regulation that defanged the most dangerous parts of capitalism.

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Reformers of this era also understood that individuals and corporations who accumulated enormous amounts of wealth gained political power too, and so could become less accountable in the economy, in the political realm, and in the courts of law. So they passed corporate taxes and income taxes. And when the Supreme Court struck down the federal income tax, Progressive-Era reformers got organized – and passed a constitutional amendment reversing the Court’s decision.

In addition to guarding against the accumulation of economic power, Progressive Era reformers sought to prevent it being converted into political power. To prevent economic power from infecting politics, they passed the first federal campaign finance laws. But they also adopted structural reforms to make the political process itself more democratic. Perhaps the best example is the passage of a constitutional amendment for the direct election of senators. This fundamental change to the constitutional structure ended the era of sometimes corrupt state legislatures sending corporate bosses and their cronies to Washington.

Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that “there can be no real political democracy without something approaching an economic democracy.” The truth is that the two work hand in hand. Political democracy helps foster economic democracy as the people work to make the country more egalitarian. And a more economically equal society feeds into political democracy, as no one accumulates so much power that they can dominate government or their fellow citizens.

Antitrust, regulation, tax, democracy reforms – these were rules that made industrial capitalism work, and kept it from destroying democracy. Even though it’s been gathering dust for decades, this Gilded Age and Progressive Era playbook is the essential starting point for reform today. We must reinvigorate antitrust laws and create a more competitive economy. This means breaking up big tech, big pharma, big banks – and restructuring and empowering the antitrust agencies so they are empowered to act with courage and vigor.

We must revive public utilities regulation and think seriously about the necessary infrastructure of modern society – from a public option for broadband internet to basic bank accounts for everyone. We need to create a more just and equitable tax system – including treating all income the same, adopting a wealth tax, and reviving estate and inheritance taxes. This will, as Thomas Jefferson once said of his own economic reforms, lay “the axe to the root of pseudoaristocracy.” And to accomplish these reforms – and others – we will need to start by passing new laws that prevent the corruption of our political process: campaign finance laws, anti-corruption laws, revolving door laws, lobbying laws, and pro-democracy reforms that will empower the people, not just the powerful.

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None of these reforms will be easy. Some intellectuals and political figures will fight them with claims of efficiency and economic growth. Many others who personally benefit from the status quo will fight to halt, slow, or water down reforms. As Frederick Douglass once observed: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

But even with a revival of these strategies, even with the political movement to back it up, even with courageous leaders at the helm to implement these policies, the roadmap for reforming industrial capitalism will still be insufficient to rescue democracy today. New approaches will also be needed.

A central lesson of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era reformers is not what they did to reform the system. It is that they had the courage and creativity to think for themselves and pursue bold reforms, persistently, over decades.

A new generation will have to adapt the old playbook to new challenges. Industrial capitalism’s basic structure is changing. As Shoshona Zuboff has argued in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the rise of surveillance technology and behavioral targeting risks an economic revolution that turns consumers into commodities and a political revolution that could morph democracy into digital authoritarianism. To paraphrase Tocqueville, if a permanent inequality of conditions or a nationalist oligarchy come to define the next generation, they could very well enter through these doors.



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