- Gilt Stricken:The Interdependencies of the Gilded Age
When he casually dismissed "47 percent" of the US electorate, Mitt Romney pointed to a culture of dependency that he believed had corroded American self-reliance. The 47% of American voters committed to Barack Obama were people "dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it" ("Full Transcript"). The well-heeled scion of a second Gilded Age, Romney had taken a page from the first: in The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner similarly cast the American voter as someone who "doesn't know anything, and does not want to go into the bother of learning something, and has no money, and no employment, and can't earn a living"—and who therefore turned to Washington for help. As Twain and Warner then dryly query, "If you are a member of Congress, (no offense)," do you encourage your needy constituent to pull himself up by his own bootstraps? "Oh, no. . . . You throw him on his country. He is his country's child, let his country support him. There is something good and motherly about Washington, the grand old benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless" (174-75).
Periods of economic stratification make strange bedfellows. Like Romney, Twain and Warner depict the federal government not just as an impediment to industrial capitalism, but as something altogether worse: a sanatorium that creates the pathologically weak and then coddles them into a state of chronic dependency. Gender and race are instrumental to this logic. By describing the victim-voters [End Page 660] who assume that the "government has a responsibility to care for them," Romney implicitly likens the federal bureaucracy to a foolish mother who is loath to cut the apron strings. Likewise, to make graphic Twain's and Warner's claim that "every individual you encounter in the city of Washington . . . from the highest bureau chief, clear down to . . . the darkey boy who purifies the Department spittoons—represents Political Influence" (174), Thomas Nast, the novel's illustrator, drew a barefoot African-American boy lugging a heavy spittoon with the accompanying caption: "Benefit of Political Influence." Ironically, the words do not refer to those white members of Congress who rely on black child workers to clean up after their tobacco habit; rather, the legend refers to the otherwise unemployed child who benefits from political influence. The black spittoonbearer, in other words, is quintessentially "his country's child." Like Romney's 47%, he is the product of a bloated governmental bureaucracy in the business of producing dependency. Romney needed reference neither the maligned welfare queens of the 1980s nor the racially profiled urban poor of the 1990s to put a finer point on his meaning: discursively, Obama voters were already gendered and racialized.
What accounts for fears of dependency in periods of deep economic inequality? Edward Bellamy was among many late-nineteenth-century observers who saw class insecurity as the inevitable byproduct of America's seemingly arbitrary economic divisions. In the opening of his utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1887), Bellamy famously compared the postbellum US to a "prodigious coach," pulled by the harnessed masses and driven by hunger. Atop the coach are the idle rich for whom "the main effect of the spectacle of the misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers' sense of the value of their seats . . . and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before" (35). This rocky arrangement, however, is precarious at best, for with...