The Return of the “Forgotten Man”
Refurbishing symbols of the Gilded Age
Whether or not we believe that history repeats itself, understanding the past helps us to better understand the present, especially in seemingly aberrant times. The election of Donald Trump — a political outsider who ran on a brash, populist, anti-establishment message — led to both favorable and unfavorable comparisons to Andrew Jackson. Indeed, Trump embraced Jackson early on, conspicuously hanging a portrait of Old Hickory in the Oval Office. Less favorably, the scandals and investigations that have consistently plagued Trump’s tenure are reminiscent of the last days of Richard Nixon’s time in the White House.
Yet there is another sense in which we, in America, have been treading upon well-worn ground. Though many called the campaign and outcome of the 2016 election unprecedented, its roots lie, at least partly, in economic and social conditions which are by no means new. In his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economist Thomas Piketty painstakingly makes the case that over the past few decades the economic conditions of the United States (and several other countries, including France) have acquired a striking resemblance to those experienced during what Americans have come to call the Gilded Age. This period, lasting roughly from the 1870s to either the 1910s or the 1920s (depending on which historian one asks), was characterized by soaring levels of income and wealth inequality between the top ten percent of the economic pyramid and the rest of society. Piketty’s assessment is shared by political scientists like Larry Bartels as well as by fellow economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, all of whom claim that America has entered a second Gilded Age. Indeed, this view has garnered enough consensus that those who disagree with it generally do so on the grounds that the comparison it draws unfairly neglects the progressivism of the first Gilded Age.
There is, however, an equally significant resemblance between these two periods of American history that contemporary scholarship neglects. Think of it as a point at which macroeconomics, institutional politics, and ordinary life intersect.
Alienation and the disaffection that often accompanies it were central themes of the 2016 presidential election. In the primaries as well as the general election, candidates of both parties vied to position themselves as the true champions of those in America left behind by decades of economic and social change. From reopening the path to the “American Dream” to “making America great again,” electoral rhetoric was emphatically about those who had come to feel marginalized and forgotten.
Donald Trump’s victory was, in large part, driven by his success in appealing to alienated voters. Indeed, no other candidate spoke as directly to substantial constituencies who felt forgotten in contemporary America. In an election night victory tweet, he declared that the “forgotten man and woman will never be forgotten again,” a theme to which he returned in his inaugural address. Some nine months later, a crowd of torch-wielding white men in Charlottesville ominously echoed and amplified these sentiments, chanting “You will not replace us.” Both the 2016 election and its violent and notorious aftermath have displayed white outrage at being, or at least feeling, displaced and disregarded. Like the economic conditions that have contributed to the sense of dislocation felt by millions of Americans, the political trope of the forgotten man and woman traces back to the first Gilded Age.
It was the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner who first spoke of the Forgotten Man (though Sumner noted that in the industrialized wage economy the Forgotten Man was “not infrequently a woman”). A Social Darwinist and laissez-faire conservative, Sumner described this character in a series of essays published between 1882 and 1883. At a time when economic inequality and repeated economic downturns were generating nationwide labor strife as well as the first serious attempts at progressive regulation of the economy, he offered his account of the Forgotten Man as a rhetorical weapon. Sumner described him as the “victim of the reformer, social speculator, and philanthropist” whose hard-earned money is taxed away to pay for so-called ‘class legislation’ (which stood for any kind of government intervention that singled-out particular groups in society for benefit or burden). The Protestant ethic made flesh, the Forgotten Man was Sumner’s idealized hero of Gilded Age society. Unlike the poor, he was economically self-reliant; unlike many of the rich, he did not fall into idleness and luxury. All this middle-class Atlas required, in the words of President Grover Cleveland, was “a fair field and no favor.”
Sumner’s hero was an ideal character meant to personify an equally ideal industrial society, in which free and fair competition dispassionately rewarded the industrious and punished the dissolute. In its time, this was an anti-establishment ideal. Gilded Age politics were notoriously partisan and corrupt, dominated by political machines that delivered votes in exchange for patronage and favorable legislation, by legally sanctified monopolies, and by the influence of big money at all levels of government. The Forgotten Man’s story of virtue betrayed was a rallying cry addressed to the growing middle class, against the perversion of healthy social order by wrong-headed politics. Whether injustice came in the form of tax-funded government aid or protectionist tariffs, it was always the Forgotten Man, the truest and noblest American, who suffered the costs while being denied the benefits. The tale of Sumner’s forgotten hero is thus an account of mistreatment and justified resentment towards those who inflict and benefit from it.
This rhetoric, patched up around the edges, is powerfully at work in American politics today — Donald Trump’s electoral success and the ‘Unite the Right’ rally have merely been the most visible examples. A number of recent books — including Justin Gest’s The New Minority, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy — put a human face on the macroeconomic trends that economists like Piketty have described. Each explores what Hochschild calls the “deep story” behind the social and economic conditions of the new Gilded Age, a self-narrative “that feels as if it were true” regardless of what social scientists and their data may say. These deep stories suggest that something has gone wrong for white working-class Americans (the existence of which as a coherent class I grant for the sake of argument). Members of this putative demographic hail from both sides of the political spectrum, but since the 1980s they have been noticeably shifting to the right. Hit hard by recent economic downturns and overrepresented in some of the most persistently economically depressed parts of rural and post-industrial America, working-class whites (especially men) appear to be the most pessimistic demographic group in the country. For both economic and cultural reasons, they have come to see themselves as a beleaguered and disregarded minority.
Though its current iteration is focused most squarely on the white working class, today’s rhetoric of the Forgotten Man strikingly resembles Sumner’s. While dwindling economic opportunities, stagnant wages, and decaying communities are central to the accounts of white working-class alienation and pessimism, perhaps the most socially and politically potent sub-plot is that of line-cutting. Recent studies indicate that growing numbers of the white working class believe that, as Vance puts it, “the modern American meritocracy was not built for them,” but rather to serve special favorites of the state. In other words, government (especially the federal government) picks sides in the competition of life. Like Sumner’s middle-class hero, the average Joe or Jane of today’s working class is said to be taxed and nannied by an overbearing state that showers favors on someone else, allowing newcomers (who are not ‘real’ Americans) and those farther back in the queue of economic improvement to jump ahead. Also like in Sumner’s day, today’s rhetoric of forgotten men and women is overwhelmingly addressed to whites, while those who undeservingly benefit are typically (if subtly) portrayed as racial and ethnic minorities, including both documented and undocumented immigrants.
Accurate or not, such deep stories are narratives of violation and resentment. Those who ought to feel at home feel like strangers, as if an unspoken promise to them has been broken. The idea of taking America back and restoring the proper order of things resonates, perhaps understandably, with someone with such a self-narrative. Nothing is more natural than wanting what one wants, and expecting to receive what one believes is deserved. Such morally charged feelings are amplified when nostalgia — which literally means homesickness — is added to the mix. Today’s rhetoric of the forgotten man and woman, like Sumner’s before it, appeals to the sense of having lost both a place and a way of life — an identity and a social context in which that identity makes sense and is valued. The politics inspired by these sentiments promise to reclaim the past, to halt or even turn back the relentless march of social time.
All forms of nostalgia trade upon selective and even creative recollection. The image of the past that is missed and that would be regained is always filtered through the desires and disappointments of the present. Furthermore, the rhetoric of the forgotten man, in Sumner’s day and in our own, ironically relies upon careful practices of forgetting. While Sumner’s idealized account of industrial society nominally included women, it systematically ignored persons of color. Writing as the bitter failure of Reconstruction was giving way to legally sanctified racial segregation, and as new waves of immigrants faced formal and informal discrimination, he blithely defended a vision of society as a level playing field of economic competition in which government had no meaningful regulatory or welfare role to play. Each and all must strive bravely and quietly under the obligation “to take care of his or her own self” and accept whatever comes as just.
The contemporary return of the forgotten man likewise depends upon selectively neglectful and distorted views of race and ethnicity (to which we could add gender, sexual orientation, and more besides). For instance, emphasis upon the (often legitimate and pressing) economic woes of the white working class draws attention away from the fact that unemployment and poverty rates are substantially higher in African-American, Latino, and Native American communities. Of course, statistical averages smooth over very real variations between localities, and some predominately white working-class communities suffer unemployment and poverty as severe as any other in America. Yet the rhetoric of the Forgotten Man, especially the narrative of line-cutting and undeserved government benefits, deliberately foregrounds the plight of working-class whites. The promise that the forgotten man and woman will no longer be abused and disregarded is given apparent moral weight by its zero-sum mechanics: someone else is eating your slice of the pie, and you deserve to get it back. Apart from simplifying complex socio-economic trends and their causal roots, and obscuring the equally real and often direr plight of non-whites in America, this rhetorical trope supplies a culprit for dislocation and disappointment. As the 2016 election demonstrated, successful campaigns can be built around little more than this.
However, as David Brooks has aptly noted, in democratic political systems “movements fueled by alienation are bound to fail.” The sensibilities that animate such movements (and the campaigns that coalesce around them) tend to erode the bases of social trust and the sense of common endeavor that make viable civil society and collaborative self-government sustainable. Even when they are inspired by legitimate senses of loss, nostalgia and resentment they are ultimately political dead-ends. This is a lesson that Sumner furnishes for us today, unwittingly and despite himself — a lesson that should not be selectively forgotten. His bitter ode to the Forgotten Man offered no positive goal towards which to build; it only catalogued outrages and false idols to demolish. His progressive counterparts, from Henry Demarest Lloyd to John Dewey, ultimately succeeded where Sumner and his ilk failed because they understood that while habits and traditions contain valuable shared resources for social change, resentment is not a principle and nostalgia is not a plan. They also believed that the solution to the damaging concentrations of power is the greater and more equal diffusion of power, rather than merely changing where those concentrations reside. As the history of mid-twentieth-century America patently demonstrates, it was this social vision, not Sumner’s, which protected the interests of his Forgotten Man.
Remembering this history might give us hope that today’s forgotten men and women are already beginning to realize that affirmation of their anger by political elites is one thing, while alleviation of its underlying causes is another. This is one lesson that democracy repeatedly teaches: electoral outcomes that feel good don’t necessarily deliver meaningful, lasting policies. In a pluralistic democracy, the latter require support from multiple constituencies, or else they are destined to be as temporary as the electoral majorities that enact them. From civil rights to women’s suffrage, American history reminds us that while a marginalized group can demand recognition of its grievances, it cannot single-handedly remake the social order that has produced or nurtured them. No part of a democratic society should be forgotten, or made to feel as if it has been — yet the real solution to alienation is not simply to change who it is that experiences it. The moral and political challenge facing both Democrats and Republicans today is to speak to all in America who feel forgotten, and to do so in terms that do not take from some the recognition already bestowed upon others. We would do well to heed the lesson of the progressives — the villains in Sumner’s rhetoric of the Forgotten Man as well as today’s — whose inclusive vision better addressed the real problems faced by the working and middle classes, soothing rather than enflaming social and political antagonism.
Luke Philip Plotica is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech.