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Posted on Fri, Dec 14, 2012 : 11:10 a.m.

Plutocrats: Could a new Progressive Era emerge?

By Wayne Baker

1215 Robert LaFollette and Samuel Gompers.jpg

GIANTS OF THE FIRST PROGRESSIVE ERA: At left is Robert M. Lafollette of Wisconsin. A 1982 survey of American historians ranked him as No. 1 among U.S. Senators for “long range impact on American history”—tied with Henry Clay. In his era, LaFollette eventually left the Republican Party to join forces with other Progressives. At right in this photo is Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing the super rich.

Are we on the verge of a new Progressive Era? The first Progressive Era was a period of reform, correcting the excesses of the first Gilded Age in which untold wealth was accumulated by a few while the rest languished. Now, we’re in a new Gilded Age, as we’ve discussed this week, a time of immense wealth for a few and record levels of inequality.

So, the final question this week: If history repeats itself, is a new Progressive Era inevitable?

This week, we’ve talked about the division of the world into the ultra-rich and the rest of us, the new Gilded Age, and the new plutocrats’ ambivalent attitudes about the rest of us, relying on a new book, "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else."

Why might history repeat? In one word: Democracy. In our political system, the people can elect officials who implement reforms, such as redistribution of wealth and regulation of the financial sector. Democracy is an inconvenient truth for plutocrats.

In the first Progressive Era, a steep progressive tax was enacted on the super-rich. By 1918, the tax rate on the super-rich had reached 77 percent, writes Chrystia Freeland, author of Plutocrats. She also describes how plutocrats fought back, reducing the rate. Yet plutocrats can’t control what happens at the ballot box.

It’s a good question: Are we at the verge of the next Progressive Era? Obama has drawn a line in the sand, insisting that the wealthy pay more taxes. The public is behind him.

More than half of Americans (55 percent) say that Obama is making a serious effort to avert the fiscal clifff, but only 32 percent say that Republicans are doing the same, according to a new Pew poll.

Do you support Obama's solution to the fiscal cliff?

Do you think we are on the verge of a new progressive era?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.



Fri, Dec 14, 2012 : 6:09 p.m.

Just as long as they get lots and lots of the latest shiny new stuff, most people won't care. History shows us a fair number of previous democracies, but the depth and breadth of shiny new stuff to be had in today's America is unprecedented. Is this good or bad? Guess it depends whether you prefer the sizzle or the steak.


Fri, Dec 14, 2012 : 6:04 p.m.

We could be at the verge of a Progressive Era, but it will have to be done with the idea of subsidiarity in mind. A big government form of progressivism would meet way too much resistance and resentment. The progressive trend would be reversed every four to eight years. The American people simply don't like and don't trust politicians in Washington. If there was a progressive movement that incorporated a libertarian understanding I believe it could sweep the country. The current dependence on big government to "lead the way" is holding back any "era" from taking shape.


Fri, Dec 14, 2012 : 5:26 p.m.

Violating people's property rights is an aggressive way to re-shape society. Where should one stand on freedom vs. force to solve social ills? The cynic says democracy is "two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner." Yet there's some truth to that when it's rule by majority rather than rule by principles (or rule by our constitution).