All of this offered a portrait of the elite utterly at odds with the Gilded Age stereotype: Rich men were virtuous, not “wicked”; self-disciplined, not profligate. Much of the staying power of Sumner’s arguments came from his ability to describe the class divide in cultural rather than economic terms. On one side were the virtuous rich, guardians of liberty and individual ambition. On the other were a host of interlopers seeking to drain wealthy entrepreneurs of their creativity, freedom, and resources. “If you get wealth, you will have to support other people,” he complained. “[I]f you do not get wealth, it will be the duty of other people to support you.” Call it the politics of resentment, 19th-century style.
Sumner’s list of deadbeats and drags on society will be familiar to any casual observer of modern conservative politics. First were the social reformers (usually well-educated Northeasterners, preferably women), whom Sumner chastised for their arrogance, hypocrisy, and dangerous utopian schemes. Next came government bureaucrats, typified by the “obscure clerk” whose small-minded enforcement of rules threatened to crush the nation’s visionary spirits. Finally, there were the poor themselves—often “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.” “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be,” Sumner argued with his trademark bluntness. He even went so far as to denounce democracy itself, viewing mass voting as a modern experiment perilously close to mob rule.
Ultimately, though, it was neither the rich nor the poor who were the greatest objects of Sumner’s concern. Even as he cheered the richest of the rich, he positioned himself as the champion of a far more humble social figure, an ordinary taxpayer-citizen dubbed the “Forgotten Man.” In Sumner’s formulation, the “Forgotten Man” was the backbone of American society, the sort of fellow who “watched his own investments, made his own machinery safe, attended to his own plumbing, and educated his own children.” It was this earthy taxpayer-citizen—not the wealthiest Americans—who truly stood to suffer under a regime of government regulation and social reform. “He is an obscure man,” Sumner explained. Moreover, this hidden figure was usually too busy or too disgusted to engage in political debate. “He might grumble sometimes to his wife,” Sumner wrote, “but he does not frequent the grocery, and he does not talk politics at the tavern. So he is forgotten.”
This image of the overlooked law-abiding citizen has since become a staple of American political rhetoric—and one that conveniently declares the mass of voters in secret agreement with any given set of ideals. In the 1930s, as historian Amity Shlaes has noted, New Dealers adopted the idea of a “Forgotten Man” to promote reforms such as Social Security and labor rights. In the decades since, the figure has mostly reverted back to its conservative origins. In 1969, journalist Peter Schrag identified the “forgotten American” as a white working-class man “alienated” by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. “He does all the right things,” Schrag wrote, “obeys the law, goes to church and insists—usually—that his kids get a better education than he had.” That same year, Richard Nixon tweaked the idea to come up with his “Silent Majority.”
Today’s Republican candidates have yet to coin such catchy slogans. But they have already put at least part of Sumner’s original approach to work. As a political thinker, Sumner’s chief contribution lay neither in his praise for the rich, nor his lament for the Forgotten Man, but in his attempt to combine the two. For better or worse, he offered a model for resolving the great conundrum of modern Republican politics: how to champion the wealthy while claiming to speak for the unsung middle class.
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