Last month, Rick Santorum announced that he likes inequality. “There is income inequality in America,” he told the Detroit Economic Club in a much-quoted speech. “There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.”
Many political observers have since ridiculed this stance, declaring Santorum “unhinged,” or at least unfit to conduct a serious presidential campaign. But the positive defense of inequality is not entirely new in American politics. From the moment that social reformers began to “discover” poverty in the 19th century, naysayers were on hand to explain why extremes of wealth and poverty made for a just society. By embracing inequality, Santorum is reviving the politics of our last Gilded Age.
One of the earliest (and most acerbic) champions of inequality was William Graham Sumner, a Yale sociologist and one of the best-known public intellectuals of the late 19th century. Sumner started his career as an Episcopal priest, tending to the pastoral needs of a New Jersey flock. Within a few years, however, he concluded that his temperament—famously standoffish and blunt—was better suited to scholarly endeavors. As a professor, he helped to pioneer the new discipline of sociology, coining such lasting terms as ethnocentrism and folkways in his studies of American culture. He also made a name for himself as a staunch anti-imperialist and principled opponent of the Spanish-American War.
But it was in the realm of economic philosophy that Sumner carved out his most controversial and lasting influence. In 1883, he composed a short book-length essay titled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.” His answer? Absolutely nothing.
In making his case for laissez-faire, Sumner highlighted one of the enduring paradoxes of American politics. “It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes, and any allusion to classes is resented,” he noted. “On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussion of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact.” This was particularly true of the 1870s, which witnessed a serious financial panic and depression, followed by a major national railroad strike. In response, reformers began to argue for government to take a greater role in aiding the poor and in softening the rough edges of industrial capitalism.
Sumner’s essay rejected all such nonsense. “It is not at all the function of the State to make men happy,” he declared. “They must make themselves happy in their own way, and at their own risk.” Today, he would be called a libertarian. At the time, the term of choice was “Social Darwinist.” One of the more fashionable theories of Gilded Age class relations, Social Darwinism attempted to apply the laws of evolution to human society, and thus to explain why those who ended up on top were necessarily “the fittest” among men.
Sumner was unabashed in his admiration for millionaires, and indignant at criticism lobbed in their direction. “The rich are good-natured,” he insisted, model citizens to be applauded for their initiative and patience with lesser souls. He approved the “aggregation of large fortunes” as “a necessary condition of many forms of social advance.” Toward that end, he argued strenuously against restrictions on Wall Street stockjobbing and other forms of speculative gain. “To denounce financial devices which are useful and legitimate because use is made of them for fraud is ridiculous,” he wrote. Also to be avoided were government investigative commissions, increased taxes, and Sunday-morning haranguing about how the rich owed something to the poor.
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.