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Today's climate mimics the 1890s

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Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011

Americans are fed up. Sound familiar?

Another wave is coming, Washington — and "the 'ins' may be thrown out, and the 'outs' may be thrown in," according to Michael Genovese, Loyola University political science professor.

Genovese thinks the economic and political turbulence of the past 12 years are "eerily similar" to the Panic of 1893 and the unsettling election cycles of 1884 to 1896.

Both eras feature fantastic wealth created for a privileged few, fiercely competitive and highly partisan elections, an ineffectual and seemingly corrupt government and an angry, disillusioned electorate.

And both have had populist movements — the Progressives of the late 1800s, the tea party of today — born of economic dislocation that has pressured the status quo, Genovese said.

"The Progressive movement sprang out of this period," Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown said of the Gilded Age. "Politicians from both parties promised reform, yet few were able to deliver meaningful changes."

Progressives, she explained, tried to reform America by "professionalizing and nationalizing government, because they believed the problems (of that time) mostly stemmed from powerful state-based party machines."

Today, many people perceive the opposite problem: Too much Washington, too many experts.

"Thus, it is no surprise that the tea party movement aims to downsize the federal government and to raise up the power of the states," said Brown, reversing the Progressives' achievements of more than 100 years ago.

In addition to economic distress, that earlier period was marked by deep public dissatisfaction with the way government worked, or didn't work.

Back then, to the electoral winner went the spoils of patronage jobs for loyal partisans and pork-barrel contracts for supportive special interests — to a degree far beyond anything seen today.

"The booming industrial revolution led to the formation of large corporate trusts, which generated previously unheard-of profits," Brown said.

Wall Street fat cats influenced public policy and generally were believed to have bought U.S. senators; crony capitalism was rampant and it was bipartisan.

Sound familiar?

"I think the analogy between the 1890s and today is better than the analogy with the Great Depression that we often focus on," said Hugh Rockoff, a Rutgers University economics professor. "One of the many similarities is the real estate crisis. There was a subprime mortgage problem in the 1890s that was very similar to what precipitated the recent crisis."

Before 1893's crisis, many farmers bought homesteads on the Great Plains with short-term "balloon" mortgages supplied by small local mortgage companies and banks. The borrower paid only the interest for five years — until the principal then came due.

Mortgage companies bundled those mortgages and sold them to investors in New York and London.

The bundles supposedly were insured — all very much like the securitization of mortgages that preceded our recent crisis — but they plunged in value, igniting an international banking panic.

"Industrial production fell and unemployment rose to double-digit levels," Rockoff recalled. "It took years to work our way out."

The 2006 midterm election that threw Republicans out of power in Washington was the first noticeable sign of what has been brewing on Main Street since the electoral mess of the 2000 presidential election: Americans are fed up.

While people call the 2008 presidential contest a "change election," it was merely a small part of the unsettling of the country, rooted in economic uncertainty that has crippled the middle class.

If Barack Obama's election truly was the "change" the nation sought, then solid-Democrat New Jersey would not have rebuked his policies less than a year later by electing Republican Chris Christie as governor.

Nor would Virginia have given Republican Bob McDonnell a landslide victory that same year.

And Republican Scott Brown had no political rationale to run for Teddy Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, let alone to win it — but he did.

Despite all of the warnings, the White House was blindsided when Republicans took back the U.S. House in historic numbers in 2010.

Last week, New York voters in a Democrat-stronghold district reminded President Obama that nothing is safe, not even in the Bronx: Republican Bob Turner comfortably won the House seat that text-happy Democrat Anthony Weiner was forced to give up.

Economics drives politics, Loyola's Genovese says, adding: "If the past is a prelude, another angry election is on the way."

Salena Zito covers politics for the Trib. Call her at 412-320-7879. E-mail her at:

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