The Bubble: Greenbacks, Corruption, and the Politics of Looking Backwards

Throughout this long presidential campaign season, the specter of the Great Recession is well and alive. Over seven years since the end of the recession, many American workers are dealing with painfully slow wage growth and lingering anger and anxiety about the economy. Reacting to these concerns, the candidates offer voters clashing visions of a path forward. Hillary Clinton promises that she will strengthen financial regulations passed during the recession, reform taxes, and increase infrastructure spending. Donald Trump plans to rewrite or terminate many of these policies, especially international trade agreements such as NAFTA.[1] Critically, he has gone one step farther by stressing corruption in Washington and secret conspiracies of politicians and financial elites as part of the problem. At the first Presidential debate, Trump warned millions of Americans that the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates were actually feeding a “big, fat, ugly bubble” that would favor Clinton.[2] Recently at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump went so far as to suggest a secret “global power structure” that works against himself and the interests of the American working class.[3]

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The Federal Reserve Building, Washington, D.C., Courtesy of the Federal Reserve.

 Conspiracy theories and dramatic promises in the face of a stagnant or depressed economy are nothing new in American history. But when trying to provide a historical context for politics and policy in the shadow of the Great Recession, historians typically explain our current situation by pointing to the history of late twentieth-century conservatism, the decline of labor unions, and financial restructuring. But history does not just provide origins, its also provides perspective. It is in this second mode that the Civil War might speak to our current concerns.

The complete article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.