In 1888, on the 100th anniversary of Constitutional government in America, President Grover Cleveland delivered to Congress his troubled thoughts on the State of The Union.

Over the previous two decades, Cleveland had watched the greatest economic growth in the nation’s history as America expanded and industrialized, but he had also witnessed some distressing trends. Economic inequality was increasing in a way never seen before in America and corporations were accruing power and political influence at an alarming rate.

“The gulf between employers and the employed is constantly widening, and classes are rapidly forming, one comprising the very rich and powerful, while in another are found the toiling poor,” announced Cleveland. “Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

He was speaking of what Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age, a time of great and ostentatious wealth for a few, poverty for many, and unprecedented government corruption and corporate control.

Inequality would increase for decades more, until the Great Depression and the New Deal brought incomes back into balance and World War II and the great middle-class, post-war boom kept them there for almost 50 years.

As President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he faces a similar set of troubling facts as did Cleveland. In some ways, things are even worse.

In 1915, as vast wealth was amassed by monopolistic families like the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, the richest 1 percent controlled 18 percent of income in this country. According to the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office (from 2007), the top 1 percent now control 24 percent.

Corporations, Cleveland’s “servants of the people,” are now “people” themselves, according to the Supreme Court decision allowing them to spend unlimited sums of money on elections, and they’ve become brazen in flaunting their political strength. Twice in the past few weeks, in fact, major industries have openly threatened President Obama with political repercussions.

Earlier this month American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard publicly warned that “It would be a huge mistake on the part of the president of the United States to deny the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.”

The pipeline he refers to would allow diluted bitumen to flow from the tar sands in Alberta, across the American West and down to ports in Texas. The GOP attached a resolution to the payroll tax cut forcing Obama to make a decision on the proposal within 60 days, without even a final route or a review of its environmental impact. Gerard said that if Obama initially rejected the pipeline (which the President did last week), he could expect “huge political consequences.”

Former Sen. Chris Dodd, now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, was even less subtle. Stung by the loss of support for the proposed SOPA/PIPA bills, which would have given copyright holders broad new powers to shut down websites and censor the Internet based only on flimsy assertions of infringement, Dodd threatened to turn off the spigot of campaign cash for Obama and other politicians.

“Candidly, those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake,” Dodd declared to Fox News. “Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.”

These setbacks for some of America’s largest and most powerful corporations were both due, in part, to the actions of large numbers of ordinary Americans. The pipeline delay came after protests and civil disobedience (leading to mass arrests) by thousands of Americans concerned about the impact of burning of tar sands oil on global climate change. The weakening of SOPA and PIPA was because of the largest online action in the history of the Internet, as people found Wikipedia, Reddit, Google and other sites blacked-out or censored, learned about the issue, and flooded Congress with emails and phone calls.

Both are incomplete victories. Hollywood and the oil companies still have the money (and therefore the politicians) and new versions of the legislation they want are already working their way through Congress, but they point towards a way of escaping a new Gilded Age. Individual people still have an ability to rein in corporations, affect politics, and change the state of their union.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to [email protected]

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