Rhymes with Gracchus
After the Third Punic war, the Roman Republic was in a crisis. The struggles of war had drained the state treasury, wealthy landlords had seized foreclosed farmland from the families of soldiers, and the military was overly dependent on mercenaries as owning land was a prerequisite for serving in the Roman military. Vagrant legionaries that lost their farms to landlords usually traveled to Rome, where they depended on public handouts. This was a clear security issue for Rome; a hundred years prior to this, Carthage was locked in a merciless conflict known as the Mercenary War. The worst of humanity was on display in this war, as unpaid mercenaries first tried to extract payment, then desperately tried to avoid extermination.
Enter Tiberius Gracchus. Renowned at this time for negotiating a peace that saved hundreds of citizen-soldiers, Tiberius was elected tribune of the plebs - essentially become one-half of what we would equate the President of the Romans to be. Concerned about the deterioration of the quality of the Roman military, Tiberius enacted agrarian reforms that would cap the amount of land a citizen of Rome could hold. Furthermore, any land that would be seized would be distributed to the poor and homeless of Rome, thereby decreasing congestion in Rome, increasing the amount of soldiers that Rome could raise and giving the people more stake in maintaining the Roman state. Many of these reforms were actually an enforcement of previously-enacted laws that were largely ignored by the Senatorial class; this same Senatorial class was by-and-large the primary benefactors of the amalgamation of public land.
To sidestep their stonewalling of reform, Tiberius brought the motion to a plebiscite, which received the support of the common people. This infuriated the Senators, who convinced another tribune to veto everything Tiberius proposed. The office of tribune was meant to protect the plebs of Rome from any political or economic oppression by the Senate; as such, Tiberius had this other tribune forcibly deposed for betraying his office.
This was a violation of the sacrosanct nature of the tribune - a tribune could not be forced in any way, nor could he be brought to court while in office. As such, the Senators conspired to prosecute Tiberius when his one-year term was up, made easier by the fact that only Senators could be jurors in a trial. To defend himself, his family and his reforms, Tiberius decided to run for tribune for another year. While a plebian could serve as tribune more than once, it could not happen in successive years. Fears of a return to the monarchy that proceeded the republic were stoked by the Senators, and after Tiberius won reelection, he and 300 of his followers were viciously beaten to death. This was the first bloodshed in Roman politics for 400 years, and it would start a century of successive civil wars (one of which headlined Tiberius' brother, Gaius) that would end with the fall of the republic and the ascension of Augustus as the first emperor of Rome.
This historical anecdote serves as an example of private interests overwhelming public interests. The conflict between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, the patricians and the plebians, the nobles and the peasants; it is something that has been present in all societies. This conflict is settled by having a government that can maintain order through varied means. Compromise is an effective tool; a system where the rich remain rich but give the poor some conglomerated political influence tends to work better in the long run than the alternative; when the wealthy purchase mercenaries to secure their wealth and status, public interest be damned. The inherent difficulty is that a government requires private interests be invested in the system made by the government; without this vested interest, a government will lose funds, manpower, and most importantly, legitimacy. However, it is in the government's power to determine which private interests benefit, and how much they benefit by.
In some eras the gap between the wealthy and the destitute was wider than normal; the United States has three distinct eras where the wealth gap was particularly striking. The first is known as the Gilded Age - born out of the fruits of the industrial revolution, the Gilded Age generated wealth that was unimaginable to the common man of his time. It was unimaginable because this wealth was generally kept out of his hands - those that had money to begin with were the primary receivers of the wealth generated in the factories. Factory workers and miners were working in worse conditions with longer hours than medieval peasants, and the cacophony of this labor included the tortured screams of children being dragged and ripped apart in machinery or crushed inside collapsing coal tunnels. Attempts to make blue-collar life not a torturous struggle was met with unrestrained violence; the Pinkerton Agency was particularly notorious for violently breaking up strikes. This was called the Gilded Age and not the Golden Age for a reason - underneath the thin crust of wealth was the same harsh abuse delivered upon the plebians by the patricians.
Shocking to the modern reader, it was a Republican that was most responsible for ending this difficult time. Theodore Roosevelt, New York City native, was born in the upper class. But he held great affinity for the common man - after his wife and mother died on the same Valentine's Day, he left the comforts of New York for a rugged life in the American West. A particular sense of justice and fairness developed inside him, and when he returned to New York City, he was determined to apply this justice upon the city. As police commissioner, he crushed corruption, increased efficiency, and held police officers to a high standard becoming of public servants. Becoming Secretary of the Navy, he was responsible for the decisive naval battle in Manila Bay that destroyed the Spanish fleet. Quitting his post as secretary to raise a regiment, he led the legendary Rough Riders to victory in Cuba. His reputation made him a rising star in politics, and to keep him sequestered from power, the Republican party nominated him as Vice President for President McKinley. An assassin's bullet would spoil the establishment Republican machinations, and President Roosevelt would go on to be one of the greatest presidents in American history.
All of Roosevelt's greatest achievements were based on the prioritization of public interest over the private interest. The establishment of the National Park system favored maintaining the splendor of nature and oxygen production from trees over resource exploitation by robber barons. Intervening in labor disputes secured a peaceful negotiation that the corporation could not break up with armed agents. Setting a standard for food and drug quality was more important for society than the bottom line of sausage factories and snake-oil salesmen. Narrowing the instances where child labor was permissible ensured that America's future would have a more educated workforce, while ensuring that working adults wouldn't be replaced by somebody half their height for half their wage. The rich were still rich, the poor were less destitute and America was better off for it.
The second era was the Great Depression. The Roaring 20's brought the greatest expansion of wealth in American history up until that point, but most of the wealth, as before, remained in the hands of the wealthy. Black Tuesday caused a great shakeup - many of those that were wealthy lost everything when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed, while those that were not wealthy lost their jobs when their employer went out of business. The Depression wasn't just economic - Americans lost their self-respect when they lost their self-reliance, and they were desperate for somebody - anybody - to change it.
That somebody was almost Huey Long. Long was a politician hailing from a particularly poor part of northern Louisiana. Becoming a lawyer, Long developed a reputation for helping poor individuals take on large businesses, notably worker's compensation cases. While running for a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission, Long made his political intentions clear, paraphrased by the historian William Ivy Hair:
he was a young warrior of and for the plain people, battling the evil giants of Wall Street and their corporations; too much of America's wealth was concentrated in too few hands, and this unfairness was perpetuated by an educational system so stacked against the poor that (according to his statistics) only fourteen out of every thousand children obtained a college education. The way to begin rectifying these wrongs was to turn out of office the corrupt local flunkies of big business ... and elect instead true men of the people
Long would eventually work his way up to the seat of Governor of Louisiana. Gaining the nickname "Kingfish", Long flexed his political power to the extreme. Firing thousands of state employees and replacing them with his lackies, Long fulfilled his campaign promises: free textbooks for schoolchildren, adult literacy programs, cheap fuel for New Orleans and an expansive public works program that brought rural Louisiana into the world marketplace. After a failed impeachment attempt, Long became more authoritarian, believing that extrajudicial action was necessary to protect the common people against moneyed interests; in his eyes, it was these same moneyed interests that had a hand in writing the laws that took advantage of the common man.
Enormously popular in Louisiana, Long turned his attention to the national stage. Elected a Senator, Long vigorously promoted phrases that were clearly socialist. "Share our wealth" and "every man a king" became rallying cries for his supporters and punctuation for his speeches on the floor of the Senate; the "Long plan" proposed a cap of of $1 million annual salary, a maximum of $5 million inheritance and a limit of $100 million for an individuals wealth. Inflation to this day would equate this proposal to roughly a $19 million annual salary, $97 million inheritance and almost $2 billion for individual wealth. In addition, Long proposed that funds seized by those he considered excessively wealthy should go toward a basic income of $3,000 per household - nearly $60,000 today. Alongside this, he promoted free college education and vocational training nationwide, along with pension funds, veteran benefits, a 30-hour work-week and a month of vacation for every worker. The economic feasibility of this plan was in doubt back then as it is today, but Long insisted it was necessary in order to reverse the calcification of wealth by Rockefeller, Morgan, and other robber barons. In the end, it would be for naught - Long was shot and killed by the son of a political rival, and the more moderate reforms of FDR would guide America out of the Great Depression, through World War II and into the post-war boom.
That post-war boom was largely fueled by the GI Bill, which gave healthcare, education, and access to low-interest loans to veterans. Considering a substantial portion of the American population were veterans after World War II, this was effectively the largest redistribution of wealth in American history. Conservatives today recall the 1950's as the Golden Age in American history; this was a Golden Age explicitly because of programs that modern Conservatives would spit at. That is because modern Conservatism reorganized itself as a marriage between moneyed interests and religious interests in the Reagan years, which led to the third era of substantial wealth disparity - the Trump era.
The time we live in has the largest gulf of wealth between the rich and the poor that America has ever seen, even more than the Gilded Age. Most Americans are in the top 1% of global wealth, but that doesn't mean anything to the blue-collar worker that lost his job due to globalization. It is hard to visualize what a billion dollars looks like or can buy, but we have 540 billionaires in the United States today. Some of this money is being brazenly used to change the political field - the Citizens United ruling in 2010 opened the floodgates for large, publicly anonymous donations that promote private interests at the expense of public interests.
This is not unopposed. A 28 year old Latina from the Bronx named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat entrenched establishment Democrat Joe Crowley. She did this despite openly calling herself a socialist - her platform, reminiscent of the reforms of Gracchus, Roosevelt and Long, seems to have resonated among the common man as it did in the previous eras. Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly win the general election, and become the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress. Will this be the first of many counterattacks against the private interests in power? Will public good overtake "greed is good"? The American people will decide.