It began, as these things frequently do, with a war and a financial collapse. When the housing bubble that had built over the previous half decade burst, it took the global economy down with it. The recession hit at the worst possible time, as society was already struggling to cope with a wave of technological change while assimilating a massive wave of immigration. Sadly, the major political parties proved incapable of dealing with these changes and found themselves refighting the last war, leaving the debate over new issues to outsider candidates. The end result was unstable politics, with congressional elections swinging wildly in short periods.
Much of this might sound familiar to readers, and a casual reader might even mistake the events described above for the period between 2008 and 2018 (assuming the reader were casual enough to miss the report's title). This, however, also describes the period from roughly 1873 to 1896. This report's thesis is that this earlier period provides useful insight into our current times, both in the long-term political effects of our current cultural upheavals and the increasingly erratic nature of our politics. It also concludes, to the likely sorrow of many readers, that the trend toward populism in the GOP and leftism in the Democratic Party is unlikely to abate.
Of course, we must be careful when drawing parallels to previous periods of history, especially when we are looking at events 150 years ago. To be clear, the argument here is not that we can expect a step-by-step repeat of late-19th-century American political history. In other words, the report does not take to heart Friedrich Hegel's famous claim that "great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice," even if combined with Karl Marx's famous caveat that these occurred "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (1) Rather, it takes the softer, more American view that "history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes." (2)
The Economic Collapse
If you had asked just about anyone in America born after 1910 what the term "Great Depression" referred to, they almost certainly would have referenced the economic collapse that followed the stock market crashes of October 1929. Had you asked their grandparents, however, they would have recalled the depression that struck in mid-1873.
As with all major historical events, the causes of this depression, otherwise known as the "Long Depression," are still disputed. But briefly, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, France was forced to pay an indemnity to Germany (in proportion to the indemnity France had imposed on Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars). (3) This massive influx of gold into Austria prompted the inflation of speculative bubbles in railroads, finance, and land. As the mania subsided, investors held out hope that the Vienna World Exhibition would bring in sufficient revenues to keep the rally going; this failed to materialize, and the Viennese stock exchange collapsed on May 9, 1873. (4)
The spillover effects of this collapse were many, as this was arguably the world's first international crisis, but the thread with which we are interested crosses into America. (5) In the aftermath of the Civil War, America's railroad industry was booming. In 1850, the country had just 9,000 miles of track; by 1870, this number had grown to 52,000 miles. Just three years later, that number grew to around 70,000 miles. (6) Development had lagged in the West and West Central census regions (roughly speaking, the Pacific Coast and Mountain West), where just 20 miles of railroad track existed before the Civil War, but, by 1872, that had grown to 4,000 miles. (7)
Part of that mileage was the transcontinental railroad, which was completed with the driving of the famous golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869. This captured the nation's imagination, including the imagination of one Jay Cooke, who had become famous for arranging much of the financing for the Civil War. Cooke became obsessed with creating a northern railway route to the West Coast and set about building the Northern Pacific Railway, guaranteeing its debt personally and, by extension, through his company, Jay Cooke & Co. (8)
Unfortunately, he also grossly underestimated the railway's cost and the difficulties involved in building it. Given the tightening monetary situation in Europe, he could not sell bonds there as quickly as he had hoped. The company walked a financial tightrope for much of 1873, but on September 18, 1873, Jay Cooke & Co. failed to meet its obligation on a $1 million bond and promptly closed its doors. (9)
Fifteen minutes later, Wall Street was in a panic. The signs that investors were overextended had been present for quite some time: Multiple small banks had failed in previous months. (10) But the failure of Cooke's firm was a clear signal that problems were not restricted to "irresponsible" smaller players, much as the failures of the Bank of United States or Lehman Brothers signaled deeper problems in the economy to ordinary investors decades later. The crisis had begun. The next day, 19 investment houses shuttered their doors; the New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days. (11)
It could not have struck at a worse time. In those days, money traveled seasonally around the country. In the fall, much of the money from New York traveled to Midwest rural banks that needed to supply farmers for harvest. Many banks called in loans, and by year's end, dozens of railroad firms had declared bankruptcy, leaving their bondholders in the lurch. Gradually, the contagion spread throughout much of the economy.
Economic historians refer to the subsequent contraction as the "Long Depression." According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economic contraction stretched 65 months, from October 1873 to March 1879. (12) It is the longest contraction in US history, eclipsing even the 1929-33 events in duration, though not in severity. (13) Unemployment peaked at over 8 percent, although other estimates place it higher. (14)
Many economists consider this part of a longer depression that stretched from 1873 to 1897. (15) It was not your typical depression, as unemployment generally remained low. This, however, was a symptom of the way in which it was a depression. Of the 285 months between October 1873 and June 1897, the economy was in contraction for 161 of them (56 percent). (16)
Unemployment did stay low, but that was because tight money policies in effect during the period produced deflation. The federal government also ran massive surpluses during the period, which further kept money out of circulation. (17) Goods that cost $100 in 1873 cost just $75 in 1897. (18) Wages were also depressed; by 1880, a worker's wage was roughly what it had been in 1860. This made it easier to keep workers on.
While the prospect of lower wages and goods may seem a wash, for those with fixed investments, such as rental agreements, the consequences were catastrophic. For landlords, however, this was a good thing. The price decline deeply affected one relationship in particular: that between farmers and banks.
Farmers who lived under a fixed mortgage found it more and more difficult to meet their payments, as prices for goods declined, but the mortgage remained the same (although 30-year mortgages were not yet the norm). Bankers, on the other hand, saw the value of their debts increase, while the tightened money supply kept interest rates high (although they declined for much of this period), once again harming farmers while aiding bankers. (19) Even this, however, cannot fully explain the politics of the time, (20) which brings us to the second portion of the story.
We began our story in 1873, but in truth, we began it in media res. It is difficult to pick an exact starting point, but the founding is as good a time as any.
The Coinage Act of 1792 established the United States Mint. (21) It also placed the United States on a bimetallic standard, with some currency denominated in gold, and other currency denominated in silver. "Eagles," for example, were to contain 270 grains of standard gold, whereas dollars were defined as 416 grains of standard silver. In practice, this meant that prospectors could take their gold or silver to the US Mint and have it converted directly to currency.
To finance the Civil War, the United States abandoned any metallic standard and issued fiat currency, called "greenbacks" due to the green dye used to color them. From 1863 through 1879, the US dollar bore no official relationship with the price of gold. (22) These greenbacks were inflationary; the price level in the United States doubled during the Civil War, hurting debtholders. Given that the federal government had taken on massive amounts of debt to finance the war, the prospect of inflating away that debt horrified Wall Street. After the war, President Ulysses S. Grant began quietly retiring greenbacks from circulation, and price levels began to stabilize then fall.
By the end of the war, silver dollars had largely fallen out of circulation, as the components of a silver dollar were worth more than a dollar and were thus more profitably sold for commercial use. A few years later, in 1873, Congress quietly discontinued the silver dollar to little immediate interest. (23) With the passage of the Specie Payment Resumption Act of 1875, the United States placed itself on a de facto gold standard. (24)
But silver began to fall in value, as multiple veins were discovered in the western United States. This set up a powder keg west of the Mississippi River and south of the Ohio River. Awash in silver and remembering a history when such silver could be taken to US mints for unlimited redemption in coinage, it was easy to fall into conspiracy theorizing. Notwithstanding that Congress viewed the discontinuation of the silver dollar as a relatively minor housekeeping task, outrage built over what came to be known as the Crime of 1873. (25)
Thus, farmers found themselves holding the proverbial bag while in the midst of a decades-long generalized price decline. Even if they themselves did not face foreclosure, the threat of foreclosure was raised by farm foreclosures nearby. (26) To them, resuming unlimited coinage of free silver offered a potential way out. (27) If this were allowed to happen, more money would be available, prices would inflate, and debts would be easier to manage. Nor did silver coinage seem to be an outlandish request, given this was a standard, if rarely used, practice for most of the nation's history.
This was exactly what Wall Street did not want, however. Numerous attempts were made to reintroduce bimetallism, and in February 1878, Congress overrode President Rutherford B. Hayes' veto of the Bland-Allison Act, reintroducing limited coinage of silver (although this was far from the unlimited coinage for which farmers and silver miners agitated). (28) But "hard money" Republican presidents bought the bare minimum amount of silver, and most of it was not placed into circulation. What was intended as a boon to farmers became a gold subsidy for silver mining companies. (29) The issue was allowed to fester, price levels continued to fall, and farmers became increasingly agitated.
This report will spend more time on the late-19th-century elections later, but for now, we can simply note that a large number of third parties were formed during this time, most of which were centered in the farm states of the Midwest and Great Plains, and many of which were centered around the issue of debt. While Washington relitigated the Civil War, the countryside seethed.
All this was layered over a society in a state of flux, as America transitioned from an agricultural republic to an industrialized nation. America in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was, as historian Robert Wiebe famously called it, "a society of island communities." (30) Communication systems were still primitive, education levels were low, and transportation was slow.
Instead, life revolved around the town. In 1870, no US city had yet achieved a population of one million (although at the time, New York City only comprised present-day Manhattan), and only 14 cities had grown to the size of 100,000. (31) To put this in perspective, today the 40th-largest city proper is Atlanta, Georgia, with a population of 420,003. (32) In 1870, it would be the third-largest city; the 40th-largest city then was Toledo, Ohio, with a population of around 32,000. Or, if the reader prefers, present-day Roanoke, Virginia, would be the 15th-largest city in America in 1870.
But this way of life was ending. By 1900, three cities (Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia) had achieved populations over one million; New York's population was over three million, while Chicago's population increased by almost 500 percent in the intermediating years. (33) The nation's 25th-largest city in 1900, Denver, Colorado, did not even make the top 100 in 1870. By 1900, over 38 cities had populations over 100,000.
This growth was driven largely by an influx of immigrants. Between 1880 and 1920, 20 million immigrants flooded into America. (34) Many of these immigrants were from then-nontraditional sources: Poles, Czechs, Italians, and Jews replaced Germans and Irish as the source of American labor.
Many of these newcomers were not even considered white under the standards of the time. For example, in 1922 the Alabama Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a conviction for miscegenation between an African American man and a Sicilian woman on the grounds that there was "no competent evidence to show that the woman in question, Edith Labue, was a white woman" and that her status as a Sicilian immigrant "can in no sense be taken as conclusive that she was therefore a white woman, or that she was not a negro or a descendant of a negro." (35)
Perhaps most importantly, these immigrants were largely non-Protestant. For a nation accustomed to the dominance of various Protestant denominations, this was a shock. Moreover, children of pre-Civil War Irish parents were coming into their own and gaining political power. Irish Catholics were elected as mayors of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1878; New York City in 1880; Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1881; and Boston, Massachusetts, in 1884. By 1890, Boston was majority Irish. (36)
Alongside these changes, the basic economics of the nation necessarily changed. This was true of industry, which became increasingly mechanized and less the province of small-scale manufacturers and more the domain of large conglomerates. Agriculture, however, was not left untouched. In fact, it underwent a revolution during this period. The improvements in transportation meant that farmers were no longer growing crops to meet local needs. Their markets were increasingly nationalized and even globalized. (37) The spread of railroads overlaid a crass commercialism on this field.
Society went through a massive change in values, as America developed from a small-town, agricultural society to an increasingly urban and industrialized one. To quote Wiebe again, at one point there was a communal sense that "God had ordained modesty in women, rectitude in men, and thrift, sobriety, and hard work in both," yet "each year the cultural gap between city and countryside widened.... The very process of urban living generated its own special values." (38)
This search for new value systems led society in wildly different directions. Social Darwinism sought to justify the often stark contrast between winners and losers in urban life. (39) Positivism sought to incorporate the spreading scientific method into all corners of life. (40) Mystic movements, such as Theosophy, promised ancient wisdom rooted in a hidden past. (41)
For others, the rise of the Social Gospel movement hoped to find Christian meaning in the new societal arrangements. This movement was filled with contradictions. It promised aid to the poor yet was often intermixed with social Darwinism. It pushed no particular denomination, yet leaders such as Josiah Strong inveighed against Catholicism. It sought to unify the nation and yet was frequently racist. (42) In short, "Americans in a basic sense no longer knew who or where they were. The setting had altered beyond their power to understand it, and within an alien context they had lost themselves." (43)
As they searched for meaning, unmoored from their old society, Americans embarked on increasingly puritanical movements, some of which we think of as good, such as women's suffrage. Some of these we think of as not so good, such as Prohibition. The Prohibition Party won just 3,572 votes in 1872; by 1888, that number had grown to 249,492 votes, good for 2.2 percent nationally. (44) Even things we might today regard as clear, good results, such as public schools and (perhaps) amendments prohibiting public funds from going to parochial schools, took their shape as a result of the social upheavals of the times, melding increased awareness of urban ills with concerns about the growing Catholic population. (The same, of course, can be said about Prohibition.)
While the bulk of this report is spent describing the milieu against which late-19th-century politics took place, it is ultimately a report about elections, and we should spend some time discussing them. The social background described above would certainly seem to give an opportunity for each party to stake out a unique territory appropriate to the tenor of the times. Both parties, however, seemed incapable of adjusting to the newly emerging realities. Presidential elections during the period consisted of a battle over a few states. Not counting the disputed states of the 1876 election, only five states voted for more than one party between 1876 and 1888: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Nevada, and New York.
In 1876, in the heat of depression and with a citizenry increasingly roiled by arguments for inflating currency, the major parties nominated Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, both of whom were firmly hard money men. (45) By the end of the campaign, the parties had reached a stalemate on the money question and "approached congruence on civil service reform and Catholic school issues." (46)
Instead, Republicans "waved the bloody shirt," reminding Northern voters which party favored a more vigorous prosecution of the Civil War. Republicans echoed Sen. Oliver Morton, who described the
Democratic Party as comprised of "hungry cormorants, long-deterred expectants, gangrened instigators of rebellion, the Northern sympathizers who trod the narrow isthmus between open treason and resistance to the Government fighting for its life, the slave drivers who have lost their occupation, and the innumerable caravan of dead-beats and adventurers." (47) As perhaps a perfect illustration of the contradictions of the times, Morton was also a leading "soft money" man in Congress. (48)
The other years in our period were little different. In an attempt to beat back Republicans' use of a Civil War general (a la Grant and Hayes) to wave the bloody shirt, Democrats nominated Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880. Both parties equivocated on the money question and aid to parochial schools; as one leading text describes it, "Both party documents repeated traditional platitudes while avoiding the real issues of the day. The industrial transformation had created new problems between capital and labor, but neither major party sensed the change." (49)
The campaign again revolved around waving the bloody shirt and a dispute over tariff rates. (50) The election was one of the closest in history, with James Garfield nudging out Hancock by 0.1 percent of the popular vote. A shift of just under 11,000 votes in New York would have swung the election to Hancock. (51)
In 1884, Republican nominee James G. Blaine gave up the bloody shirt in favor of a more substantive campaign, but he chose a protective tariff as his issue, hardly something that set the world afire. (52) He became the first Republican presidential candidate in almost 30 years to lose an election. (53)
The 1888 election was more of the same. Grover Cleveland was a famous economic conservative (using today's terminology), favoring hard money, a balanced budget, and stingy spending. The Republican nominee, Benjamin Harrison, was in broad agreement with Cleveland, although he did favor increased federal expenditures. His campaign focused mostly on the tariff while continuing to remind voters how they shot 30 years earlier. Criticizing Cleveland's parsimony, Harrison once intoned, "It is no time now to use and apothecary's scale to weigh the rewards of the men who saved the country." (54)
With the major parties largely ignoring the issues that sprang out of the emerging new America and instead focusing on debates surrounding the Civil War (or, in the case of the tariff, from antebellum America), third-party candidacies became the norm. Unlike the major parties, these third parties were often directly focused on the growing issues of industrializing America. As noted before, the Prohibition Party grew from a minor third party to a party that likely played a spoiler role in 1884; Blaine explicitly blamed John St. John's candidacy for his loss by siphoning off upscale Republicans who were increasingly concerned about the effects of alcohol on blue-collar voters.(55)
The candidates who rose up around the money issue, however, were more consequential. In 1876, Peter Cooper's Greenback Party provided a potential outlet for voters concerned about specie resumption. He received only 0.9 percent of the vote nationally, but four years later, James Weaver's Greenback Party increased that total to 3.3 percent. Weaver received around 10 percent of the vote in states such as Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Texas, channeling the growing discontent among farmers.(56) Green-backers received only 1.3 percent of the vote in 1884, although they likely contributed to James Blaine's defeat, along with the Prohibitionists. In 1888, the Union Labor Party and Prohibitionists combined for 3.5 percent of the vote, with strong showings in Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska. (57)
The biggest eruption came in 1892, which was odd given that Republicans had enacted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in response to the demands of western inflationists. Regardless of the reasons, which historians still debate, in 1892 the party captured 9 percent of the vote nationally, with another 2 percent going to the Prohibitionists. Weaver carried Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, and North Dakota outright and kept Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming close. In addition, he and Prohibitionist John Bidwell combined for more than 1.5 times Grover Cleveland's margin over Harrison in California, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Had Harrison won these states, along with the western states that went to Weaver, he would have won another electoral victory.
While presidential elections showed little responsiveness to the undercurrents roiling American society, the congressional parties had less control over individual congressional elections. There, we see much more volatility than we saw in presidential elections, as voters took their frustrations out on the party in power (Figure 1).
To put things in perspective, in the 2018 elections--a good election for Democrats by any measure--Democrats flipped a little under one-tenth of all House seats to their control. Elections of this magnitude, however, were common in the late 1800s. More than 9 percent of the House changed hands in eight of the 13 elections from 1870 to 1896. The 1932 elections are remembered as a historic tsunami in which 25 percent of the House flipped. But larger waves occurred three times in a 20-year period in the late 1800s.
Furthermore, this was not simply a case of fights breaking out over a few swing districts, as is often the case today. Recall that presidential elections were effectively fought in four or five states. The 1874 playing field, however, was fought across the entire country.
As Figure 2 shows, the magnitude of Republicans' losses is somewhat explained by the gradual ebbing of Reconstruction, but this was not just a southern phenomenon. Democratic losses stretched far into the North, into staunch Republican redoubts such as Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Sixteen years later, it was more of the same (Figure 3).
There were fewer seat flips in the South than in 1874, as it had become "solid" for Democrats. Democrats nevertheless extended their reach into places such as upstate New York, Michigan, and Minnesota. Four years later, the congressional wave worked in Republicans' favor, as Democrats received the blame for the Panic of 1893 (Figure 4).
Outside the South, Republicans picked up seats in every state where seats were available. In other words, unlike the presidential elections, which were carefully controlled by party leaders, ignored the issues of the day, and were fought in a hyperpolarized environment, the House races saw a massive back-and-forth swing.
I hope that the parallels between what preceded and today's America are plain enough that not too much ink (or electrons) will have to be expended beating what is likely an already dead horse. Much of our current politics can be viewed in the light of a controversial war (in this case in Iraq) and a financial collapse.
Consider our fight over the debt ceiling and government shutdowns. America had been blessed for most of the post-World War II period with rapid economic growth, which paid dividends to not only the American people but also the government. From 1955 to 2008, federal outlays as a share of gross domestic product remained more or less constant, typically falling somewhere between 17 and 21 percent. (58) Yet during this time, we built an interstate road system, guaranteed health care for the elderly and very poor, added a prescription drug benefit, increased federal aid to schools, and increased the size of Social Security benefits multiple times.
We also brought the top income tax rate down from 90 percent to a rate that has fluctuated between 35 and 40 percent. This was the growth dividend that allowed Bill Clinton to achieve a balanced budget while creating a federal program for health care for children (State Children's Health Insurance Program) and cutting capital gains taxes.
The slow-growth recovery from the recession of the 2000s and the mounting federal debt put an end to that; federal spending quickly became a zero-sum game. This at least partially explains the eruption of Tea Party protests, the Occupy Wall Street movement of the 2010s, and the multiple government shutdowns. Although we are in an era of growth, in which zero-sum budgeting is not the rule, we are also likely late in the business cycle.
This was overlaid on simmering tensions resulting from the war on terror and a broad societal transformation, as we moved from an industrial economy toward an information economy. If the transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial society transformed the way towns related to cities, the transformation from an industrial society to an information society gutted them. (59) As the best jobs and the brightest children move to urban areas, a "politics of resentment" has grown in rural areas, where voters perceive the two parties working for the benefit of cities (not entirely without reason). (60)
There has also been, for lack of a better term, a transformation in American value systems over the past 10 years, as people seek to make sense of the emerging landscape. Again, much of this is likely familiar to the reader. Religious affiliation in general is in decline, as Americans who describe themselves as unaffiliated with any faith move toward plurality status. In 2007, 16.1 percent of Americans selfidentified as unaffiliated, behind evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and mainline Protestant. By 2014, that number had grown to 22.8 percent, trailing only evangelical Protestant. (61)
There is also the emerging value system surrounding what is sometimes derided as "wokeness," but which might better be considered "social justice." A recent analysis by David Rozado shows exponential growth, beginning around 2014, in news articles referencing things such as "whiteness," "critical race theory," "white privilege," "systemic racism," and a variety of other terms related to how our society handles race, gender, and sexuality. (62) We can also, however, see a backlash against this in the election of Donald Trump.
Finally, we see an emerging destabilization of our congressional politics. Although presidential elections from 2000 to 2012 seemed lengthy battles over the same swing states, congressional elections began to swing wildly with the 2006 election. Between 1986 and 2004, only a single election, 1994, saw a swing of more than 4 percent. Since 2004, only two elections, 2012 and 2016, have seen a smaller swing (Figure 5). If we wish to quantify this, a Wilcoxon test suggests that the median number of seats swinging post-2004 is, in fact, significantly larger than the median number of seats swinging from 1986 to 2004 (p < 0.01).
So how did our story line from the late 1800s end? That answer is simple: The parties died. To be sure they did not literally die; America has the oldest and third-oldest continually existing parties in the world. But the parties as they existed before the 1896 election were done.
Our above electoral narrative left off in 1892. Although the presidential elections from 1876 through 1888 revealed a rough equilibrium in presidential elections, discontent bubbled beneath the surface. The way in which the parties adapted to growing tension in the electorate during the 1890s ultimately sets up our conclusion and tells us something about the direction our party system seems to be headed.
Grover Cleveland won the 1892 election, but it proved to be a fleeting victory. Cleveland was inaugurated in the midst of a banking panic that began 12 days before his inauguration. As nervous foreigners removed their investments from American banks, the country's gold stock was nearly depleted during bank runs, and Cleveland was forced effectively to take a loan from JPMorgan. (63) By June, the economy had collapsed.
Making matters worse, at least politically, Democrats repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. Even though the act had been viewed as a half measure at best by westerners, its repeal lit a powder keg. Repeal was ineffective as an economic salve, and unemployment surged to double digits. (64) In a world where Americans increasingly lived in cities and could not simply subsist off their lands, this was felt more broadly than earlier recessions. Cleveland's party was wiped out in the 1894 midterm elections--in percentage terms, the worst midterm drubbing any party has suffered--and the Democrats entered the 1896 presidential election in dire straits.
But first, Republicans had to choose their standard-bearer. They went with William McKinley, who won the nomination on the first ballot. As befit a man who had chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, the Republican platform extolled the benefits of a protective tariff. It was also unequivocal on the issue of currency, declaring, "We are, therefore, opposed to the free coinage of silver, except by international agreement with the leading commercial nations of the world." (65)
Civil rights issues were relegated to perfunctory statements urging a free ballot and condemning lynching, at the end of the platform, before a plank urging increased usage of arbitration agreements. A small faction of Silver Republicans broke off from the party, waiting to see whom the populists and Democrats would nominate. Regardless, the Republicans were engaging the currency issue head-on and had moved on from the Civil War alignment.
The Democrats, however, were in a state of disarray. Cleveland proved to be radioactive among the party rank and file; a motion to commend his administration failed 357 to 564. (66) There was no obvious successor to the incumbent either.
It was the currency issue, however, that split the Democrats open. In the wake of William Jennings Bryan's famous Cross of Gold speech to the convention, Democrats added an inflation plank to their platform, endorsing unlimited coinage of silver. With any gold-standard Democrat effectively barred from receiving the nomination, the convention turned to Bryan, a 36-year-old man who had served two terms as a congressman from Nebraska. The "gold Democrats" walked out of the convention, endorsing Illinois Sen. John M. Palmer as a third-party candidate. (67) With their core demands met, the populists likewise endorsed Bryan for president, although they nominated a different vice presidential candidate (Georgia Congressman Tom Watson).
After years of dodging the currency issue, the parties were finally forced to confront it head-on in 1896. Meanwhile, the Republican Party gave up on leveraging the Civil War once and for all that year. The parties were transformed.
Most importantly, these changes turned out to be permanent. McKinley was the last Civil War officer the Republicans nominated, as the issue faded into the background. Along with it, sadly, concern for African Americans in the South faded from the party platform, and Republican Party rhetoric emphasized economic growth and sectional reconciliation. Going forward, the Republican Party focused its appeals largely on economic and foreign policy. McKinley's reelection bid was not "vote as you shot," but rather "the full dinner pail."
For Democrats, the transformation was even more abrupt. Republicans put the nation officially on the international gold standard in 1900. (68) As gold flowed back into the country, the currency reinflated, and the lengthy price depression was over. (69) Silver ceased to be a primary issue in American politics, just as it was achieving a position at the forefront of the two major parties.
The Democratic Party, even more than the Republican Party, would never quite be the same. Political scientist John Gerring studied politicians' rhetoric and the words used in party platforms to conclude that the 1896 election marked a shift from a Democratic Party centered around Jeffersonian democracy to one that was more concerned with workers' rights. (70) While it was not a seamless transition--nominees such as Alton Parker and John W. Davis at times sounded more like old-school Democrats than modern ones--the party itself was never quite the same.
So, our death metaphor seems apt. The end of the Civil War saw a Democratic Party still clinging to its old identity as an advocate for a small-government, agrarian republic. Republicans had been founded to fight the scourge of slavery; having won that battle, they too found themselves searching for meaning in much the same way that the country as a whole was searching during this time. By the end of the decade, both parties were transformed into something that would have been in many ways unrecognizable to the parties that first squared off midcentury.
Conclusion: Party Evolution in a Time of Chaos
The amazing thing about the 1896 election, at least from a modern perspective, is how close it was. Had 36,000 votes spread across five states flipped, Bryan would have been president. This is all the more astounding given what was working against the Democrats. Their incumbent president was grossly unpopular, even in his own party. The economy was in poor shape and had collapsed when Democrats controlled all three branches of government. Republicans had even added six Republican-leaning states worth 20 electoral votes in Harrison's presidency in an attempt to strengthen their hand in the electoral college.
Even though he lost, Bryan "picked the lock" on the Republicans' electoral advantage; in a slightly more favorable environment, it is not difficult to envision Bryan winning outright. The tools to pick the lock, however, had been there for Democrats all along, albeit to a lesser degree. Bryan realized that the Democratic Party would always be in precarious shape to the extent that winning the presidency required making inroads in northern states such as Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York. One might view his strategy in 1896 as a Kobayashi Maru; he could not win the game, so he had to change how the game was played. (71)
In doing so, he also set a template for future Democratic presidencies. When Woodrow Wilson won reelection 20 years later, he did so with Bryan's basic coalition: He won the southern and western states, with Ohio thrown in. In fact, Wilson's narrow victory in 1916 involved almost the exact same states Bryan would have won had he flipped the aforementioned 36,000 votes. When Franklin D. Roosevelt won his massive reelection victory 20 years later, he won just about everywhere, but the core of his success was once again found in the South and Mountain West.
This leaves us with two interrelated questions: First, why did Bryan win over the Democrats in 1896? Second, given this potential road to victory, why did it take so long for a Bryan-like candidate to win the Democratic nomination? These complex questions are perhaps impossible to answer convincingly. But we can hazard some reasonable attempts at answers, especially to the second question.
First, the western United States did not offer as much electoral clout until the 1890s, after the admission of the northwestern states and the 1890 reapportionment. Second, the social development described at the beginning of this piece did not manifest at once. Just as the United States did not adopt "information economy" politics immediately on the launch of Internet Explorer in 1995, it made little sense to develop class-based politics in 1870 in what was still a largely agrarian republic.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, there was no real reason for the parties to jettison their leadership for most of the period. Democrats kept winning the popular vote and won the electoral college twice (three times to most Democrats). It was not until Cleveland's catastrophic second term that Democrats had real qualms about the party's direction; 1893-96 served to effectively pulverize the old regime and allowed a new one to rise in its place.
As to the first question, we might suppose a simpler answer: In a democratic electoral system, the concerns of the governed can only be stunted for so long. Or, as former American Enterprise Institute scholar Herb Stein once put it: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." (72) To be sure, there was little direct democracy in the period, and we were close to a century away from having serious primary and caucus competition for presidential nomination. But delegates to the conventions, over time, were guaranteed to replicate the froth happening at the congressional and state levels. As Congress increasingly aligned around the money question, the party conventions inevitably followed suit. (73)
To generalize: When society finds itself embroiled in a massive transformation, as it plainly is today, the parties can be slow to adapt at the presidential level, even as the congressional level is hyperresponsive. Sometimes the adaptation is abrupt, while sometimes a party gradually evolves over time. To see an example of the latter model, consider the modern Democratic Party.
In 1992 and 1996, Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat with genuinely heterodox views on policy issues. But over the next 20 years, the party gradually shifted leftward in response to changing times and views of its base. Every Democrat from Al Gore to Hillary Clinton--at least in her 2016 form--can be viewed reasonably as more progressive than the immediately preceding Democratic presidential nominee. This was in response to a series of setbacks for moderate leaders in the Democratic Party--particularly support for the Iraq war. Regardless, that party, much as the Republican Party of the late 1800s, did evolve toward something different.
Republicans, on the other hand, resisted change. Since the end of the Cold War, the Republicans have had a bit of an identity crisis. During the 1980s and 1990s, they accomplished many of their goals: Communism was rolled back, inflation was tamed, tax rates were reduced, the military was rebuilt, and social change was slowed and forced to don bourgeois vestments. (One need only compare the shift from ACT UP activism in the 1980s to fights for same-sex marriage in the aughts to see how this played out.) But as the country was faced with new challenges, the Republican Party leadership was slow to change, offering the same bromides about tax cuts as a solution to most problems.
Meanwhile, just as gold Democrats were increasingly insensitive to the concerns of their shifting base, Republican leadership ignored the growing concerns among the party's rank and file over the issue of immigration, regardless of those views' merits or lack thereof. Convinced that their only road to the presidency lay through the country's burgeoning Hispanic population--much as gold Democrats thought the presidency could only be won through the mid-Atlantic states--the Republican Party observed mini-revolts from the rank and file from multiple attempts to push through immigration bills in 2005 and 2013.
Likewise, one can see increased skepticism toward economic libertarianism among GOP voters in the progressively more vigorous challenges from socially conservative, economically populist candidates such as Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. The GOP establishment's preferred candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, was a perfect avatar of economic conservatism but left the grassroots unconvinced about his bona fides on social issues.
It is not entirely surprising, then, that the GOP suffered a major break in 2016, however surprising it might be that it did so through the nomination of Donald Trump. Like the Democrats in the late 1800s, the party's establishment had grown--and to some degree remains--out of touch with social anxieties shared by a large portion of the party's rank and file and were also dismissive of legitimate alternative routes to victory. But, inevitably, voters' desires caught up to them.
This suggests, however, that the changes we have seen in the parties over the past few decades are not accidental. More importantly, they probably are not going to be short-lived. This is not to say that Trumpism as such is the specific future of the GOP, any more than Warrenism is the specific future of the Democrats. Nevertheless, we are living in a time of substantial social upheavals, when citizens are constructing new social orders (or, from a more pessimistic view, a new social order is being constructed for them).
It is unsurprising, then, that our parties are shifting to address these upheavals, just as they have done in the past. While their specific features will doubtless shift over time--Bryanism was not Wilsonism, which was not the New Deal--many of their general features are taking shape today. Future GOP candidates will likely be more populist than previous candidates, and Democratic candidates will likely be more technocratic. And in a basically democratic system, that is not such a terrible thing.
About the Author
Sean Trende is the Gerald R. Ford Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he works on elections, American political trends, voting patterns, and demographics. He is also the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.
(1.) Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 594.
(2.) This quotation has been attributed to Mark Twain, although the attribution is widely regarded as apocryphal.
(3.) A. J. P. Taylor, Bismarck, The Man and the Statesman (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955), 133.
(4.) Hannah Catherine Davies, Transatlantic Speculations: Globalization and the Panics of 1873 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 58; and Charles Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises (New York: Wiley Investment Classics, 2005), 37.
(5.) Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes, 130.
(6.) M. John Lubetkin, Jay Cooke's Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, the Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 29.
(7.) Lubetkin, Jay Cooke's Gamble, 23.
(8.) Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes, 27.
(9.) Lubetkin, Jay Cooke's Gamble, 272, 280.
(10.) Rendigs Fels, "American Business Cycles, 1865-79," American Economic Review 41, no. 3 (June 1951): 338.
(11.) O. V. Wells, "The Depression of 1873-79," Agricultural History 11, no. 3 (July 1937): 238.
(12.) National Bureau of Economic Research, "US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions," https://www.nber.org/cycles.html.
(13.) See Ira O. Scott Jr., "A Comparison of Production During the Depressions of 1873 and 1929," American Economic Review 42, no. 4 (September 1952): 569-76.
(14.) Vadim Khramov and John Ridings Lee, "The Economic Performance Index (EPI): An Intuitive Indicator for Assessing a Country's Economic Performance Dynamics in a Historical Perspective" (working paper, International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC, October 2013), https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2013/wp13214.pdf.
(15.) Rendigs Fels, "The Long-Wave Depression, 1873-97," Review of Economics and Statistics 31, no. 1 (February 1949): 69.
(16.) National Bureau of Economic Research, "US Business Cycle Expansions and Contractions"; and Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971), 122.
(17.) Charles W. Calhoun, Minority Victory: Gilded Age Politics and the Front Porch Campaign of 1888 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2008), 16.
(18.) Computed by the author based on Khramov and Lee, "The Economic Performance Index (EPI)."
(19.) James H. Stock, "Real Estate Mortgages, Foreclosures, and Midwestern Agrarian Unrest, 1865-1920," Journal of Economic History 44, no. 1 (March 1984): 89. For a skeptical note on the tight money's effect on the well-being of farmers, see Allan G. Bogue, Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1955); and Barry Eichengreen, "Mortgage Interest Rates in the Populist Era," American Economic Review 74, no. 5 (1984): 995-1015.
(20.) Robert Whaples, "Where Is There Consensus Among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions," Journal of Economic History 55, no. 1 (March 1995): 147.
(21.) Coinage Act of 1792, 2nd Cong., 1st Sess., 16, April 2, 1792, https://gold-standard.procon.org/sourcefiles/coinage_act_1792.pdf.
(22.) Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 85.
(23.) Coinage Act of 1873, Pub. L. No. 42-131, https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/title/1095.
(24.) Fels, "The Long-Wave Depression, 1873-97," 70.
(25.) Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 113.
(26.) Robert A. McGuire, "Economic Causes of Late-Nineteenth Century Agrarian Unrest: New Evidence," Journal of Economic History 41, no. 4 (December 1981): 835-52; and Stock, "Real Estate Mortgages, Foreclosures, and Midwestern Agrarian Unrest, 1865-1920."
(27.) Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 115.
(28.) Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 115-16.
(29.) Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order: 1877-1920 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1966), 94.
(30.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, xiii.
(31.) US Bureau of the Census, "Table 10. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1870," June 15, 1998, https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab10.txt.
(32.) City Mayor Statistics, "The Largest US Cities: Cities Ranked 1 to 100," http://www.citymayors.com/gratis/uscities_100.html.
(33.) US Bureau of the Census, "Table 10. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places."
(34.) History.com, "U.S. Immigration Before 1965," May 16, 2019, https://wwww.history.com/topics/immigration/u-s-immigration-before-1965.
(35.) Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 4. Historians may have misinterpreted the case's importance, and the prosecutor simply failed to ever introduce evidence into the record that Labue was white. This strikes me as unlikely, however, given the source and time. Were Labue, say, a British immigrant, her whiteness would unlikely be questioned.
(36.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, 50-51.
(37.) Anne Mayhew, "A Reappraisal of the Causes of the Farm Protest Movement in the United States, 1870-1900," Journal of Economic History 32, no. 2 (June 1972): 464-75.
(38.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, 4, 14.
(39.) See Herbert Spencer, "A Theory of Population Deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility," Westminster Review 57 (April 1852): 50.
(40.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, 141.
(41.) Helena Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology (London: Theosophy Co., 1877).
(42.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, 137; and Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York: Baker and Taylor Co., 1885).
(43.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, 43.
(44.) CQ Press, Presidential Elections 1789-2008 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 141, 173.
(45.) Wiebe, The Search for Order, 7; and Michael F. Holt, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2008), 96.
(46.) Holt, By One Vote, 143.
(47.) Holt, By One Vote, 130.
(48.) Architect of the Capitol, "Oliver Hazard Perry Morton," August 16, 2017, https://www.aoc.gov/art/national-statuary-hall-collection/oliver-hazard-perry-morton.
(49.) Gil Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, 4th Edition (New York: Facts on File Inc., 2011), 642.
(50.) Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 646.
(51.) Dave Leip, "Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections," www.uselectionatlas.org.
(52.) Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 666; and Charles W. Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2006).
(53.) The infamous comment from Samuel Burchard in the closing days of the campaign that the Democrats were the party of "rum, romanism and rebellion" was certainly more in touch with the actual debate playing out in the country. It also probably cost Blaine more than 600 votes in the ethnic wards of New York City, enough to flip the state and the election.
(54.) Calhoun, Minority Victory, 153.
(55.) Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 670-71.
(56.) Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 139.
(57.) Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 141.
(58.) Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, "Federal Net Outlays as Percent of Gross Domestic Product," July 26, 2019, https://fred.stlou-isfed.org/series/FYONGDA188S.
(59.) David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson, "The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade" (working paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, 2016); and Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (New York: Sentinel, 2019).
(60.) Katherine J. J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
(61.) Alan Cooperman, Gregory Smith, and Katherine Ritchy, America's Changing Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of the Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow, Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
(62.) Foundation for Economic Education, "A Visual Demonstration of How Fast the NYT Got Woke," June 10, 2019, https://fee.org/articles/a-visual-demonstration-of-how-fast-the-nyt-got-woke/.
(63.) JPMorgan, "Morgan Helps End the Panic of 1893," https://www.jpmorgan.com/country/US/en/jpmorgan/about/history/month/feb.
(64.) Christina Romer, "Spurious Volatility in Historical Unemployment Data," Journal of Political Economy 94, no. 1 (1986): 1-37.
(65.) Vassar College, "Republican Party Platform," 1997, http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/gopplatform.html.
(66.) Calhoun, Minority Victory, 159.
(67.) Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 118.
(68.) GovTrack, "To Pass H.R. 1, a Bill Defining and Fixing the Standard of Value, to Maintain the Parity of All Forms of Money Issued or Coined by the U.S. (P. 572, 160, 163)," https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/56-1/h5.
(69.) Friedman and Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 135.
(70.) John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
(71.) The Kobayashi Maru was a simulation that took place in the Star Trek universe. Cadets at Starfleet Academy were put in a situation in which no matter their choice, the outcome would be unfavorable. James T. Kirk "beat" the simulation by recognizing that the only way to beat the game was to change the rules; he reprogrammed the simulation before taking it a third time. It has come to stand for a general situation in which a group or individual can only survive by reconceptualizing the underlying problem.
(72.) Herbert Stein, "Problems and Not-Problems of the American Economy," American Enterprise Institute, June 1989, http://www. aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/-130606-media-steins-law_094731626218.pdf.
(73.) Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000).
A careful examination of the period from 1873 to 1896 provides useful insight into our current era of political division, economic anxiety, and social separation. The upheavals of our times echo the disturbances of those times, and the effective deaths of the two major parties in the closing years of the Gilded Age warn those who hope the rise of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren is merely a passing phase.
After the Civil War, America's economic expansion was halted by the "Long Depression," which spanned 65 months from October 1873 to March 1879--the longest contraction in US history. All this coincided with a society in flux, as America transitioned from an agricultural republic to an industrialized nation. At the beginning of this period, the US was not well connected: Communication systems were still primitive, education levels were low, and transportation was slow. By the end, a recognizably modern America had begun to emerge, with sprawling metropolises, large-scale manufacturing interests, changed morality systems, and the problems that still plague American urban life.
Yet the parties remained fundamentally unchanged, at least at the presidential level. The parties sought to avoid the major issues of the day by relitigating fights over the Civil War itself and pre--Civil War debates over protective tariffs. At the congressional level, politics were more fluid, and we saw evidence of an increasingly destabilized polity.
This is much like now, as a stable presidential electoral system with candidates litigating issues that have been fought over for the past four decades has masked a much more contentious debate about the direction of society. Congressional elections have become more fluid, as debates over the nature of our transition to an information economy percolates through American society.
The changes we have seen in the parties over the past few decades are not accidental and will not be short-lived. We are living in an era of social upheavals, when citizens are constructing new social orders, and our parties are shifting to address these upheavals. The trend toward populism in the GOP and leftism in the Democratic Party are symptoms of these changes and are unlikely to abate. Future GOP candidates will presumably be more populist than previous candidates and Democratic candidates more technocratic. And in a basically democratic system, that is not such a terrible thing.