How to Prosper During the Coming Partisan Realignment: Lessons from the 1896 Election

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Political parties in the United States have never been stable ideological entities. And even though there have been parties called “Republicans” and “Democrats” since 1856, these names do not mean the same things from decade to decade. In our political system, a “party” is a brand name for a large coalition of interests, and these coalitions shift. When they do, we get what political scientists call a “realigning election,” or an election in which the organizing logic of the parties changes and the resulting coalitions recombine to create a new party system. It is like shuffling a deck of cards.

The last major realignment of America’s political systems started in the 1970s and was completed in the Congressional elections of 1994. This is when the coalition between conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northern and Western Democrats fell apart. The South became reliably Republican, and Evangelical Christians, business conservatives, and right-leaning libertarians across the country signed up for the new Republican coalition. Republicans got more conservative, and Democrats, freed from their Southern coalition partners, got more liberal.

This version of partisan politics has dominated American elections for the last quarter-century, with enough swing voters and independents to keep the balance between the parties roughly equal. Both parties have controlled the presidency, the House, and the Senate during this time, and the liberal-conservative dichotomy has become the axis upon which most of us consider nearly every important question of state.

But the liberal-conservative dichotomy is not the only axis that partisan systems can be built on. The party system that began in 1860 and continued until the end of the century was built upon a geographical, North-South axis, with slavery, and then Reconstruction, as the overwhelming issues of the period. The next party system — which historians usually trace back to the 1896 election, revolved around yet another axis: the distinction between the populist William Jennings Bryan and the Institutionalist William McKinley. Americans should pay some attention to the way that this axis functioned in the past, as it may very well be part of our future.

American populism emerged out of the explosive growth of the Western states, whose economies were mainly agricultural, and the steep recession of the 1890s. Populist politicians spoke to, and for, “the people.” They were mainly from areas of the country that did not feel represented in Washington and New York. They didn’t care how things had usually been done, and they were suspicious of the elites in the media, finance, and government who seemed to run the country without any input from them. Populists promised to replace the elites with a government more responsive to people’s actual needs.

By 1896, the Democratic party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was no more: the rebellion was over, and both rum and Romanism had become Republicans.

In 1892, the Populist Party ran Iowa Congressman James Weaver for president and won 22 electoral votes in six states: Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Kansas, and North Dakota. The Recession that began in 1893 put the winds beneath their wings, and, in 1896, both Democrats and Populists nominated the charismatic, 39-year old Nebraska congressman William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was deeply religious and committed to agrarian interests. His signature issue was “bimetallism,” or the introduction of silver to America’s gold-based currency. Bryan became the nominee after making his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Modern Americans have a hard time understanding why anyone cared what metal the money was made of, but, at the time, it was the most important issue in the heartland. A strict gold standard made inflation almost impossible. And after years of deflation — in which prices actually went down while the money supply remained constant — farmers found themselves making less for their produce and unable to pay their fixed mortgages. A period of modest inflation would work in their favor, and against the interests of the banks.

The Republicans chose William McKinley, who was closely tied to the Republican establishment. Every Republican elected president since Lincoln — Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Harrison — had been, like McKinley, from Ohio. McKinley had represented Ohio in Congress and had been its governor. He was close friends with Rutherford B. Hayes, under whom he served in the Civil War. And he had the support of the millionaire Republican donor and Chair of the Republican National Committee, Mark Hannah. Though he was more progressive than many Republicans at the time, McKinley was a thoroughgoing institutionalist who knew how to work within political structures to put his agendas into effect.

The stark contrast between Bryan, the uncompromising populist, and McKinley, the pragmatic institutionalist, set up a contest that re-arranged the political coalitions. Conservative Protestants flocked to Bryan’s banner, as did prohibitionists, who had won more than 150,000 votes in the 1874 election. This pushed large numbers of Catholics, along with those who opposed temperance laws, into McKinley’s camp. By 1896, the Democratic party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” was no more: the rebellion was over, and both rum and Romanism had become Republicans.

Geographically, the North-South axis that had persisted since the Civil War morphed into an East-West axis, with most Western states joining the Old Confederacy to take on the financial elites who ruled the Eastern Seaboard. And populous Eastern states like New York and Massachusetts, which had been trending Democratic in the last few elections, snapped back into place and became bastions of Republicanism. McKinley won easily, but the political realignment pushed the whole country towards the Progressive Era that defined the early 20th century.

These coalitions held together, more or less, until the next realigning election in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover and reorganized the political landscape yet again. And Bryan ran for President two more times — in 1900 and 1908 — before volunteering to prosecute an obscure science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, for the crime of teaching evolution.

The liberal-conservative axis is simply not the right framework for viewing the 2020 election, which is between the most dedicated institutionalist and the most anti-establishment populist to run for president in most of our lifetimes.

No true populist won a major-party nomination again until 2016, when Donald Trump, who had never held any political office before, defeated a number of Republican senators and governors to win the nomination, and, ultimately, the election. Interestingly, the Democrats came very close to nominating a populist candidate that year as well, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent and self-described democratic-socialist who appealed to people on the left in much the same way that Donald Trump appealed to people on the right. In the general election, between 10 and 15% of Sanders’ supporters voted for Donald Trump. Crossover Sanders voters were decisive in the 2016 election. In three important states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — Sanders-Trump voters substantially exceeded Trump’s margin of victory.

If we look at Trump and Sanders on the liberal-conservative axis, this makes no sense whatsoever. But if we look at them on the populist-institutionalist axis, it makes complete sense. Both candidates appealed to people who were sick and tired of politics as usual. Both promised to “drain the swamp” or change the way that things are done. Both candidates railed against the elites (though they railed against different elites) and promised a fundamentally new way of doing things. Both candidates were classic interactions of populism.

The 2020 election will present Americans with the clearest choice between populism and institutionalism that we have seen since 1896. Joe Biden is the consummate political insider. He was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29. He served six full terms, or 36 years, in the US Senate before becoming Vice President for the next 8. He has a deep faith in the institutions of government, including courts, parties, career diplomats, and the press — all of the things that Trump calls “the Swamp,” or “the Deep State” and rails against while his fans cheer him on.

In just the last few months, an unprecedented number of traditional Republicans, career civil servants, and conservative donors have endorsed Joe Biden for president. Some are even running hostile ads against Donald Trump and his supporters. This should not be taken as proof that Biden is “really a Republican” or that he is insufficiently liberal. If he is elected, Joe Biden will be one of the most traditionally liberal presidents we have ever had. But the liberal-conservative axis is simply not the right framework for viewing this election, which is between the most dedicated institutionalist and the most anti-establishment populist to run for president in most of our lifetimes.

Will 2020 be a realigning election like 1896 and 1932? It’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Biden is assembling a coalition of establishment politicians — and people disgusted by Trump ‘s behavior—that may very well last past the next election. If Biden wins, and Republicans become the out-of-power party, they may well decide to stick with Trump and Trump-like populists while moving far enough left to pick up disillusioned Sanders supporters. This would produce a very different party system than we have now, even if the names “Democrat” and “Republican” remained.

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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