The Great Upheaval

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In the immediate aftermath of last November’s election, I was overtaken by a kind of awe as I contemplated this month’s column. “Clearly,” said an inner voice, “this is a historic event. Say something of historical consequence! Illuminate the moment; plant a signpost on the road ahead.”

Well, I can’t quite. The changes in our political culture since 1950 have so rewritten the rules of the game that comparisons with the past are cursed from the opening sentence with the apples-and-oranges taint. Besides, most of the juicy and obvious points were made in the daily press the morning after.

Chief among these was recalling the GOP congressional triumph in November 1946, when a Republican Eightieth Congress was swept into office in a stinging repudiation of Harry Truman. The attractiveness of that memory, especially to Democrats, is immediately clear. Only two years later, against all odds, the electorate reversed course and re-elected Truman with Democratic majorities in both houses. (The Republicans thereafter managed to capture both houses again only once in the next twenty-two elections, in 1952.)

Truman helped his own cause and his place in history by a vigorous 1948 campaign against the “no-good, do-nothing” Eightieth Congress. There may be Democrats savoring the hope that the same lightning will strike twice, but they would be wiser not to bet on it. Truman had two assets (in addition to his toughness and courage) that Clinton cannot count on. One was the start of the Cold War. Congress supported him with bipartisan fidelity in the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the unification of the armed forces, and the establishment of the CIA. The Berlin airlift and the recognition of Israel changed him in the public eye from a machine politician floundering in FDR’s shoes to a world statesman.

Truman’s other asset was that the discontents of the voters of 1946 were transient, part of the bumpy ride on the road back to peacetime.

By contrast the much-advertised frustration and anger of the 1994 electorate was spurred by complex and long-term problems that will not be charmed away by either party’s voodoo. In 1946 Democrats and Republicans alike shared the view that following victory over the Axis and the Great Depression things would inevitably get better. Not so the voters of 1994; their long-range forecasting is cloudy and dark.

And that gloom suggests a more useful comparison that goes back not forty-eight years but a century.

In 1894, in the midterm congressional elections under the Democratic President Grover Cleveland, the Democrats went down from having a majority in the House of Representatives, at 218 to 127, to becoming a minority of 105 members. They lost a full 113 seats, 7 of them to Populists, the rest to the Republicans. That was almost a third of the total membership of the House (which then numbered 356). Talk about earthquakes! In the Senate, where swings are less dramatic because only a third of it is elected at a time, the Democrats’ numbers dropped from a controlling 44 to 39.

Much of this could be blamed on a depression that had hit in 1893. But wait! Only a few years earlier, in 1890, the Democrats had—and in good times!—unseated a slim Republican majority even more decisively. The Fifty-first Congress, elected in 1888, boasted 166 Republicans in the House. The 1890 election slashed that number almost in half, to 88, leaving the Democrats with a towering 147-vote plurality.

The enormous arc of that seesaw swing from Democratic to Republican supermajorities in the House is unusual, but the change itself was not. Neither party could hold an advantage for long. Democrats got control of the House (by only five seats) in the elections of 1878, barely lost it in 1880, won it back in 1882, and kept it through the 1886 election, lost it again in 1888, regained it in that 1890 landslide, and were trounced themselves, as noted, in 1894. In the Senate Republicans and Democrats were more closely balanced—exactly even in 1881-83— although Republican senators were in the majority by a handful of votes in all but two of the Congresses up to 1894. A corporal’s guard of Populists and other independents who won seats in defiance of the two-party monopoly completed the shifting congressional picture.

Now look at the Presidency from 1876 to 1892: it changed between parties three times in five elections. Bringing the comparison forward exactly a century, we find the Democrats again winning twice in the period 1976-92, taking the White House from Republicans, handing it back in 1980, and regaining it in 1992. No great stability there.

I would like to argue here that the 1890s, though often referred to as “gay,” were anything but that. In their first half, at least, they were scarred by the kind of anxiety that Americans feel today. In both cases the root causes were the same: powerful changes that left Americans dogged by feelings that events had somehow gotten out of control. In both periods the political results were a high degree of “volatility,” voters switching their loyalties freely and often, and politicians groping for issues around which to build winning organizations.