Skip to main content


The Great Upheaval

June 2024
5min read

What do the stunning Republican victories in the recent election mean? The answer may lie a century in the past.

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.

In 1892 the splits and alliances caused by the Civil War and Reconstruction were fading into memory, like the ideals and slogans of the antislavery conflict—much as the Cold War, Vietnam, and the social upheavals of the sixties are doing today. The outlines of a modern industrial society were just hardening into visibility in the darkroom of history. The same is true of today’s evolving global economy. Inventions were changing long-rooted customs; familiar roles could no longer be played with confidence.

So in the America of the 1890s, a sense of doom shadowed even the cheery celebrations of modernity like the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner noted that year that the frontier was closing, and he wondered how American democracy would stay vital in its absence. New England patricians like Brooks and Henry Adams worried over the inroads of universal suffrage and political machines and greedy capitalist newcomers on the old aristocratic sense of responsibility. Henry wrote of the “degradation of the democratic dogma"; Brooks of civilization in decline.

Other “old-stock” Americans were troubled by the “hordes” of “new” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who were pouring in through what the poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich labeled our “unguarded gates.” The noble egalitarian expectations of the abolitionist crusade crumbled as legislatures and courts raised the new walls of segregation on the ruins of Reconstruction’s integrated state governments. Even kindly “experts” and the “best people” believed that no other solution to “the Negro problem” was possible; the Africans’ place was on the bottom rung.

All the pessimism was made a bit more dark by the awareness that an old century was descending into the twilight.

Keeping the right place was important. Some women were disturbingly unwilling to do that. The demand for votes for women was growing, and so were the number of women’s colleges. Even an organization like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (founded 1874), for all its rigidity on the evils of rum, had its liberating side: It made women vocal political activists.

Economic issues, it is clear, became tangled in what we would now call culture wars. The farmer, his ranks dwindling, was no longer the “sturdy yeoman” of legend, a self-sustaining citizen under his own fig tree. He was just a supplier of market goods at the mercy of the market, the railroad, the banks. The small businessman felt crowded into dependency by the trusts; the craftsman, drafted into the unhappy ranks of the factory work force. Thousands of these self-identified members of the dispossessed classes joined in Populist protest. Behind the railing at high tariffs and tight money was the notion that the old order was changing and that the dream of the founders had gone wrong. All the pessimism was somehow made a bit more dank by the constant awareness that an old century, like so many old things, was descending into the twilight. It was the hour of the fin de siècle blues.

Does it sound familiar? I suspect it explains a good deal about those shifting votes of the 1880s, and I think it may cast some light on the 1980s and 1990s too. You may want a reminder of how the story comes out. In the 1896 election the Republicans ran William McKinley, who stood for high tariffs, “sound” money, the full dinner pail, and, in general, the continuation of the march into the age of steam and steel, high voltage, and skyscrapers. His opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was an odd combination (by today’s standards) of economic radical and cultural conservative—in favor of cheap money, government support for farmers, labor unions, even women’s rights—but also of biblically strict personal behavior and the moral standards of rural America as against the debilitating and sinful city. Bryan was roundly and soundly defeated, and the Republicans not only won the next three presidential elections in a row but kept control of the House and Senate until the new century was well under way.

Whether the Republicans rejoicing in the dawn of the 104th Congress are likewise on the leading edge of history none of us knows. But definitely there is something out there that, like the twentieth century, is coming to an end, and its death writhings and tail lashings knocked over a forty-year congressional “reign” very easily.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.