As observers of all stripes lament the staleness of today’s political rhetoric, it’s worth looking back on the elections that really shook up the parties and recast the terms of national debate. This post describes six critical elections and their consequences. They changed the character of the parties and the politics of their time.
Although we’ve had only two monolithic national parties for the last 150-plus years, the long perspective of history shows us that there are other possibilities, and that even the parties we have can be transformed from inside.
The elections are presented in chronological order, but, to tell you the truth, I wrote this piece backward, so feel free to jump around, or even start with the conclusions first. For a definition of what makes a “critical election,” check out this prequel: 2008: The Critical Election that Wasn’t (Part I).
1. THE ELECTION of 1800: JEFFERSON
The election of 1800 marked the beginning of organized party opposition in the United States. By then, eleven years had passed since the states had ratified the Constitution and set up a new government along its lines. One of the peculiar features of the new government was the virtual absence of dissenting parties and the existence of something like one-party rule.
The Federalists, who had done the most to establish the Constitution and the new government, naturally found themselves in a dominant position, almost unilaterally in control of the new polity they’d willed into being. Former opponents of the Constitution either participated in the new experiment as a skeptical minority–ready to take action should the government fail–or chose to opt out entirely.
As long as George Washington was on the scene to embody the Federalist spirit and serve as president, most of his contemporaries were comfortable acceding to his authority. He was elected president unanimously. His immense personal popularity and the almost universal respect he commanded, both as statesman and commander-in-chief, limited dissent, as did longstanding ideas about the destructive effects of faction in a republican government and a practical recognition that infighting could destroy a government so new and frail.
Washington’s retirement and the succession of John Adams to the presidency in 1796 brought changes to the scene. Under Adams, the repressive and restrictive tendencies of Federalism became more evident, and critics became justly concerned about his absolutist leanings. Adams’ vice-president was Thomas Jefferson, who had served the new government faithfully as Washington’s Secretary of State and Minister to France. Jefferson now became concerned about the direction of government under Adams and the way the provisions of the Constitution were being realized. While Adams hewed to a very backward-looking vision of the government, as being the province of a tiny group of elite leaders, Jefferson wanted to realize the Constitution’s more egalitarian possibilities.
With the aid of his fellow-Virginian, James Madison, Jefferson successfully mobilized other dissenting politicians to form a party dedicated to government along truly republican lines. After a very nasty and bitterly fought campaign, Jefferson and his fellow “republicans” carried the day. The election of 1800 established the nation’s ability to withstand a contested election, a landmark event that served to legitimate the idea of political parties–and partisan strife.
2. THE ELECTION of 1828: JACKSON
Despite the democratizing spirit that inspired the formation of the Jeffersonian party (or Democratic-Republicans, as they were sometimes called), politics remained a gentleman’s game, where men of a certain class ran the country and informally determined who the nation’s next leaders would be. Madison and Monroe followed Jefferson in the presidency, and they were similar enough to him (and to George Washington) in outlook and background to inspire the phrase “Virginia Dynasty.” (All were Virginians and masters of plantations).
Nonetheless, satisfaction with the type of leadership they embodied was sufficient to give rise to what is known as the Era of Good Feelings, for once the Jeffersonians triumphed over the Federalists, that party gradually died, and no party of equal coherence took its place. Instead, competition organized itself around the visions of particular men. Instead of national parties, there were cliques of followers, as in 1824, when there were four presidential candidates, each backed by circles of “friends”. Campaigning that year was carried forward by groups referring to themselves as “Adams’ men” or “Crawford’s men” or “Clay’s men,” for instance.
The disappointment of one of those four candidates–Andrew Jackson–would give rise to a tremendous upheaval in the next election cycle. In 1824, Jackson won the popular vote for the presidency, but won only a plurality in the electoral college, rather than the majority that victory required. This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay, the lowest-polling candidate, was also the Speaker. Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams, giving him, rather than Jackson, the victory. After the inauguration, Clay became Adams’s Secretary of State.
This “stolen election” infuriated Jackson. He determined that in 1828 he would defeat Adams with a victory expressing the popular will, the people’s sovereignty. In the process, he and his friends changed the very definition of democracy. They embarked on a systematic campaign to establish Jackson committees in every state and reached out to engage a mass electorate in an unprecedented way, destroying the power of the coteries. By the time the election was over, the Jacksonian Democrats were an organized national force, and Jackson had been elected by a landslide. Assisting in Jackson’s victory was his friend and political ally Martin Van Buren, a brilliant political manager who understood that the future of American politics lay in engaging the public fully.
Not only did 1828 mark the birth of a new, more democratic style of presidential campaigning, it gave birth to a new type of president, who espoused a bold and distinctive set of ideas that were firmly “anti-aristocrat” and that rejected forms of government action believed to confer disproportionate benefits on the privileged.
Jackson came from a very different background from the men he succeeded. His father had died before he was born, and he grew up with little schooling and in relative poverty. He was from the frontier rather from the long-settled coastal regions of the country. Jackson was, famously, a boy-soldier in the Revolution who experienced captivity and ill-treatment at the hands of British authorities. Throughout his meteoric rise as a soldier, lawyer, judge, plantation-owner, and legislator, he retained a rough and violent side. He was a person of great personal courage, whom the threat of pitched conflict did not unnerve one iota.
Not surprisingly, high levels of conflict characterized his presidency. Jackson ran on a platform of “reform, retrenchment, and economy.” He eliminated funding for many government-backed projects and wiped out the $60-million debt the government was carrying. He refused to re-charter the national Bank of the United States, a private bank relied on to regulate the money supply, on the grounds that government should not be propping up its small group of directors. Jackson pushed lifers out of the national civil service and tried to make it more of a meritocracy. And he sought lower tariffs and designated funds to be given to the states to spend as they pleased. Jackson’s extensive use of the veto enabled him to thwart and neutralize a Congress he viewed as elitist. He was also an ardent nationalist who presided over the removal and relocation of Indian tribes from Georgia and other southeastern states, a shameful project known as the Trail of Tears.
Opposition to Jacksonianism coalesced in the newly emergent Whig Party. The Whigs took up the mantle of the Federalists. They advocated for commerce, a stronger national currency, and internal improvements (what we would call “infrastructure investment” today). While the Democrats wanted decentralization and a laissez-faire economy, Whigs wanted a stronger federal government and tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing.
Many intelligent, influential people were drawn to the Whig Party, but it was born under an unlucky star. Only two times did Whigs manage to win the presidency, and, on both occasions, the presidents died–William Henry Harrison in 1840 and Zachary Taylor a decade later. In the latter instance, the succession of the southern-born Vice President, James Polk, to the presidency caused chaos within the leadership of the Whig Party. By the mid-1850s, the party was in shambles, all its unity and promise gone.
3. THE ELECTION of 1860: LINCOLN
Which brings us to the election of 1860, which I guess you could say is my favorite critical election. Not just my favorite, but the one I think people like to know about because it precipitated this Civil War and resulted in the election of Lincoln. It’s in this election that you can clearly see the emergence of a new constellation of political beliefs that were distinctive, and you can appreciate, I believe, how fluid the parties were back then: that parties devolved, they ended, and they became exhausted and they ceased to be, and that that was a very common phenomenon in the nineteenth century, and one that we’re a little bit less accustomed to these days, I think unfortunately.
The issue of slavery, and specifically whether slavery should be allowed to spread into new territories and states, was the thorniest issue in American politics, one so thorny that, for decades, the major parties sought to avoid it. Throughout the 1820s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, whenever it was absolutely necessary to deal with the issue of slavery, the Whigs and Democrats compromised. An equal division between slave and free states enabled the two parties to maintain a balance of power in the federal government, so, while neither party wanted to lose power by losing control of this issue, neither did they wish to alienate any of their voters by agitating this issue too strongly, for both parties drew support from all parts of the country.
During all this time, there was an abolition movement, but, to be honest, there were never enough Americans who felt strongly enough about this issue by itself to make it a mainstream party. For decades, the drive to get rid of slavery outright languished, while the opening of many new territories in the West and the question of whether slavery would be allowed there made it increasingly important that the issue be settled.
Many members of the Whig party (including Abraham Lincoln) recognized that their party, though popular, was never going to be quite popular enough to triumph over the Democrats. After 1850, single-issue parties–like the Know-Nothing Party, which was an anti-immigrant party, and the Anti-Slavery Party, which was an abolitionist party gaining some headway in New England and New York–began to draw off some of the Whigs’ base of support, and, with the death of President Taylor in 1854, the Whig Party itself began to dissolve.
This left many talented Whigs without a party. Some became involved in the “Free Soil” movement. Unlike the more radical Anti-Slavery Party, which was unequivocally against slavery–whether in the Old South or the new territories–, the Free-Soilers, as they were called, sought only to keep slavery out of the new territories.
Meanwhile, the urgency of the slavery question intensified. After 1856, when violent pro- and anti-slavery forces began killing one another over whether slavery would be legal in the Kansas Territory, middle ground on the issue grew scarce. The Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic party were deeply invested in slavery’s continuation and continued to defend it ardently. Meanwhile, politicians in the North began trying to figure out how to make opposition to slavery a central element in a new mainstream party.
They did this by yoking opposition to slavery’s expansion to other economic arguments that would appeal to white people. Lincoln was one of the masters at this, arguing that a continued toleration of slavery would result in a “house divided” that could not stand. Slavery could not be allowed to exist in a free economy, not just because slavery was bad, but because it weakened the rest of the economy and undermined the peaceful operation of our political system. It threatened the independence and integrity of free whites.
In fact, Lincoln’s ability to strike a more moderate tone in discussing slavery was exactly what enabled him to prevail over other candidates seeking the new party’s presidential nomination in 1860: his rivals were all more openly and unequivocally anti-slavery. The newly formed Republican Party appealed to white northern voters because it promised them that the territories would remain the domain of free workers rather than slaves, and that their prospects would be brighter because of the existence of “free soil.” Republicans’ avowed desire to create economic opportunity for free white workers also garnered them the immigrant vote.
The Republicans swept to power with the potent formula “Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men.” Even before the election, the Southern states had begun pledging armed resistance, breaking the Democratic Party apart into Northern and Southern wings. Each wing put up its own slate of candidates, while in the South a hastily formed party of pro-slavery unionists provided a fourth alternative. As we know, solid Northern support carried the Republicans and Lincoln to victory, setting off a Civil War and consigning the Democrats to oblivion for the next twenty-five years. Such was the birth of our present-day Republican party, though, from then to now, it has undergone much change.
4. THE ELECTION OF 1896: McKINLEY
We don’t think much today about William McKinley. Assassinated in 1901, just a few months into his second term, and succeeded by his charismatic vice-president Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley had an understated style of governing. His election in 1896 was nonetheless a pivotal event, ushering in major operational changes in politics and redefining Republicanism in ways that altered its base of support and ideals. In 1896, the party shook off the vestiges of its Civil War identity and poised itself to do battle in the twentieth century.
The Civil War had a devastating impact on the parties, which the passage of time was slow to heal. The southern rebellion had left the Republicans unilaterally in charge of the government for several decades, and even after the so-called “end” of “Reconstruction” in 1876, political sentiments remained balkanized. A solid South supported the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, corruption and issues related to the commodification of agricultural output and other farming grievances tended in the late-nineteenth century to hold center stage. Ruinous fluctuations in crop and land prices and the growing power of railroads, banks, and grain speculators fueled a populist movement in the South and Midwest that was hard to contain. The Republicans had lost their edge in appealing to those who might once have identified themselves as “free soilers.” Yet, all was not lost, for McKinley and other Republicans correctly saw that the power of rural voters was destined to wane, as more and more Americans became city-dwelling.
With demography on their side, McKinley and his advisers fashioned a platform catering to the the urban and industrialized parts of the country, using advocacy for the gold standard to gain support among Eastern capitalists, and advocating protectionism in a way that appealed to manufacturers and skilled workers alike. During the primary season, McKinley’s forces also sought to break down the monopoly over the South that the Democratic Party had long enjoyed. McKinley’s success in securing the support of some Southern delegates proved crucial to his nomination.
In the general election, McKinley secured a solid victory over his Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan, an outcome attributed largely to the formidable strategic skills of McKinley’s friend Mark Hanna. Just as Martin van Buren presided over the birth of Jacksonian Democracy, so Mark Hanna recast the politics of his era. McKinley and Hanna were both from Ohio, then the economic powerhouse of the US. While McKinley maintained the illusion of passively awaiting the verdict of the general election (in what was alluded to as the “front porch” campaign), Hanna worked tirelessly behind the scenes, raising an unprecedented amount of money and increasing the potency of the Republican committees. His efforts capped off a period during which the bureaucratic structures of both parties increased to the point where their organizations became permanent and national. Hanna is said to have outspent the Democratic opposition by a margin of five to one.
Although in the coming years, the Republicans would harbor a progressive wing, with McKinley’s election they shifted decisively away from the landed and egalitarian basis they emphasized previously. Henceforth, the party became the champion of big business, catering to the needs of capitalism and industry, and working to enhance America’s growing global might.
5. THE ELECTION OF 1932: FDR
Our next critical election was in 1932, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In a way, this critical election belongs in a category all by itself. Because it was through FDR’s election, really, not prior to it, that a big ideological change occurred within the Democratic party. It’s a perfect example of how parties can change within themselves, just as the Republicans did during the election of 1896, where they abandoned their foundational ideas and formulated new ones that enabled them to become a substantially different party.
The same thing happened after FDR gained office. Sure, he mentioned something about a ‘new deal’ when he was running, but no one knew what that meant, and it wasn’t in his interests to elaborate. The distress of the Great Depression was driving voters away from the incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover; FDR’s only task was not to alienate them. Only after his election did he and his “brain trust” figure out what the New Deal meant, and create and defend the ideology of the New Deal, which had to do with a more active government, a government active in times of distress, especially.
This was a new theme: the theme of protecting people from calamity. The whole notion of social welfare was one that earlier generations of American leaders didn’t really consider. What we think of today as securing a particular quality of life for Americans and keeping them from true hardship: this had not been a dominant idea. It had been a lesser idea. That the government needed to take an interest in securing our well-being now came to the fore for the first time. This conception lastingly reshaped the Democratic Party, as this traditional champion of decentralization and states rights became a champion of centralization, regulation, and greater state power.
New Deal Democrats were understandably intent on finding ways to uplift the nation and its citizens in a time of terrible and endemic calamity. This wasn’t something that needed to be done only for the sake of the poor and the downtrodden; the Depression affected so many people at every level of economic existence that it was a matter of great national concern. By the end of Roosevelt’s first two terms in office, a host of new government practices and institutions had been established. To paraphrase FDR’s biographer, Alan Brinkley, during this period the government established Social Security and other forms of assistance for the poor and unemployed; began protecting the rights of labor unions; created a more stable banking system; instituted agricultural price supports and farm subsidies; established a prototype for the FDIC; and undertook many other initiatives the government had never before contemplated.
Now, you may decide that you don’t approve of a lot of the things that happened during the New Deal era, whose consequences extended far beyond FDR’s presidency, which ended with his death in the mid-1940s. You can say, “Oh, we didn’t need the WPA,” or “We didn’t need the CCC,” but in fact by the time it was over, banking, farming, and the labor system had been changed, as had the nature of the pact between ordinary people and their government. All these fruits of the New Deal are still with us, and this is why FDR’s election was a critical election. It changed the entire landscape, political and economic, and it changed who the Democrats were, in ways that were permanent and profound.
6. THE ELECTION OF 1980: REAGAN
Our most recent critical election occurred in 1980. It carried Ronald Reagan into the White House and rejuvenated the Republican party, again changing its identity. Now, to this day, many liberals dismiss Reagan as a fool, mistaking his folksiness for foolishness, and shrugging him off as simplistic and naive. People who fail to credit Reagan with enormous shrewdness and judgment, though, are much mistaken.
What’s interesting about Reagan’s election is not so much Reagan himself but the whole ferment that occurred in conservative America around the time he came to prominence, and the way he and his coterie assimilated those ideological trends and political forces and rode them to power. All those subcutaneous percolations and permutations stamped his presidency with great significance. Because, when Reagan came to power, so did certain ideas, and certain elements of the body politic, which are still very much with us, attained influence for the first time.
The first of three major ideological elements that became important in 1980 and afterward was the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority was composed—not of Christians per se, but of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, of conservative Christians—who organized themselves and decided that they wanted to make a difference in the polity; they wanted to use their political power as citizens to further agendas that were moral in nature. Although we no longer use the term Moral Majority to describe the religious right, they remain one of the most significant political forces in the country. It is equally important to recognize that, though powerful, they are a minority rather than the majority they wish to be. But, since their emergence in the 1980s, they have used their considerable influence to push the state to “legislate morality,” in a manner that our Founding Fathers could not have foreseen.
Besides this moral stance, Reagan Republicans embraced two other transformative ideas. The first was the idea of returning power to the states, basically countering the centralizing aspect of national politics. The direction of our political evolution had been toward greater power in the federal government, and people on the right correctly argued that this centralizing aspect is only one strain of our political tradition; the other aspect of federalism is state identity, state variety. Republicans took this basic idea and managed to go a long way with it; many people found it very empowering. The idea of returning power to the states was a very appealing idea and something that, though at the moment you may not have agreed with all of its implications, was a legitimate organizing idea. It served to correct an excessive activism at the federal level, which many people had come to see as ineffective and costly. For, though the government was purporting to carry out many noble goals on behalf of the nation and its people, there was widespread skepticism about whether those goals were being realized, or even could be. The Democratic Party was slow to realize this, but it was true.
The final concept central to the Reagan era was, of course, Reaganomics. What a great term. Reaganomics entailed the embrace of laissez-faire economics—the principle of “letting the market be”—, along with an unflagging belief that free-market capitalism would confer broad benefits on the whole American people. If only government would refrain from interfering, the benefits of a powerful unfettered capitalism would “trickle down” to society’s very lowest levels. Republicans still rely heavily on this idea. It receives reinforcement from the principle of limited government. The idea that prosperity created at the top will “trickle down” and benefit all Americans magically wills away the idea of any conflict or tension in capitalism, while supplying a political justification for helping capitalists and corporations enrich themselves to the fullest degree they can manage.
Now, if most of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this historical moment has defined the Republican stance down to the present day. The crystallization of these disparate ideas into something called Reagan Republicanism has served the party well, gaining it enough support to capture the White House for the past 20 out of 32 years. Even now, Republican hopefuls try to wrap themselves in Reagan’s mantle–a sure sign that these ideas are stale. The 2008 defeat of the McCain-Palin ticket demonstrated the difficulty of continuing to hold together a national majority on the basis of Reagan-era ideas. That the Republican party is in crisis continues to be evident in the present election cycle. (If you don’t believe me, check out this article by Thomas L. Friedman.)
So, that would be my recap of the critical elections. Now for a few conclusions.
1. One of the things we can observe about critical elections is that they are periodic. They don’t happen close together. No, they tend to happen at 30-, 40-, even 50-year intervals. They occur as new conditions and preoccupations emerge that the existing ideologies of the parties do not adequately speak to. Critical elections are the mechanism by which our massive parties remain relevant to voters and the country. Historically, the best party leaders have been able to understand and anticipate national needs and refocus their party’s mission around those concerns. This is what doesn’t seem to be happening now. It’s not just something that the Democratic Party isn’t doing; no, neither of the political parties is doing this. Yet the time for a critical election is now.
2. Past critical elections demonstrate the great mutability of our political parties. It’s inspiring to know that the polity can and has functioned without the political parties we have currently. Over time, the two parties we are familiar with today have changed substantially. There’s nothing irrevocable about the ideology of our parties, and we can all benefit when their core ideas are retooled.
3. As our parties change, they appeal to different elements of the electorate, so that the same parties have had very different voter bases over time. Prior to the Civil War, for example, the Democratic Party was a favorite of the more laissez-faire elements of the citizenry. One of its strongest bases of support was Southern slaveholders, along with others who did not want an overly active central government. It was many, many years before the modern, activist Democratic Party came into being. There is no reason why it cannot now change itself substantially from within, just as it did in the 1930s.
Similarly, the Republican Party has gone through some amazing transformations prior to its emergence as a favorite of Evangelicals, market capitalists, and social conservatives. In its infancy, the Republican Party had embraced the idea of a free multiracial republic, empowered by a more equitable ownership and enjoyment of landed property. Its past was very different from the sort of pro-capitalist triumphalism that many of its leaders are committed to today. As with the Democratic Party, there is no reason why the Republican Party cannot reinvent itself, embracing a more nuanced and worldly conception of our civic state and thereby recovering the broad support of the American mainstream that it enjoyed until lately.
4. A final and very important observation has to do with the role of thought and strategic organization in achieving these crucial redefinitions within the parties. All of our critical elections have been centered on figures who have proved to be extraordinary statesmen, but the ideological transformations they are associated with have never been the work of just one person. Critical elections depend upon ideas–on their articulation, appreciative promotion, and recombination. Critical elections occur when ideas and principles are recombined, coalescing into an ideology that is coherent and appealing. This is too big a task for a single person to accomplish. In every critical election, scores of intellectuals, writers, political strategists, and operatives have labored tirelessly behind the scenes and in their various states and regions, fashioning and popularizing principles and strategies that have revitalized their parties. Their judgment and knowledge, as well as their sensitivity to the needs of the state and the broad mass of the citizenry, have been essential in the creating platforms that voters can be proud of and rally around. The occurrence of a critical election thus represents a massive intellectual and organizational achievement.
When will we have another critical election? For my take on what’s been happening with the parties since 1980, read this sequel: 2008: The Critical Election that Wasn’t (Part II).
this is a great list, but you have to include the election of 1876; Hayes-tilden was arguably the most disputed election in U.S. history, and the “compromise” that followed pretty much ensured the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South, delaying full, guaranteed civil rights for many years
Please read 2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part I) for my definition of “critical election.” It’s not just an election that’s particularly close or controversial: it’s an election where the whole ideological stance of one or more of the political parties changes.
You’re right that the project of civil equality for blacks was abandoned after Reconstruction, but this left many of the “white-oriented” elements of Republican Party ideology unchanged. 1876 marked the comeback of the Democratic Party, which, after years of being in the doghouse, again began to attract substantial support in the North. But the Dems’ campaign that year had to do with ending Republican “rule” (which was styled as corrupt) and getting the federal government (and anyone who wanted to do anything for blacks) out of the South. In that sense, it marked a continuation of the states’ rights, pro-slavery stance that the pre-Civil War Democrats had always embodied.
Thanks so much for reading, and keep those comments coming!
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