A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy


The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.

Day 7: Yes, It’s Scary, But Is It a Critical Election?

stereopticon image of a crowd gathered around a train to hear Roosevelt speak.

For all its drama and dismay, the election of 2016 might not end up being a ‘critical election,’ in the sense of marking a permanent change in the makeup or ideology of one or both of the parties. Whether the election ends up producing such change depends on which presidential candidate wins and how his or her party establishment behaves afterward.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her victory will mainly mark a continuation of the Obama years and of the centrism that has prevailed among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Secretary Clinton adopted a progressive platform at the time of the 2016 Democratic convention to placate Sanders’ supporters, but the Democratic establishment in general has given few signs of having adopted a dramatically new constellation of ideas. Instead, the tenor of the campaign on the Democratic side has been defensive, couched in terms of defending past accomplishments and promising to advance along the established lines.

If Donald Trump wins, it remains to be seen whether his victory translates into a broad and permanent change in the philosophy and direction of the GOP.  There is no question of 2016 being a critical election if Trump succeeds in getting his party to move in the direction he is charting: if he succeeds in associating Republicanism with a more inward-looking, pro-citizen, and anti-global ideology. In order to do this, Republicans would have to renounce their history of support for big business, which is now typically a transnational enterprise. Republicans would have to take the lead on reforming trade, recasting themselves as protectors of American workers and American industry. Hawkish Republicans would have to get in touch with their isolationist side. And the issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives would likely take a back seat to those having to do with the economy.

In most cases, a critical election is the culmination of broad and concerted changes already occurring within a political party, often in connection with the emergence of a charismatic standard-bearer. In 1860, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s election was merely the capstone of a decades-long effort to incorporate anti-slavery into a broader platform of economic empowerment that would appeal to mainstream voters (who were white).  In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s election signaled the emergence of a new kind of party that combined a desire for retrenchment and austerity with an unwavering democratic appeal.  And, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election signified the arrival of a new kind of economic philosophy (henceforth known as ‘Reaganomics’), along with a newly potent faith-based conservatism intent on bucking certain types of modern secular change.

Trump is an outsider whose ideas the GOP mainstream has not embraced.  If he is elected, it’s unclear whether, or to what extent, other leading Republicans would feel pressed take up his agenda and ideas. Republicans in the House and Senate could act in contradistinction to him.  Were this to happen, the GOP as a whole would continue in a state of fragmentation and confusion.  Governmental paralysis, rather than lasting partisan transformation, would be the result.

Image: From this source

Trump’s rise signals a full-blown political crisis

American primitive (La Brea diorama), by Susan Barsy
We are living through the 2016 presidential election.  Someday, perhaps next year, perhaps decades from now, we will try to recall just what it was like.  What was it like, when Donald Trump, in his bid for the presidency, claimed the Republican nomination and precipitated widespread political turmoil?

This is an experiential question, historical yet subjective; it’s not a question of fact, social science, or policy.  Therefore we will each be entitled to our own truths, however aberrant or incompatible.

Meanwhile, the very multiplicity of our views, which will never agree, adds to the confusion of what we are experiencing, the uncertainty of how it will all end.  Where is the nation heading?  What will happen to its party system?  Whose judgments and actions will prove to have been most insightful and right, a question whose importance will grow retrospectively, furnishing a yardstick for identifying who in our generation is most discerning, most trustworthy.

Watching and listening to a Trump-obsessed nation and being part of that nation ourselves, nets some insight into past political upheavals, particularly rise of Hitler in early 20th-century Germany.  The abiding mystery of Nazism is how the German people could have empowered someone so aggressive and hateful.  How could they have been so mistaken as to repose trust in someone so utterly inhuman, so indifferent to world order and prevailing norms?  From the perspective of August 2016, it’s more understandable how masses of citizens could end up giving too much power to a dangerous leader.

Something similarly unpredictable is happening in American politics, something for which we all bear responsibility, yet we aren’t completely sure what it is or how bad it will be.  And we don’t agree on what we should do.

Three conditions are combining in the United States, creating widespread and practically leaderless confusion.  Together, they amount to a dangerous political crisis, threatening a constitutional government we normally think of as stable and strong.  A disillusioned electorate cognizant of its powerlessness and vulnerability, a weak unresponsive leadership class, and the appearance of an unknown but charismatic ‘political savior’: there you have the recipe for political catastrophe.

All three elements—the frustrated expectations of American citizens, an outmoded and out-of-touch political establishment, and Trump’s charismatic authority—must be addressed to move beyond this dangerous political crisis.  Unfortunately, a rotten political system is difficult to replace or reform overnight.  Our parties are filled with self-seeking prima donnas.  Creatures of party, they’ve lost touch with the people.  They farm out the task of deciding what they believe in, relying on experts to formulate their positions.  Collectively, in their quest for personal power, the leaders of both political parties are failing the people of the United States.

Anti-Trump forces comfort themselves with the notion that, if only Hillary Clinton will win, the United States will ‘be okay.’  Thank goodness the people who are demanding change at any price are not quite a voting majority!  This theme organizes much political discourse.  The experts, who deliver so much in the way of political anesthesia, tamp down our anxiety with a never-ending stream of surveys and polls.  Meanwhile, Trump, with his stark directness, soldiers on defiantly, feeding his electrifying certainties to millions of mesmerized followers.  Trump and the popular discontent he energizes will remain a threat until his opponents unite and respond to the people’s needs by forging an appropriate yet superior ideology of change.

Image: A diorama showing
the inimical relation between two extinct species
at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles.
Author photo.

Seismic Forces Rock the Parties

White height, © 2016 Susan Barsy
The newspapers I glimpsed while traveling communicated a sense of political calamity, the dismay of wonks, journalists, and miffed members of the GOP.  Trump, the party’s likely nominee, was causing the commotion, but the kerfuffle spoke volumes about the muddled condition of the party itself.  Something seismic is happening: the GOP’s ill-assorted components are about to morph into something new, or break apart.

In ordinary times, politicians, the media, and a vast network of consultants and experts promote ideological order and continuity.  The nation’s leaders use the media, and influential constituents use the leaders, to shape the citizenry’s vision, mapping out choice in a limited way.  A centrist ideology that is pro-corporate and pro-global has dominated both parties since the Clinton era, while ‘hard-liners’ of various stripes have increasingly dominated the GOP.  These modern-day fire-eaters may be against federal debt, reproductive rights, or even religious pluralism, but, collectively, they have skillfully gained sway within the Republican Party, with the dream of imposing their minority views on a moderate mainstream.

Trump has attacked the precepts of this centrist-right ideology, making him anathema to many leaders in both parties.  Are Americans voting for Trump because they are hateful and benighted, or are they supporting him because he alone is promising to jettison a set of ideas that has left much of the population stuck in the past and impoverished?  In either case, his ascendancy shows how completely the GOP establishment has lost touch with the people’s will.  The hegemony of the social conservatives and GOP moderates is over.  Paul Ryan and others who want Trump to shift in their direction hope to perpetuate it.  They’ll fail.

Will Donald Trump allow other GOP leaders to ‘handle’ him?  If he accepts orders from the likes of Paul Ryan, voters will conclude Trump is being co-opted and abandon him.  Ryan claims his goal is to ‘unify’ the party: if so, he could hardly have gone about it in a less auspicious way.  Why grand-stand when more might be accomplished quietly?  This crisis has exposed leading Republicans as shockingly short on political skills.  But then, how can a party whose leaders are famous for digging in their heels suddenly develop a genius for collective compromise?

In general, we can hardly blame Trump for the downward slide occurring in our political culture.  He has divined a set of issues that voters care about most passionately, and his ideological response has been more apt than that of any other prominent Republican.  We can abhor Trump’s crudeness and bigotry, and we can impede him by voting someone else into the presidency.  If I were a Republican party leader, however, I sure would be trying to salvage whatever is feasible about his ideology, and trying to integrate it into that of my party.

Trump’s main talking points have to do with restoring broad economic prosperity, insisting on corporate responsibility, and burnishing American citizenship’s prestige.  Trump’s ferocious hatred of outsourcing and unfair trade, his demand that something be done to relieve blue-collar pain, are oddly reminiscent of the leaderless Occupy movement’s themes.  Trump might not have it in him to be a successful president, but he’s been smashingly successful at reminding us that politics is ultimately about ideas not money.  Those who want to stop Trump need to counter his ideas with a positive agenda.  Can his opponents disavow their complacency?  Can they disavow their role in perpetuating a dysfunctional status quo?

Photograph by Susan Barsy

GOP Options

Trump smiling (modified screen-shot), © 2016 Susan Barsy trump-smiling

1. Weaken your party by openly declaring you’ll never vote for Trump.

2. Go to the nominating convention hoping to sabotage Trump by backing one of the candidates he already trounced.

3. Treat Trump so badly that he leaves the party.

4. Follow the directives of a now-desperate GOP ‘leadership’ whose ‘vision’ has made the party the hot mess that it is.

5. Follow your minority faction out of the party, and watch Hillary win.

6. Try to start a new third party after creating laws that favor the existing parties.

7. Do nothing and stay Republican, hoping that Donald Trump will change or won’t be so bad.

8. Openly support Trump and become part of the new Republican order.  Maybe you’ll become a Supreme Court justice or a cabinet member.

9. Vote for Hillary.

10. Secretly vote for Trump, like many of your friends.

Allan Smith, Polls show Donald Trump leading everywhere during a critical 2-week stretch
(Business Insider)

Will the Electorate Destroy the Political Parties?

Artist's sketch shows men talking excitedly at an open-air polling place in NYC.

Something utterly unforeseen could happen in this election cycle: the electorate could destroy one or both of the parties through primary voting.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are ‘hearing from ordinary America’, and the message is hostile.  On the Republican side, voters are heavily favoring Trump, a sometime Democrat and independent only weakly identified with the Republican Party.  On the Democratic side, voters have shown an unexpected interest in Sanders, a lifelong independent who is parasitically exploiting the Democratic brand.  Meanwhile, the veteran politicians who have come up through the parties have had an unexpectedly hard time making inroads against the spoilers, a sign that the parties are badly out of touch with the times.

We hear about the ‘establishment,’ but what is it really?  The parties, we are discovering, are impotent.  There is little capacity for concerted action among party politicians themselves.  If there were, they would have stopped these threatening insurgencies long ago, shutting out Trump and denying Sanders his putative connection with the Democratic Party.

Trump and Sanders are political bounders.  Who are their friends on the Hill?  How would either of them accomplish anything, were either handed the presidency?  Who would their advisers be?

Yet, faced with such a sub-optimal outcome, the senators, governors, and leading congressmen within each party have exerted no discipline, done nothing in unison.  Democratic governors and senators are not speaking out, urging voters to back Hillary.  Leading Republicans watch helplessly as, with each gladiatorial debate, their candidates further damage and degrade the party.  In the process, party feeling—that most basic of bonds—is being destroyed.

And all because Congress has failed to serve ordinary America.  The national leadership of both parties, as embodied in Congress, has shirked its duties.  Congress has not worked to create the virtuous circle of corporate responsibility, abundant skilled employment, and robust domestic consumption that would make our economy strong.  It has not confronted our ridiculous trade imbalance with China.  It has not resolved the issues around immigration and citizenship that are practically and symbolically urgent to millions of Americans.  Finally, Congress has ignored the fact that it must rein itself in and show the American people that it cares about efficient and effective governing.  Those who serve in the House and Senate have no sense of urgency—the urgency that both Trump and Sanders, for all their defects, are brilliantly communicating.

It’s wild and alarming to imagine the parties being destroyed from inside.  If Trump wins the delegate race, for instance, others within the GOP will face a choice: either embrace him and his ideology, back a ‘protest’ candidate, or break away to form their own new party.  Americans witnessed something of this sort back in the 1850s, when, over the course of a decade and in response to the festering problem of slavery, the Whig Party fell apart, the Democratic Party split into northern and southern wings, and the Republican party emerged out of nowhere, sweeping Lincoln to prominence and victory.

Nothing so cataclysmic has happened in our lifetimes.  Yet, many signs indicate that the current party system is losing its salience because it has grown deaf to the people’s needs.  In such circumstances, parties can become defunct with surprising speed.  Trump, Sanders, and even Bloomberg understand that, for an intrepid candidate, the parties’ senescent condition spells personal opportunity.  Any of these candidates, if successful, would force a dramatic shakeup within the parties, transforming the political landscape of the nation and the capital.

Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump’ (NYT)

Image: from this source.

This artist’s sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows voters talking excitedly at an open air polling place in 1856.  The caption reads ‘Scene at the polls.  Boxes for the distribution of tickets.  Everybody busy.’  At that time, voting consisted of obtaining a pre-printed party ticket and putting it in a ballot box.  The three booths are labelled with the names of the three presidential candidates: Buchanan, the Democrat and victor; Fremont, the nominee of the new Republican (anti-slavery) Party; and Fillmore, who represented the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.  Though the Democrats were victorious, the Republicans’ success in carrying some northern and eastern states created the impetus that would bring the new party to power four years later.

New ‘Critical Elections’ Page

Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson, McKinley, FDR, & Reagan

So many readers come to my site looking for “Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections” that I have moved this essay to its own new page, where it’s easier to read in its entirety.  It can be accessed by clicking on the permanent new “Critical Elections” link on the main menu, above; or click here.

On the new page, the recap of our six critical elections has been combined with an analysis of the 2008 election to form a single piece, as originally intended.

Thanks to everyone who has visited the site–I enjoy writing for you.

Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections

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).


Rembrandt Peale's 1800 portrait of Thomas 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.


Photograph of President Andrew Jackson in old age

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.


Abraham Lincoln in 1860

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.


Photograph of President William McKinley in 1900

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.


FDR in 1930

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.


Official photographic portrait of Ronald 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).

2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II)

This is the conclusion of a two-part article.  For Part One, click here.

Looking back on it, what’s striking about the 2008 election is the shallowness of Obama’s victory.  It was a great victory for a man and a race, but not a great victory–a transforming event–for the Democratic Party or the party system more generally.  This lackluster outcome surprised me, because, going into it, I had expected that a lot more would happen.  The departure of George W. Bush from the presidency without any obvious successor had thrown the door wide open to real newness.  I had firmly expected to see, not just new candidates, but real ideological innovation on one or both sides.

Bush’s departure not only created an opportunity for a new cadre of leaders to rise; it also invited the introduction of new political paradigms that would reinvigorate or replace the tired ideas on which both parties have been coasting.  The country hasn’t had a critical election since Reagan’s in 1980.  Yet, since then, our circumstances have greatly changed.  Issues that have since become important include the rise of China, disturbing changes in finance and American industrialism, growing commodity scarcity, green issues, immigration, the diminishing power of nation states in the face of globalism, and changes in the quality and character of life for American citizens.

For Republicans, the challenge is to refashion the worn-out elements of Reaganism on which the party still relies.  As the election cycle of 2008 made plain, the Republicans face two central difficulties.  The first is that of continuing to integrate the various blocs of voters that have sustained Republican party power since Reagan’s ascendancy.  The religious and socially conservative bloc of the party tends to pull the party in a different direction than the purely economic one, and that direction is not in accordance with the American mainstream.  Now that the party has become so thoroughly associated with conservatism, its second difficulty is articulating an ideology palatable to an America that is increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan.

The triumph of McCain over competitors like the evangelist Mike Huckabee demonstrated that the power of the Republicans continues to rest principally with the more moderate elements of the party.  But the phenomenal popularity of his running mate, the provincial and anti-modern Alaskan Sarah Palin, and her polarizing effect on the electorate point up how problematic the more extreme yet energized elements within the Republican Party can be.  How can it move itself away from reliance on this base in order to maximize its appeal to the mainstream?  No one emerged in 2008 who was capable of weaving together the right combination of themes.

As for the Democrats, let’s face it: the old ideas that have galvanized the Democratic Party are frightfully tired; they’re used up, exhausted, and have been for decades.  The Democratic Party has not had a redefining era since the late 1930s, and by now we’ve gotten all the mileage we can out of New Deal Democracy and Keynesianism.  Forgive me, Paul Krugman.

Bill Clinton realized this back in the eighties when he began moving the Democratic Party toward the center.  His campaign and presidency marked a departure from the kind of ideological high-mindedness that the ineffectual Jimmy Carter had embodied.  Clinton, though not chiefly an ideologue,  recognized that the traditional New Deal beliefs of the Democratic party boxed him in.  So he practiced a kind of pragmatism that enabled him to capture the votes of more people in the center of the political spectrum.  No wonder old-style liberals hated him: in many ways, he was indifferent to their core beliefs.

Tone-deaf as an ideologue, Clinton was an outstandingly effective problem-solver.  His great political skills and grasp of presidential power enabled him to accomplish a great deal even in a fractious political environment.  Because Clinton was pragmatic, he was comfortable following through on and appropriating several landmark initiatives–including NAFTA and welfare reform–that his Republican predecessors had initiated.  He likewise eagerly backed legislation to liberalize the banking industry, making it easier for more Americans to qualify for mortgages and buy homes.  These measures helped lay the groundwork for the 2008 financial crisis, but at the time they were popular and contributed to the great economic boom associated with Clinton’s presidency.

Clinton supplied his party with a winning style of leadership that continues to influence Democrats today.  Within the party, a general stance of moderation, coupled with a benign, can-do mentality, is more important than any principle or ideal.  This was evident in 2008, in the narrow contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential nomination.  Both were highly educated, attractive, moderate candidates who are good problem-solvers.

In the end, the contest hinged on tactics and personality, not ideas.  Shrewd tactics on the part of the Obama camp enabled him to win a few crucial primaries, and he beat the Clintons at their own game by winning former Clinton supporters, notably Caroline Kennedy, to his side.  In the debates, Obama excelled at hewing closely to Hillary’s positions while qualifying them.  His style in the debates was responsive and has remained so ever afterward.  In the end, Obama’s nimble campaigning captivated voters, swaying them with vague slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Change You Can Believe In.”  Sadly, this contest never amounted to a struggle for the soul of the party.

Isn’t it strange to look at a political scene full of people constantly opinionating and editorializing, that reels with up-to-the minute coverage, “political action,” and political advertising, where voters are constantly being appealed to dramatically–only to realize that nothing’s happening?  Particularly in the Democratic Party, ideological work that needs to be done simply isn’t getting done for some reason.  In the meantime, popular movements like the Tea Party and Occupy express the discontent and frustration that many citizens feel.