Seldom does a presidential election mark a permanent shift. The last time it happened was 1932.
By JOHN STEELE GORDON | The WSJ | Jan 15, 2017
For all their noise and news dominance, presidential elections typically don’t change the country all that much. That isn’t a bad thing but a sign of how strong American democracy is. It rarely veers far from the center, where successful policy usually lies. But on rare occasions, deep historical currents and extraordinary political talents produce an entirely new order. It happened in the presidential elections of 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932—and, quite probably, 2016.
Denied the presidency in 1824 by what he called a “corrupt bargain” in the House of Representatives, Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson swept to a landslide four years later. He was the first president from west of the Appalachians—indeed, the first from anywhere other than Virginia or Massachusetts. Born dirt-poor, Jackson was also the first president to rise to affluence solely by his own effort.
It soon became clear that the country had entered a new political era. “Jacksonian democracy” moved the locus of power sharply down the socioeconomic scale. Soon most states repealed property requirements for voting, a first step toward universal suffrage.
Jackson created the modern Democratic Party, and the intense opposition to his policies coalesced into the Whig Party, establishing the two-party norm that prevails to this day. No wonder the great 19th-century American historian George Bancroft considered Jackson the last of the Founding Fathers.
The next great shift came with Abraham Lincoln. By the 1850s, slavery had become the dominant issue in American politics. The Republican Party, founded in 1854 as an expressly abolitionist party, grew rapidly as the Whigs collapsed. When Lincoln, the Republican nominee, won the presidency in 1860, the Union quickly came apart. South Carolina seceded barely a month after the election. Six more states were gone by Feb. 1, 1861, with a month still to go before Lincoln’s March 4 inauguration.
It would take the greatest war in American history to reunite the country. By the time the Civil War was over, the nation had been transformed. The South, impoverished and politically crippled, would be effectively a Third World country inside a First World one for 100 years. The North, with its rapidly expanding industry and growing population, was politically dominant. More than half the antebellum presidents had been Southern. In the century after the war ended, only two Southerners were elected to the White House: Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia native who made his career in New Jersey, and Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson.
Presidential elections in the decades after the Civil War tended to be close. Grover Cleveland barely beat James G. Blaine in 1884. Four years later, Cleveland earned a popular-vote plurality while losing to Benjamin Harrison. In an 1892 rematch, Cleveland narrowly beat Harrison, becoming the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms.
But William McKinley’s decisive victory in 1896 marked the dawn of an era of Republican dominance that lasted more than a generation. McKinley ran on a platform of “Sound Money, Protection, and Prosperity,” a doctrine that suited the interests of the nation’s fast-rising affluent classes. His opponent, the Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, was one of the great orators of American politics. Bryan railed against the gold standard and called for an inflationary monetary policy, which would have benefited debtors, including most farmers in the West and South.
McKinley dominated the Northeast and Upper Midwest and exceeded Harrison’s 1892 vote total by two million. Although he was assassinated in 1901, his political legacy was durable. Between 1896 to 1932, Republicans controlled the Senate for all but six years, and the House for all but 10. The GOP lost the White House only when Theodore Roosevelt split the party in 1912, giving Woodrow Wilson victory with only 41.8% of the popular vote.
Democrats regained political dominance thanks to the Great Depression and the remarkable political talents of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1928 the Republican presidential nominee, Herbert Hoover, carried 40 of the 48 states and enjoyed large Republican congressional majorities. Four years later, Hoover lost 42 states to FDR. The Democrats also took large congressional majorities, which allowed them to greatly expand the reach and power of the federal government, increasing taxes sharply on the rich and running budget deficits to pay for popular new programs such as Social Security.
Over the next 48 years only two Republicans were able to capture the White House: Dwight Eisenhower, a national hero, and Richard Nixon, who won by a narrow margin after the Democrats had torn themselves apart over the Vietnam War. Between 1932 and 1980, the GOP controlled both houses of Congress for a total of only four years.
But by the 1970s the liberalism that had powered the New Deal and the Great Society had succumbed to one of the basic rules of political science: Movements tend to evolve toward the extreme. The struggle for civil rights had been decisively won in the 1960s, but liberals kept fighting that war, deepening racial divides with identity politics. Though union membership had been sliding for years, out-of-date laws kept labor politically powerful. The federal bureaucracy metastasized, as program after program was added with little overall planning. Many government offices, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, were captured by Democratic constituencies.
Liberal policies were increasingly tailored to the interests of a political elite, not the country as a whole. The people noticed. Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to capture the 1976 Democratic nomination, promising to clean up Washington. He failed, but Ronald Reagan, touting his own outside-the-Beltway bona fides, proved the most consequential president since FDR, both at home and abroad.
Because Reagan was always restrained by a solidly Democratic House, he was not as transformative a figure as Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley or FDR. But he did have a lasting effect. The next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, ran as a centrist. When voters rejected his liberal policies in 1994 by electing the first Republican Congress in 40 years, he bent with the political winds. He declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.” He compromised with lawmakers to reform welfare and produce the first budget surpluses in nearly 30 years.
But it didn’t last. Congressional Republicans became more interested in their own re-election campaigns than in fiscal discipline. Liberal social-engineering housing policies produced a housing bubble and a banking crisis. Then came the presidential election of 2008, the only one in history held amid a financial panic. A Republican candidate perceived as unsteady lost to a young, charismatic Democrat.
Barack Obama took office with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. He pushed through a very liberal, and very unpopular, agenda. The Obama years have proved a disaster for Democrats. They lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, both tidal-wave elections. Republicans now control most governorships and state legislatures as well.
So does Donald Trump’s stunning election herald something permanent—a shift akin to those brought by Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley and FDR? That’s a fair bet, considering the GOP gains that preceded it. True, Mr. Trump did not win a plurality of the electorate. But Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote margin of 2.9 million was built on an extremely narrow base. Mrs. Clinton won only in coastal cities, academic enclaves and very poor areas such as the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt. Subtract her margins in a mere five counties—the New York City boroughs, save Staten Island, and Los Angeles County—and she lost the popular vote in the remainder of the nation by more than 500,000.
Mr. Trump capitalized effectively on the Democratic Party’s alienation of white working-class voters, sometimes dismissed as “deplorables” or denizens of “flyover country.” That allowed him to carry Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states where no Republican had prevailed since the 1980s . . .
The Obama years showed liberalism to be exhausted, its ideas out of date and its advocates living in an imagined past. The Democratic Party has never been so weak, or so old. The top three Democrats in the House are all at least 76. The average age of their GOP counterparts is 49. The Republicans’ Senate majority allowed them to delay the appointment of a successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, ensuring that the Supreme Court will not tip to a liberal majority. There are more than 100 vacancies on lower federal courts waiting to be filled.
Most important, no new president, at least since Jackson, has owed so little to the political establishment. Mr. Trump was elected explicitly to change the self-serving ways of Washington. That greatly increases his freedom of action. His cabinet picks signal profound change, the likelihood of lower taxes and a regulatory environment more friendly to business. Mr. Trump also has a gift for communicating directly with the people and cutting out the oblivious media, long a part of the problem.
To bring permanent change, Mr. Trump needs policies that succeed on the ground, not merely in theory. Faster growth and rising incomes are always rewarded at the ballot box. If the president-elect makes good on his economic promises, skeptical Republicans. . . may come home in 2020.
But continued outreach to minority communities is also crucial. Mr. Trump has promised to address the problems of inner cities, which he accuses the Democrats of ignoring for decades. And at one rally last fall, he was handed a rainbow flag, a symbol of gay rights. He smiled broadly and held it aloft as the audience cheered.
This is not your father’s Republican Party.
Mr. Gordon is author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power” (HarperCollins, 2004).
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