American Politics at the Crossroads

by Darrell M. West

It is a historic time in the United States. The last decade has seen a variety of unusual political developments: the historic Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994, the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, a contested presidential election in 2000 that was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, and midterm gains for the GOP in 2002 which gave that party unified control of the House, Senate, and presidency.

In this report, I take a close look at the crossroads where American politics now sits. With the upcoming presidential election just a year away, I examine whether Republicans are poised to become the new majority party. GOP operative Karl Rove is fond of citing the late 19th century as a period when Republicans broke out of the post-Civil War gridlock that marked American politics and became the governing party for 30 years (until the Great Depression). Can Republicans do the same thing and break the series of highly competitive elections that have marked this country over the past few election cycles? Are Democrats up to the challenge of preventing this from happening?

America in the Late 19th Century

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States was locked in a pattern of political gridlock. Neither Republicans (the party that was in control of the North) nor Democrats were able to gain much traction. Between slavery and the sectional conflicts that divided the nation, it was impossible for either party to retain a majority. Indeed, the decades following 1865 saw some of the closest and most controversial races in American history.

For example, the election of 1876 was so close that it took a national commission to resolve contested votes in three states ((South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana) in favor of Republican Rutherford Hayes. Even though he received fewer popular votes than the Democrat Sam Tilden, Hayes became president and eventually ushered in the withdrawal of Union army troops from the South.

The 1888 election also was very tightly divided. Less than 100,000 votes separated the two leading candidates out of the 11 million ballots cast. Democratic presidential candidate Grover Cleveland triumphed in the popular vote, but Republican Benjamin Harrison became president by winning a majority of the Electoral College vote.

However, it was not until the historic election of 1896 that Republicans were able to break the pattern of highly competitive elections and gain enduring control of the national government. GOP presidential candidate William McKinley broke the political gridlock of that era and ushered in a 30 year period of Republican domination.

In his classic book, The Dynamics of the Party System, James Sundquist describes how electoral conflict came to a head at the turn of the 19th century and produced GOP dominance. It is a story that has relevance for the contemporary political situation.

There were two aspects of this electoral transformation: message and money. In regard to message, Sundquist writes about how elections over the preceding 30 years had centered on issues of "the past", mainly fighting over the legacy of slavery and the Civil War.

After three decades of mainly symbolic campaigns over these very divisive issues, social and economic forces combined to produce a crystallizing campaign in 1896 centering on different issues and different political cleavages. The broader force of industrialization and the 1893 economic panic produced a watershed election that pitted urban, industrial workers against the interests of big business. Labor strikes were being brutally repressed and Democrat William Jennings Bryan used his famous "Cross of Gold" speech to signal that the country needed to move in a new direction, one that was more sympathetic to labor and more populist in its general orientation.

Bryan got his wish, an election that centered on fundamental issues and that featured quite distinctive policy responses from the two major parties. However, he lost the referendum. Out of the nearly 14 million votes that were cast, McKinley defeated Bryan by around 600,000 votes. This represented a narrow but decisive repudiation of Bryan's fiery message. McKinley and his Republican successors then pursued their pro-business agenda and dominated the ensuing political landscape.

The 1896 election, though, was not just about competing policy visions. Republicans triumphed in part because of superior organization and fundraising. Led by a shrewd political operative named Mark Hanna, the GOP raised an extraordinary amount of money by assessing a one-quarter of one percent political tax on corporate capital. Major companies were told they needed to give that percentage of their corporate wealth to the GOP so that Republicans could fight the fiery fervor of Bryan and his populist allies. Sundquist (p. 156) describes Hanna's fundraising machine as "the most thorough and methodical political organization the country had yet seen." This combination of message and money proved to be a winning recipe. McKinley won this decisive campaign and Republicans went on to dominate the United States until the time of the Great Depression.

The Contemporary Political Stalemate

As Rove has pointed out, the contemporary situation bears an uncanny resemblance to several aspects of late 19th century America. Over the past decade, the country has experienced a large number of close elections. The sharp division between blue and red states in the 2000 presidential election represent only one indicator of how closely divided the American public has been and how neither party has been able to break the political stalemate that has existed in the United States.

The new Information Age fueled by computer technology and the resulting globalization of world markets represent as big of socio-economic forces in our era as industrialization did in the 1890s. Globalization forces many companies and countries to keep costs low. At the same time, the current economic divide has shifted from being between labor and management to centering on information "haves" versus information "have-nots". People with skills in computers, data, information, and communications are doing very well financially while those without this training are falling further behind.

None of these forces were strong enough to produce a break-out election until September 11 and the resulting war on terrorism. Since that time, Republicans have gained support for their strong stance on national security and decisive conduct of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (although the peace in both countries has proven to be quite challenging for the United States).

With unified control of the House, Senate, and presidency, the GOP has pushed an unabashed agenda of being tough on international terrorism combined with large tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporate interests. In this regard, Republicans have retreated to their historic roots in the McKinley era and tilted decisively in favor of business interests and the new information economy.

Similar to Hanna's recipe, the GOP is combining a clear message with strong organization and fundraising dominance over the Democratic party. Republican operatives already have announced they plan to spend at least $200 million in support of the re-election bid of President George W. Bush. Much of the Republican money raised is coming from people who benefitted from generous tax cuts of the past two years. The key question is whether this combination of money and message will produce the same results for Bush that it did for Republicans in the late 19th and early 20 century.

Ephemeral or Enduring Change?

It always is difficult to assess the extent of political change until well after an era has passed. Hindsight is much clearer than foresight. But one thing that is clear so far is that Republicans have a clear strategy for electoral dominance and Democrats do not. The current Democratic strategy is reactive, not proactive.

The Democratic presidential field is divided into three types: 1) candidates such as Howard Dean, Carol Mosely-Braun, Dennis Kucinoch, and Al Sharpton who want to confront President Bush across the board and present a clear choice for voters, 2) candidates such as Richard Gephardt, John Kerry, and John Edwards who want to blur the differences on foreign policy but confront Bush on domestic policy, and 3) candidates such as Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham who want to blur differences with Bush both on foreign and domestic policy by presenting centrist positions on most issues.

If the 1896 parallel holds, a Democratic nominee from the first category would present the greatest choice for voters. However, this type of opponent would represent the easier target for Bush. He merely would criticize Democrats as tax and spend liberals who are soft on international terrorism. In many respects, the campaign would be a repeat of his father's race against Michael Dukakis in 1988.

A nominee from the third category would present a major challenge for Bush because the policy differences between the two parties would be muted. The election would be framed as conservative Bush against centrist Democrats. While such a contest would be close, it is hard to see how such a nominee would be able to rally the Democratic base and turn out women, minorities, and liberals in big enough numbers to beat the president.

Category two candidates represent the most interesting possibility because this type of Democrat would rally the base on domestic policies such as in opposition to Bush's tax cuts and the need for better health care, but blur the line on foreign policy. The problem facing Democrats in this situation is if the country spends a lot of money on wars and homeland security, how can the Democrat find the money to pay for improved domestic programs.

While the Democratic party will continue to look chaotic for the next eight months until a nominee is selected, that individual then will have from March to November to wage an aggressive general election campaign. The problem at that point is going to be money and organization. Republicans have substantial advantages on these dimensions because as Rove understands so well based on his reading about Hanna, Republican tax cuts are going to yield record fundraising for the GOP and put the party in a strong position for voter communications and electoral mobilization.

This money will allow Republicans to use old technologies such as television advertising and direct mail and new technologies such as phone banks and Internet campaigning. Democrats still hold considerable potential in terms of grass roots organizing because of the large numbers of Democratic constituencies unhappy with Bush's domestic and foreign policy agenda, but the nominee must be able to rally these forces and generate significant enthusiasm.

In the end, it is not clear at this point whether Rove will achieve his vision of an election break-out. Republicans have a message, organization, and a fundraising strategy that will allow them to put a favorable face on their activities. Democrats have not yet mastered message, money, or organization. Unless they are able to make progress on these fronts, Republicans will be poised to hold control of Congress and the presidency. If they do this, the GOP will be well-positioned for electoral dominance.