Up for Grabs

The “System of 1896” and its significance for the present day

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Posted in US politics Tagged with: , , ,

So impatient am I with the Trump phenomenon that I spent a good part of the week reading The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, by Karl Rove (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

I read all the way to the end to discover the answer Rove gives — not every word of a fairly long book, mind you, but enough to get a feeling for the argument. It was an interesting time. Rove tells a good story. He had plenty of help from the published works of a quartet of academic historians – “the Modern McKinley Men,” he calls them – and from own his extensive staff.

McKinley (1843-1901), the twenty-sixth president of the United States, rose to prominence as a young hero of the Civil War, later governor of Ohio.  He is more widely remembered as the man whose assassination by an angry anarchist catapulted Theodore Roosevelt, his 42-year-old vice president, into the White House.

Yet McKinley had won two presidential elections, the first of them towards the end of a bitter depression that began in 1893.  He reconfigured the political map of the day, creating Republican majorities in the Northeast, the Upper Midwest and California – just the opposite of the present day.  In defeating William Jennings Bryan, he created what scholarly historians have called the “system of 1896,” which, they say, lasted until 1932.  After 1896, Rove writes,

The Republican Party was no longer a shrinking and beleaguered political organization composed of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the North and Southern blacks being systematically stripped of their right to vote.  Instead, it was a frothy, diverse coalition of owners and workers, longtime Americans and new citizens, lifetime Republicans and fresh converts drawn together by common beliefs and allegiances.

Rove, of course, is himself a practicing political operative, the consultant widely credited with producing the 2000 candidacy of George W. Bush.  He served as the administration’s senior political advisor and deputy chief of staff until resigning in August 2007.   In 2010 he organized American Crossroads, a political action committee to raise money for the 2012 elections. In 2013, he organized the Conservative Victory Project, with a view to supporting “electable” conservative candidates.

As befits an expert fundraiser, Rove ends the books with what amounts to a literary PowerPoint presentation: eight reasons for McKinley’s first victory.  He conducted a campaign based on big issues, sound money and protection for infant industries. He attacked his opponent, turning a strength (free silver!) into a weakness (inflationist!). He sought to broaden the Republican base, appealing with considerable success to Catholics, labor unions and immigrants, formerly excluded groups. He put more states in play than had previously been the case. He campaigned as an outsider against traditional GOP bosses in New York and Pennsylvania. He successfully portrayed himself as an agent of change.  He adopted the language of national reconciliation, in sharp distinction to Bryan. Finally, he raised plenty of money and brought his advisers into his campaign – Mark Hanna in particular.  And he did all this from the comfort of his own home in Canton, Ohio – receiving one delegation of would-be constituents after another, including a body of former Confederate soldiers, in his “Front-Porch” campaign.

In other words, says Rove, McKinley was the first modern president. If all this still seems a little remote in time, here is a video of Rove himself zestfully describing what he sees as the parallels. He writes, “McKinley’s campaign matters more than a century later because it provides lessons either party could use today to end an era of a 50-50 nation and gain the edge for a durable period.”

The really interesting part is this search for a durable edge, it seems to me, and not because I am especially interested in history.  Like Rove, I am concerned mainly with the present day. Also like Rove, I believe the US electorate is prone to subtle long-term mood swings.

Speculation about long political cycles—periodic electoral “realignments” of political parties, students of politics call them – had great vogue in the 1960s and ’70s, when Rove and I were young. Professors of political science described them, notably V.O. Key, Walter Dean Burnham, E.E. Schattschneider and James L Sundquist. Historians Arthur Schlesinger, senior and junior, popularized the idea.  Recently, David Mayhew, of Yale University, has critically examined to good effect the idea of generation-long spans, first in a landmark article for Annual Review of Political Science, and in a subsequent book, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of An American Genre (Yale, 2004). He is certainly right when he says that contingency, strategy and valence all play a part. “Politics cannot be about waiting,” he writes, “for realignments or anything else.”  Here is Mayhew’s review of Rove’s book.

And yet the narrative itch persists – before, during and after. The idea that the election of 1896, McKinley vs. Bryan, brought into existence an electoral “system” that dominated US politics until 1932, has been neglected, I think, somewhat obscured by the eight-year presidency of Woodrow Wilson, which eventuated only after the Republican Roosevelt staged his third-party “Bull Moose” run in 1912. Even the Federal Reserve System was largely a Republican creation, under the leadership of Sen. Nelson Aldrich, (R-RI).  I am no historian, but I am inclined to believe Wesleyan University’s Schattschneider, who wrote: “The most substantial achievement of the Democratic Party from 1896 to 1932 was that it kept itself alive as the only party to which the country could turn if it ever decided to overthrow the Republican Party.”

Taken together, along with an account of the influence of Congressional Republicans during the Wilson administration, the presidencies of McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover constitute it seems to me, as coherent a period of governance as the two that followed. The realignment that followed the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 lasted until 1976, at least if you buy the argument that Richard Nixon was the last “liberal” president. The realignment that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, or, if you prefer, Jimmy Carter in 1976, lasted at least until 2008.

That’s where Rove comes in.  He thinks the Republican Party can gain a second wind – another thirty years or so of hegemony, if only it finds a candidate who can adopt McKinley’s tactics.  This, in turn, is where Rove hopes Jeb Bush will serve. Sure enough Bush last week finally began to make his move, preparing to challenge Trump for the political fraud that he is. I still expect the contest for the nomination will come down to Bush vs. someone else – Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio or even Chris Christie.  It’s even conceivable that Bush could still beat Hillary Clinton in the general election, if all the stars were to align.

Would that outcome be the beginning of a second long skein of Republican victories?  I doubt it. Rather than cycles, why not call it a zig-zag pattern? – somewhat irregular but durable shifts in majority voter preferences, every couple of generations or so?  My hunch is that, for now, the GOP has had its turn.  Even an unlikely Bush victory would point away from the policies enunciated in the primary campaign. National security aside, the big issues of the next twenty years in presidential politics – inequality, citizenship, climate change – have barely begun to show up

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