One candidate is an insufferable bigamist married to a whore. Another is a pimp connected to the abuse of young girls. One is a member of a fundamentally corrupt establishment in the thrall of big money, rotten to the core. The other is a dangerous man with a temperament too unpredictable and dangerous to be president.
2016? Hardly. Try 1828. It was the dirtiest, nastiest campaign in American history. And it still is. It also set the stage for a new iteration, a realigning of the American political system.
Every so often in American history, there is something that many political scientists term a realigning election. Not all agree with the theory, but I’ve found it useful as a marker of the general time period when party politics began to shift in new directions. In these shifts, new issues came to prominence, new power blocs arose, the general platforms of the two major parties began to change, and at times, one party superseded the other in dominance.
Generally, there are six elections that have been widely cited as being distinctly realigning, though some disagreement of course persists. These are the elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, and 1968. It is particularly interesting that a common characteristic of all of these elections is that they were particularly nasty in their tone and occurred in years of widespread social controversy that deeply divided the nation and electorate.
When examining these elections, I also found an astonishing degree of regularity in the timespans between each realigning election:
28 year span
32 year span
36 year span
36 year span
36 year span
If you do some math, the average timespan between realigning elections is 33.6 years. Generally, once a generation.
It has however, been a lengthy 48 years since the last election that has been widely cited as being realigning.
In other words, if you look back into American history, we’re due for a realigning election by over a decade. Why is there currently a popular revolt brewing in both parties? Because both parties are stale. No one buys what they’re selling anymore. The people want new offers from both brands. Trump is making such an offer in the Republican Party and Bernie Sanders is in the Democratic Party.
When partisan politics get stale, new political markets are formed, and ultimately the parties will have to serve those new markets in order to continue to win elections. These new political price signals are communicated through realigning elections.
Let’s briefly go over the background of each realigning election to get some perspective on what is happening today.
Without question the most chaotic election in history. It was also among the nastiest. Thomas Jefferson was a dangerous Jacobin, a fanatic who would engulf America in chaos. John Adams was a monarchist tyrant in the making, a frame that the Alien and Sedition Acts made all too easy to believe. This was an extremely close, bitterly contested election between the governing Federalist Party with John Adams seeking reelection, and the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, the sitting vice president, looking to disrupt the status quo. Thomas Jefferson won the election, if only because of the then-existing three-fifths compromise in the constitution. In an irony that was not lost on those at the time, Jefferson, the self-proclaimed champion of liberty, owed his victory to slaves that counted as three-fifths of a person. Though Jefferson won the Electoral College, he and his running mate on the Democratic-Republican ticket, Aaron Burr, received the same amount of electoral votes due to a glitch in the Constitution (which was subsequently patched with the 12th Amendment), and thus the election went to the House of Representatives. After chaos and confusion which included the help of an unlikely Jeffersonian ally, Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson eventually emerged the clear victor over Aaron Burr.
Put simply, this election repudiated the Federalist view of the nation, realigning it to the Jeffersonian, agricultural viewpoint. Though certain Federalist initiatives were passed later on (including the Second Bank of the United States), the Federalist Party never again gained dominance in American politics. Though the power of the federal government did indeed get progressively stronger with actions such as the Louisiana Purchase and in decisions such as McCulloch v. Maryland, it remained a relatively limited institution that most members of the public did not interact with aside from the post office.
The Jeffersonians would eventually lose the war and Hamilton’s vision of America as a financial and industrial juggernaut would prevail. Yet, for the next few decades, the agricultural Jeffersonian vision would usually hold sway with the exception of large northern cities and New England. The election of 1800 realigned antebellum America firmly toward the primacy of the states and the political dominance of the South. The Federalists would make attempts, but would never regain the dominance they’d enjoyed in the closing days of the 18th century.
While the election of 1800 was more chaotic, this was, to repeat, the absolute dirtiest, nastiest, most malicious campaign in history. Issues were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was who could tar the other man’s personal brand with the hardest, most provocative reputation-destroying insults. John Quincy Adams, the incumbent president, launched attacks on Andrew Jackson as an uncouth, crude, bigamist who had a dangerous, brutal attitude that left him unsuited to the Presidency. Jackson countered that Adams provided a young American virgin for the pleasure of the Russian Czar while he was minister to Russia and gambled in the White House.
In a telling fashion that may well repeated be in our own time, the stories about Jackson were usually true while those about Adams were usually false. Yet, Andrew Jackson was immune from all criticism because the public was clamoring for change. The old establishment was to them, stale, corrupt, and uncaring of their needs. Jackson was offering change, a reshuffling of the deck against the big money interests and to realign the government back toward the common man. The offer was clearly favored, and he won in a landslide.
The era pioneered by Jackson was a new iteration of the Jeffersonian ideal, even if Thomas Jefferson himself was wary of Jackson. It was in a way, a second great repudiation of the old Federalist ideals. Most famously, the Second Bank of the United States was ended. Southern power was reinforced, even though Jackson did increase the power of the federal government in his own way by nipping the Nullification Crisis in the bud and, infamously, forcibly deporting all remaining Native American tribes east of the Mississippi, ending in the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears.
The realigning election of 1828 ushered in the Age of Jackson, the Second Party System in which the Democrats were dominant, and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was promulgated and celebrated, ending in the United States becoming a nation which stretched “from sea to shining sea.” The Constitution and the people reigned supreme from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The rival party, the Whigs, were clearly influenced by the Democrats, as seen in the campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840, and were ultimately unable to reinstate the bank or prevent the territorial expansion of the country, which the Whigs’ elder statesman, Henry Clay, correctly foresaw would have terrible consequences due to the slavery issue and its relation to sectionalism.
Manifest Destiny may have reigned supreme, but the nation was now inexorably on the path to Civil War.
As the Whig Party disappeared in the 1850’s and the Age of Jackson came to a decisive close, it left a vacuum in its wake. As Henry Clay predicted, the expansion of the country into Texas and other territories began to foment sectional hostilities. A succession of weak presidents appeared totally incapable of dealing with the issue as the notion of popular sovereignty, wherein residents would be able to vote on whether to allow slavery to expand in the new western territories, invited settlers from different sections of the country to those territories solely to vote on the issue. Actual fighting started in “Bleeding Kansas.”
A realigning election was due as the old party system was completely incapable of dealing with these new issues. Slavery and its relation to sectionalism were now the dominant memes of the time. In the vacuum left by the Whigs, the staunchly anti-slavery Republican Party formed. One of its figures, though a relatively minor one with spellbinding charisma, was Abraham Lincoln, whose operatives used social proof and crowd psychology by stacking the crowd at the Republican National Convention, which helped win him the nomination in a stunning upset over the favorite, William H. Seward.
The election of 1860 was a four way contest. Lincoln ran on the Republican line while his old Illinois rival Stephen A. Douglas was running on the Democratic line. Yet, due to sectional pressures, the Democratic Party had split into northern and southern factions, and John C. Breckinridge, the sitting vice president, ran for the party’s southern wing. Rounding out the candidates was John Bell running for the Constitutional Union Party.
Because Lincoln’s northern base was where the largest number of electoral votes were concentrated, and because that northern base by this point thoroughly detested slavery, Lincoln won. Breckenridge carried the South, in part because of the split in the Unionist, anti-secession vote. Nevertheless, Lincoln was not accepted by Southerners as their legitimate president, and the warnings of Bell and Douglas about the danger Lincoln posed with regards to secession proved accurate (though were it not for Lincoln, something else would have triggered it).
1860 brought upon the Civil War, but it was also a realigning election which ushered in the Third Party System. Political power largely shifted to Northern Republicans for the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Even the one Democratic President of this late 19th century period, Grover Cleveland, was a Northerner.
The power of the federal government expanded vis a vis the states, which were restrained with devices such as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The first attempt at a civil rights revolution was ushered in with laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Meanwhile, the Republicans instituted policies favoring industrial growth.
In the fires of the Civil War and its confusing, often bloody aftermath, the Hamiltonian vision won. The United States became a great industrial power, immune from disunion by activist states. Though the ending of Reconstruction and the retreat of the first civil rights revolution afterward made the vision imperfect, the old Federalist body arose to walk the earth once more, and has been relatively dominant ever since.
As the nation continued to industrialize and looked mature enough to flex its muscle on the world stage, huge disparities of wealth had been created over the decades after the Civil War. A bad depression, the Panic of 1893, made these issues particularly acute. In these uncertain times, William McKinley was the Republican nominee, while William Jennings Bryan headed the Democratic ticket.
The election of 1896 did not simply realign politics, it also realigned electioneering and pioneered crucibles of modern campaigning. While McKinley was an old-style “front porch” candidate, which has the effect of a compliance test in some ways by getting your voters to do you the favor of coming to your home to hear you speak, he was backed by big donors, which put money in politics in a way that had not existed previously.
Bryan, meanwhile, had a whirlwind speaking tour, spellbinding crowds with his energy and his passion for the dominant issue of the race, money in the form of Free Silver, as well as passionately arguing for the common man against the Robber Baron classes that had emerged as a result of the industrial revolution.
McKinley, backed by big money, won the race in a tight contest.
While McKinley won the race, Bryan can be said to have won the argument. Though he and his supporters never got their Free Silver (the worst of the depression had ended prior to 1896 and thus Bryan missed his best chance at catapulting on the pendulum effect), many criticisms of the way the government interacted with industrialists did bear fruit, and the Progressive Era, with Theodore Roosevelt leading the charge, saw numerous reforms and trust-busting efforts that broke up some of the power of big business and improved labor conditions. A more muscular foreign policy was also adopted, first reluctantly by McKinley, and then energetically by his successors.
Regional party loyalty did not change for the most part, though Missouri went to the Republican Party in the election of 1904, remaining stable afterward.
Retrenchment did take place in the election of 1920, flipping the script somewhat on a more global foreign policy and halting some of the Progressive Era’s march, but the basic outlook of this party system was never entirely lost.
In an election held during the worst depths of the Great Depression, almost anyone could have beaten the incumbent Herbert Hoover, whose personal brand was tarred with “Hoovervilles,” and who appeared weak and indecisive in dealing with the crash. Worse, Hoover cracked down on a number of World War I veterans demonstrating in Washington with deadly consequences, tarnishing him even further. Franklin Delano Roosevelt consequently won in a landslide, and not just politics, but the public’s belief in the role of government, would realign forever.
The realigning election of 1932 swept the New Deal Coalition to power and the Democrats would dominate the presidency for the next generation. The government expanded at its greatest pace ever to implement programs to deal with the depression. Some were successful, others were not. The modern welfare state emerged in this era. It also saw, toward its end, the institution of the second, permanent, civil rights revolution. Internationally, the United States embraced its role as world leader in its intervention and triumph in World War II.
Under assault from Southern Democrats for the Johnson administration’s civil rights enactments as well as young leftists for its intervention in the Vietnam War, the New Deal Coalition fell apart. While the Democrats were in a confused morass with the assassination of Robert Kennedy and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Richard Nixon emerged as the Republican nominee, competing against an embattled Hubert Humphrey. George Wallace, the Southern segregationist, ran with an impressive third party showing, hoping to play the role of spoiler.
Both campaigns played dirty. The Johnson administration hoped to throw the election to Humphrey, the sitting vice president, by initiating a conveniently timed halt to all bombing campaigns in Vietnam to help with peace negotiations. The Nixon campaign meanwhile, through the intermediary services of Anna Chennault, was secretly accused of tampering with the peace talks by making promises of a better deal under a Nixon administration. President Johnson considered this a violation of the Logan Act and therefore treason. Humphrey made a crucial mistake by failing to dominate space on this issue, and Nixon narrowly won.
The South, with the single exception of 1976, was flipped to the Republican Party in this realigning election, and it would begin to reacquire political power in its aftermath. Four of the next seven presidents after Nixon were Southerners (Carter, the Bushes, and Clinton). This election also marked the beginnings of the Democratic and Republican Parties as we know them today, and the Republicans dominated the presidency for the next generation.
The nastiness seen in this campaign, with the “Ted Cruz sex scandal” being the latest iteration, is nothing new or unique. Each of these six elections was particularly hard-fought, nasty, and brutal. Each came at a time of fear and uncertainty in the population, and the old ways of doing things were crumbling in the public confidence. All transitions are bumpy, partly due to fear of the unknown.
The same is true today. The people are frightened and uncertain, but they know that the old way of doing things, the old party system, is no longer serving their interests. Perhaps they can’t always give the same answer to the question of “why,?” but they instinctively understand that something is wrong. They’re looking for new offers, and when people look for new offers, not just on the features of products, but on those products themselves which seem to have gotten stale, the market must shift. In this case, that is the political market, which invites a realigning election.
I can’t claim to be a psychic, but my best guess is that the realigning election of 2016 will be the marker of the Republican Party’s transition into a “common sense conservative” nationalist party with shades of Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, one which is unabashedly pro-America and pro-free market but is not axiomatic about tax cuts and regulations, and which recognizes the necessity of market restraint and regulation in the smart ways, including a halt and reversal of trade deals like NAFTA. As for foreign policy, I can see a “Trump Doctrine” adaptation Roosevelt’s “big stick diplomacy” to achieve national interests. And yet, the achievement of national interests means that American foreign policy is not welfare to the rest of the world, which is what the U.S. military and its endless interventions essentially are now. I expect the religious right to either be purged or fall in line. Their influence will continue to decline.
As for the Democrats? Hillary Clinton may be their nominee in the 2016 election, but Bernie Sanders has won the ideological battle, just like William Jennings Bryan won it in his loss in 1896. I expect that the postmodernists, including the social justice warriors that rose to prominence in the wake of 1968, will continue to hold court in left wing politics for now, but that old school liberals in general will eventually rise up to purge them and institute a New New Deal, focusing on economics rather than essentialist identity politics, which includes halting and reversing trade deals like NAFTA, but will also put focus on civil rights issues and policies which disproportionately affect minorities. The hunger for foreign intervention will also continue to decline.
Perhaps I’m being too optimistic. Perhaps I’m fitting my own desires into these predictions. That is legitimate criticism. Perhaps social justice warriors will completely take over the Democratic Party and that will be the focus of the realignment. Perhaps the Republican Party will realign in a way I have not foreseen. Maybe Trump is so unhinged that he forces the Republican Party to become a true Democrat-lite.
What I do think above all however, is that the election of 2016 has been and will continue to be a referendum on globalism, and given the success of Trump and Sanders, the public has resoundingly rejected it. The realigning election of 2016 will be a retrenchment in some ways from axiomatic, all-encompassing globalism, even if not done in precisely the ways I have envisioned. The world is not the same as it was in the Fifth and Sixth Party Systems, and each system must respond to the demands of the time. This is the referendum of a realigning election.
As always, the people are ahead of the government and its graft train.
To find out more about the earthshaking election of 2016, all the demographics involved, how it will realign politics (and in what direction), and how you can take advantage of it, check out Stumped: How Trump Triumphed.