(New York, New York) First came the Jeffersonian agrarians, then the Lincoln-McKinley industrialists, then the Roosevelt New Dealers, and finally, the Reagan Revolutionaries. America’s four majority coalitions to date have centered on the economy and the cultural issues facing the country. Upon this axis would rest the four great majorities.
The majority would rise in a pivotal election that would later be seen as instrumental. They would govern and implement their policies for several decades as the country grew. An election would occur that would slightly change the course of their original majority but retain the basic contours. A second election would come sometime later that presaged the coming changes. Then, a series of failed presidencies amidst a weakening economy and growing cultural strife would imperil the majority. A new majority would then decisively defeat the old ones after a major crisis.
Key tenets of the majority coalition would be a pro-hawkish viewpoint and policies that would benefit the new economic and cultural order.
The Jeffersonian Democrats were the majority party from 1801 to 1860. President Thomas Jefferson (D-Virginia) engineered the first majority, centered around a white agrarian society. This made sense as the Industrial Revolution was in its infancy and the need for the infrastructure that would dominate the Industrial Revolution was not yet there. Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee) would build on Thomas Jefferson’s majority by adding frontier white men, who won the franchise in around 1824. But not until the 1850s and 1860s would the Democratic coalition be threatened.
Around 1845, slavery would become an issue – and so would the impending Industrial Revolution. They would go hand in hand, as a series of failed presidencies occurred, in a desperate bid to contend with the two factors. Dredd Scott, the Wilmot Proviso, and countless negotiations failed to resolve the standoff between the industrial North and the agrarian South. When Civil War came, so did the Lincoln industrial Republicans. The Republicans would be the dominant political party for 72 years, matching the Jeffersonian record.
A series of failed presidents would presage the rise of Congressman Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) to the presidency. Presidents Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana), Millard Fillmore (W-New York), Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire), and the last, James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) would all struggle with the new industrial economy and slavery — and fail.
Buchanan would have the most painful task, as the country fell apart. Dredd Scott and the Lecompton Constitution would mark the Buchanan Administration. The Panic of 1857 would hit the North hard while the agrarian South would be less affected, as well. In the end, events would spiral out of Buchanan’s control and the Union would break apart in his final months.
The Lincoln Republicans existed for a simple reason. The industrializing North would need a political advocate that defended their interests. President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) and his successors would bless the rapidly industrializing nation with infrastructure support, tariffs, and so on. Slavery would be the central issue that needed resolution. Therefore, the Republicans took power as the Democrats became a rump regional party that favored economic policies out of step with the dominant GOP majority.
The cities would hold sway for a century, until the election of 1980. Lincoln’s Republicans and later, F. Roosevelt’s Democrats would rely on the great cities and their teeming swarms of immigrants and industrial workers to buttress their political power.
In 1896, a pivotal election occurred that reaffirmed the strength of the Lincoln Republican Party. Governor William McKinley (R-Ohio) defeated Congressman William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska), and cemented the Republican Party’s dominance as the pro-industrial and pro-gold party. The Republican Presidencies that would followed would be strongly pro-business. The populists would lose out (although they would see many of their policies ratified in the first decade of the 20th century). Still, the Populists, crucially, would become Democrats down the road and play a large role in their future majority.
So, around the first decade of the 20th century, the emerging Democratic majority came into view. Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York)’s progressive ideology would break up the trusts and create food safety laws, among other things. Then his Republican successor, William A. Taft (R-Ohio) would straddle between the conservatives and the progressives, before the all out war of 1912 inside the Republican Party forever drove out the progressive Republicans.
A little interlude before we move on. A little known panic of 1908 would presage the 1929 crash two decades later (and eerily, the 2008 one a century later, on the dot). The country would be momentarily thrown into upheaval with a stock market crash. Only the firm work of the bankers would save the country and continue the GOP majority. But the near miss would have presaged the need for government intervention in later decades.
The first Democrat to capture the White House since conservative Grover Cleveland, Gov. Thomas Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) would institute the Federal Reserve and usher in a temporary progressive era. The 16th Amendment (income taxation) and banking reform would come with the Wilson Administration, along with the Federal Trade Commission. President Wilson’s internationalist leanings would set the stage for the later Democratic majority that came under the second President Roosevelt. The 19th Amendment would also be ratified during this era, giving women the right to vote.
But the country was not yet ready for Wilson’s brand of liberalism. World War I’s end presaged a return to isolationism and the desire for “normalcy.”
The 1920s marked a snapback to the pro-business Republicans – but it would be their last gasp. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover would all be considered failed presidents or presidents that had failed to really leave a mark on the country. The most successful of the trio, President Calvin Coolidge (R-Massachusetts) would enjoy popularity during his tenure but fall into historical disrepute until the Reagan Revolution.
The last president of the era, a former Commerce Secretary, Herbert C. Hoover (R-Iowa), would struggle to uphold the pro-business tenets of the country’s dominant majority. In desperation, he would do everything he could to force a recovery. It would be too late, as the Great Depression intensified. Like Buchanan before him, Hoover would be tied down, and watch silently as events spiraled out of his control.
As the Great Depression bore down, the need for the government to ensure that the benefits of the Industrial Revolution was evenly distributed came into view. Enter a charismatic Governor named Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York). His victory in 1932 would cement the progressive revolt started two decades earlier and maybe even earlier. The New Deal would guarantee an old age pension, banking reforms, the minimum wage, an end to child labor, among other sweeping New Deal provisions. Labor unions, long frustrated, would become strong and powerful under Roosevelt. The Republicans, bitter, would try to resist, but futilely protest. Roosevelt would use the second World War to settle the scores of the first, and set in place an internationalist order comprising the United States, and the Four Freedoms. Like the earlier Lincoln Republicans, civil rights was again a main feature.
The New Deal Democrats were a true national majority, much larger than the Lincoln Republicans. The Lincoln – McKinley Republicans had never been able to pick the Southern lock but the Roosevelt Democrats ruled coast to coast for fifty years. Being a Democrat became akin to being an American – with over half of the country registered as a Democrat.
The election of 1960 would affirm the Roosevelt majority. Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) would campaign as something of a Cold War liberal who favored civil rights. He would narrowly defeat Vice President Richard Nixon (R-California) and capture the Presidency, setting the stage for the 1960s.
The 1960s Democrats would resolve the thorny issue of civil rights by passing a series of landmark civil rights laws. President Truman (D-Missouri) would desegregate the Armed Forces and President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) would pass a slew of civil rights laws that related to voting rights, housing, and so on. The Great Society would complement the New Deal in guaranteeing economic protection.
Then came the election of 1968. Former Vice President Richard Nixon (R-California) would presage the Reagan Revolution by winning a narrow victory based on law and order and discontent over Vietnam. This would be the dominant cultural issue and theme of the next sixty years. Nixon’s presidency would end in failure, but the Democratic Party would cede the national security key to the GOP and increasingly, the cultural dominance they had enjoyed.
An interlude as we march through American history. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan would bookend the 20th century, likely the two great ideological presidents that set in place the policies that marked the 20th century.
The 1970s would see, as the 1850s and 1920s did, a series of failed presidencies. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter all struggled with the new cultural order and economy, and all failed. Stagflation (inflation and stagnation) would be rampant as well as the price of gas. The last, President Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia) would struggle to reanimate the New Deal and to protect the Democrats. For him, it would be, like Herbert Hoover, too late. Events would spiral out of his control as stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis consumed his presidency.
Governor Ronald Reagan (R-California) created a new Republican majority on Election Day 1980, sweeping 44 states and creating a broad, dynamic GOP coalition. The South and Sunbelt replaced the Northeast and the suburbs replaced the cities as the center of the political universe. The GOP became the party of national security and the culturally dominant party in the United States.
As for that governor, he was inaugurated the 40th President of the United States in 1981. The new service economy needed lower taxes, deregulation, limited government, and a light hand from the government. The suburbs would replace the great cities as the political center of the United States. Reagan’s successors – the two President Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama – would all pay homage to the suburbs and operate within the confines President Reagan set with his Revolution.
The election of 2000 would be an important point that reaffirmed the Reagan coalition. Like McKinley of 1896 (according to the President’s chief political architect, Karl Rove), Governor George W. Bush (R-Texas) would affirm the service economy and the moral majority’s dominance in the country. His Presidency would cut taxes, defend the country’s interests overseas with muscular military might, and restrict abortion and gay rights.
The election of 2008 would be forty years after Nixon’s “law and order” election and would neatly intersect with the crash of 2008 and the new cultural zeitgeist. Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) represented the new cultural progressives and would end up being a transitional figure for the emerging Democratic majority. In keeping with the rules of the era, the Republicans regained the House in 2010, and then the Senate in 2014.
Times were moving faster now. What took 60 years to do in the 19th and 20th century now took 20, 40 years. The election of the first black President 40 years after civil rights proved it. and Obama would be a figure silhouetting the emerging Democratic majority. His Administration would pass financial reform, the Paris Accord on climate change, demonstrate soft power on the world stage, and pass a healthcare law. All of these would be seen later as crucial to the identity of the Democratic majority to come.
But President Obama would wind up repudiated by the self-same suburbs and voters that sent him to the White House. The election of Donald John Trump would bring the country to 2016.
The two coalitions – Democratic and Republicans – had been passing past each other like ships through the night. The great Reagan coalition of 1980 had united neoconservatives like Scoop Jackson (D-Washington), supply siders, and deregulators as well as the suburbs behind the Republican Party. The Reagan Republicans were seen as the face of America, affirming American values, much like the Roosevelt and Lincoln partisans.
The 1990s had reaffirmed that basic coalition and forced President Clinton to accede to their terms. During this time, the Democratic coalition was small, multicultural but unable to articulate a governing platform, and with its liberal bent, deeply out of line with the service economy’s needs. Culturally, they were even more awkward. The Democrats, with their pacifism, would be locked into the minority, and fail to win enough of the country over.
The election of 2008 would change the Democratic Party’s identity culturally. The first black president backed by a multiracial and multicultural coalition would turn the Democratic historical weakness into strength. Going forward, it would be difficult for Republicans to triumph without some semblance of a multicultural coalition.
The election of 2016 would feature important changes. The Democrats would double down on their multicultural and multiracial gamble by nominating the first woman major party candidate for President, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York).
Republican Donald J. Trump (R-New York) would resemble, in many ways, the underside of the GOP coalition. If Reagan was the sunny supply sider who stood up to the Soviet Union, Trump would be the gloomy skeptic that talked about renegotiating NAFTA (a key Reagan achievement) and talked about careful approaches overseas. However, they were very similar in the sense that they adhered to the basic GOP ideology of tax cuts, deregulation, fighting America’s enemies, and opposed an expansive government. These similarities would outweigh the differences.
The Republican coalition that had elected Donald J. Trump would be largely white, suburban and rural, and be focused on two groups of whites: the college educated reluctant Republican voter and the more enthusiastic working class white voter. The Trump coalition and election, in a sense, was Buchanan’s long term victory over George H.W. Bush’s more genteel Republicans.
In historical context, the question would be, would the Trump presidency be seen as a transitional one that affirmed the great GOP majority or would it be the first of a series of presidencies that presaged the emerging Democratic majority?
Written November 16, 2016. All Rights Reserved. (C) “BetweenTwoMajorities” 2018.