Some time ago I wrote a piece comparing our time with the middle 19th century, when the Republican Party was born. The Republican leaders’ astuteness in reading the nation’s mood and providing answers to the key issues led to their taking full control of the government in the short span of six years. From 1860 to 1912 the Republican Party ran the United States.
Before its appearance in 1854 the opposition to the Democrats was led by the Whigs. As the Republicans grew the Whigs fell apart: by 1860 the party had faded from the U.S. political scene. Many of the ideas on which the Republican platform was based had, however, a Whig origin. The Whigs had potential, and their failure was one of will. They were unable to choose between a comfortable status quo and a leap into a promising but uncertain future. They opted for the former, and history passed them by.
What is worth noting is that the Democrats nearly went the same way. With Southern armies defeated and slavery gone, Southern politics were up for grabs. But the abuses of Reconstruction threw the South back on its old loyalties. The Democrats survived as a regional minority party until they found a new life in the Progressive cause.
History does not repeat, but what happened once can enlighten the present if a similar situation presents itself. Today’s Republican Party, in the face of popular discontent, faces a “Whig choice”: Either continue (at the federal level) their cooperative and comfortable relationship with the Democrats; or listen to the unhappy populace and start breaking new ground in terms of policy and government operation. The rise and success of Donald Trump are making the choice unavoidable. Whether Mr. Trump becomes the Republican candidate or not, a return to the status quo ante will not be possible.
The Republican dilemma would normally delight the Democrats, but they are also facing an internal crisis which, while less visible, is potentially even more serious. Since 1913 the overriding goal of Democrat policy has been the increase of the power and reach of the federal government. This was done mostly through the expansion of social programs, creating a large “dependent class” which reliably voted Democrat.
This approach has been feasible as long as economic growth provided the needed state revenue. In pre-globalization days this was (more or less) the case. But in the current economic situation – with good jobs disappearing and household income static at best – the “dependent class” has exploded in size and so have the corresponding expenditures – think disability payments, food stamps, student loans, aid to immigrants and other new/expanded programs added to old ones such as Social Security and Medicare.
The government can borrow and borrow more, but at the current rate its credibility will not hold indefinitely. Cutting back and consolidating programs could have worked earlier, but not in the “Bernie Sanders era”. He has offered the ultimate solution – full-bore socialism – and enough people believe him to provide a huge backlash should they be denied. But real socialism – whether it is actually feasible or not – will require a completely new ruling class. So the current Democrat “establishment” is looking at its own possible demise, and there is no escaping the issue.
Both traditional parties are on shaky ground, victims of their own success (whichever way “success” is defined). One could even conceive, under the proper circumstances, that large portions of their respective voter bases (now followers of Trump and Bernie) would combine into a new political force, based on an economic concept that would satisfy their respective needs.
So it all comes down to the economy.
A major part of America’s appeal is the potential to achieve personal prosperity – the “American Dream”. Whenever this failed the resulting discomfort often generated a political upheaval, which lasted until some party proposed a solution, around which national unity and direction could be re-created.
In the 1850’s the answer was national industrialization.
In the 1940’s, after eleven years of the Great Depression, it was the extraordinary industrial build-up of WW II.
Both crises lasted so long because the politicians kept talking ideology (slavery vs. abolition in the 1850’s; socialism vs. capitalism in the 1930’s) while what the public wanted was a decent paycheck. Today they are stuck in a similar (conservative vs. liberal) rut. Our economic stagnation lingers on as well.
The 2016 campaign “outsiders” – Trump and Bernie – have started talking about the economic issue, while the “establishment (in both parties) does everything possible to bury it.
We are approaching a tipping point – political reform or a 3rd party.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.