By: Jacek Popiel
In previous articles we have often referred to the year 1854 – the date of birth of the Republican Party. There are two reasons for this.
First, 1854 could be considered the watershed year in America’s transition from former British agricultural colony to independent industrial power. Second, the decade around 1854 saw the transition of U.S. politics from the State to the national level. Both developments involved a major realignment of voting patterns, resulting in the disappearance of one party (Whigs), the reduction of another (Democrats) to minority status, and the dominance of the newborn Republicans over the following half-century.
This is relevant not only in historical terms but also as example. We are today in a similar transitional situation in both economic and political terms. This article deals with the political, specifically with shifting voting patterns. A later one will examine economic issues.
So what happened around 1854?
Prior to that date U.S. politics were dominated by the pro-slavery South. The Constitution’s “3/5” rule gave the plantation-owning class a disproportionate voting advantage, which they exercised to defend slavery and pack the federal administration and courts with Southerners. No one could become U.S. President without Southern support, a situation which made slavery the ideological battle ground of the era. This led to neglect of many other problems, particularly those important to new immigrants, aspiring industrialists, and settlers in what is now the Midwest.
In 1854 Stephen Douglas (D-IL; ran against Lincoln in 1860) passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, making slavery legal in some territories. This caused the wave of protest that crystallized in the foundation of the Republican Party. While opposed to slavery in principle, its leaders realized they needed more votes than those of abolitionists. They built their platform around issues – mainly economic – that affected many different groups of voters:
- Financial reform: middle- and business classes
- Transcontinental railroad: industrialists, nationalists
- Land-grant colleges: western states
- Homestead Act: immigrants, farmers
- Tariff (tax on imports): industrialists, skilled workers
- Repeal of Kansas-Nebraska Act: opponents of slavery
With this huge voter base the Republicans gained, by 1860, full control of the federal government, and half a century of nearly unchallenged power.
Fade to 21st century, 2016:
The ideological battle is between Right and Left, Big Government vs. individual liberty, free enterprise vs. socialism. This caused the Tea Party “uprising” of the early 2000’s. The failure of the Tea Party to achieve reform showed that ideology, by itself, has no legs. As in 1854, practical issues are what count, and discussion of these has been smothered, until now, by the ideological debate.
2016 has seen both established parties split: in the GOP Donald Trump won the nomination against the party leadership, on the strength of popular support; among Democrats Bernie Sanders was deprived of his chance through establishment manipulation, leaving his supporters furious. What happened?
As in 1854, voter patterns have shifted under the politicians’ feet, even while they hoped that old nostrums would work one more time. The issues are not Left vs. Right, etc., etc. They are:
- Massive reduction in household income and assets (globalization)
- Disappearance of “middle-class” jobs (globalization)
- Squeeze on entry-level wages (uncontrolled immigration)
- Financial instability (globalization, aggravated by speculation and central bank mismanagement)
- Economic stagnation (globalization)
- Reduced value/higher cost of education
- Runaway federal budgets, welfare and government debt
- Concentration of power and wealth at the top, without compensation at the bottom.
- Increased cost, reduced availability of medical care.
These affect all citizens (and resident non-citizens). Their impact transcends differences in political affiliation. People increasingly vote their interest rather than their affiliation as R or D. Candidates for office, instead of relying on assumed ideological commitment, must convince voters that they will address their current needs. The notion of “voter base” must be reconsidered, based on a new, still evolving voter interest configuration.
The current candidates must therefore “pull an 1854”: find and develop new groups of voters whose interests they can promote. This holds for both the “new” candidate – Donald Trump – and for the “establishment” candidate – Hillary Clinton.
The Trump case is the most interesting. Anyone who has attended a Trump rally – this writer has – can see that his core base is totally dedicated, but probably lacks the numbers needed for a national majority. Mr. Trump, whose message is basically economic, must therefore “prospect and mine” the following:
- The young (high school and up), whose needs are (a) job openings for high school and college graduates, and (b) the poor cost/benefit ratio of a very expensive college diploma. This means economic take-off and education reform.
- Minorities, meaning at least legal and established Hispanic immigrants and that fraction of the African American electorate valuing income and safety above racial ideology. This requires economic take-off and a more nuanced, less radical language.
- Industrial workers, not only those already in the Trump camp, but also those still vacillating between the Trump appeal and loyalty to their unions (which vote D). This requires a policy that not only restricts cheap imports, but offers a credible blueprint for the rebuilding of US-based industries.
- Independents, including (a) libertarians and (b) Tea Party types/American patriots. This requires: first, a credible approach to limit and control federal spending and power creep; second, a clear commitment to constitutional principles, including the First, Second and Tenth Amendments.
- Seniors and welfare recipients, who need to hear that (a) their retirement income will be protected and (b) that there will be jobs as alternative to life on the dole.
A detailed platform comprising the above can probably not be constructed by Election Day, but the underlying principles and commitments can be made clear and broadcast to the electorate, as a credible, succinct and positive message.
The candidate who does this best will carry the day in November.
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.