The Magazine

Back to the 1880s

There is no new conservative era; the good news is things are bad for Democrats, too

Dec 4, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 12 • By DAVID FRUM
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"Their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together. Which had the whiskers, which had the burnsides: which was which?"


-- Thomas Wolfe

GEORGE W. BUSH wants to reinvigorate American education, and he has already partly succeeded. Over the past three weeks, the country has been treated to a non-stop television seminar on the elections of 1876 and 1888. The bearded men who presided over the United States in the late 19th century once seemed as indistinguishable as the Smith Brothers on the cough drops. Suddenly their names are being bandied about with easy fluency on MSNBC and CNN.

Those old elections are interesting, though, not just because they offer curious coincidences to fill the long cable hours between actual news events. They provide real insight into the workings of the American two-party system -- and some clues about the meaning of the 2000 election.

In the century from 1896 to 1992, one or the other party held a clear advantage in presidential politics: first the Republicans, then the Democrats, then the Republicans again. In 1992, the long spell of Republican dominance that began in 1968 came at last to an end. This is a painful fact to admit, and many of us refused for a long time to admit it: We shrugged off Bill Clinton's 1992 win as the lucky side effect of a split in the natural Republican presidential majority and explained away 1996 as a referendum on peace and prosperity. The real news, we told ourselves, was the big congressional sweep of 1994 -- a sweep that portended, or so we imagined, a new era of conservative governance. All they needed was a decent presidential candidate, and for the first time since the Eisenhower administration, Republicans could look forward to control of both houses of Congress and the presidency at the same time.

So much for that. But if Republicans have lost their grip on the presidency, Democrats have not regained theirs. In 1980, 1984, and 1988, Ronald Reagan and George Bush won a combined average of 54.3 percent of the vote. In 1992, 1996, and 2000, Bill Clinton and Al Gore won an average of only 47 percent. If the Republicans have lost their old governing majority, the Democrats have failed to build a new one.

It's this lack that makes the 1990s look so much like the 1880s.

Elections with clouded outcomes -- those that are very close (with the two parties within one percentage point of each other's share of the popular vote), those whose winner fails to clear 50 percent, and those in which the winner of the popular vote cannot muster a majority of the Electoral College -- are rare events in American politics. Between 1876 and 1892, there were five such elections in a row:

These are the two longest strings of inconclusive elections in American history. The elections were close because the country was so divided: in the 1880s by the memory of civil war, in the 1990s by the aftereffects of culture war.

In the 1880s, the Republicans were from 1896 to 1930? Each party is hunting desperately for it: the Democrats with their New Democratic Third Way, the Republicans with "compassionate conservatism." The verdict of 2000 is that neither has yet found it.

And it may be that the two parties are hindered in finding it by the very historical parallels that set them looking for a McKinley synthesis in the first place. The lesson of the stalemate of the 1880s is not that economic issues trump cultural issues. History does not repeat itself so neatly. The lesson is, rather, that cultural animosities linger until something new arises to dispel or displace them. The advent of industrialism was that something in the 1890s, and with it the Great Immigration: Between 1880 and 1920, some 24 million people untouched by the Civil War arrived in the United States. Their children and grandchildren gravitated toward the Democratic party, but they also transformed it, erasing its Confederate taint, propelling it instead toward European-style social democracy.

Perhaps the advent of the Information Age will have a similar effect on American politics, creating a new class of "wired workers" with their own distinctive interests and values. Al Gore apparently expected this, and while it didn't happen in 2000, it may yet transpire in some future election. Alternatively, Peter Brimelow and Ed Rubinstein argued three years ago in National Review that the second Great Immigration of the 1980s and 1990s is decisively tilting the political balance to the Democrats. That didn't happen this year either, although it is true that Bush would have beaten Gore by one percentage point in the popular vote if only blacks and whites, and no Asians or Hispanics, had voted in 2000.