Whatever the outcome of the presidential race, the nation is in a historic phase of bitter partisanship. Only one period in U.S. history has witnessed such an extensive collection of closely contested elections. America is tuning into the golden oldie era of the 1980s – the 1880s. American politics has returned to the Golden Age.
We can see this most clearly in the presidential elections. In the 20th century, there were riots in both the referendum and the electoral college. In 11 of the 21 elections from 1900 to 1984, one candidate won a lead of more than 10 percent in the popular vote. Five of them, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, managed to win by 20 percent.
No president has received more than 8.5 percent of the vote since Ronald Reagan’s crushing victory in 1984. The result is that Barack Obama’s 2008 triumph, now considered a blowout, was only 7.3 percent. This is by far the greatest victory of the 21st century, but historically it was nothing special. The victories of the electoral colleges have also shrunk. In seventeen of the races of the 20th century, there was a lead of over 200 votes. So far, there has not been this lead in a single election.
But close elections – as well as two “false victors” in referendums / votes – were a regular feature of the Golden Age. In the elections of 1876-1896, the largest difference in votes never reached five percent, and the distance to the electoral college was also small.
Even though the presidency may attract the lion’s share of the attention, Congress really shows this gap. A split Congress, with one party controlling the Senate and the other the House of Representatives, was a rare occurrence. With the exception of the first three Congressional sessions in Reagan’s term, when the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats the House of Representatives, this unpleasant arrangement occurred only a few times in the 20th century. But this split was the norm in the 21st century. Unless the Democrats somehow take over the Senate, this will be the fifth split in Congress since 2001.
The split in Congress was a constant of the Golden Age. It was rare for one party to control both houses at the same time.
What was the result of presidents without a strong mandate and a split Congress? It is very similar to what we are experiencing today – a government that is incapable of passing laws and is deadlocked on the most fundamental issues. The first tycoons – forerunners of today’s ultra-billionaires – were the most important figures in America. Elected officials did nothing to deal with the important issues of the time, but concentrated instead, especially in the early days, on distributing the spoils of government work.
This political arrangement did not end until one party – the Republicans – succeeded in gaining an overwhelming political advantage in Congress and the presidency after the panic of 1893, which they maintained until the Great Depression with only a brief pause from the Wilson era.
Although both parties constantly hope to gain the upper hand, Tuesday’s results should end hopes of an early clear victory. As long as one party has not deciphered the magic formula, we can expect the continuation of a political system that takes no prisoners and is bitterly divided.
Joshua Spivak is a Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes the Recall Elections Blog.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author….