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Civic Renewal: The Art of Political Coalitions
1932, 1984, 2024
It can be true that if one lives long enough then they will be a witness to the cycles of history. Like people who were born in 1926. One of the themes I took away from my American history education was the rise and fall of political coalitions. It is part of an American electoral process of political, and civic, renewal. An old coalition of voters, who prop up a specific policy culture or agenda, either lose the numbers to have a national impact or are incentivized (and likely traumatized) into changing their voting patterns.
One example is the decimation of the Republican Golden Age in 1932.
Since the creation of the party of Lincoln, the GOP was living in a period of policy and governmental control as the old Democratic party was isolated into being a Southern backwater. This gave the old GOP near complete control over the office of president. Also, the GOP tried to manipulate the moral energy gained from the abolition movement it had embraced within the last days of antebellum America in order to “wave the bloody shirt” as a way to guilt trip and persuade other lawmakers (and the nation). This happened as the memory of the destruction wrought by pro-slavery forces was still fresh.
As the Civil War faded into memory (but not the traumas as one reader masterfully pointed out), the Republican party was at the helm of a budding industrial giant, which competed with super economies formed (or forming) in Great Britain and Germany. A lot of abolition calls weren't necessarily because of reactions to the moral degradation of the Southern states (but some of it was), it was also because much of the Northeast and nascent “Old Northwest” wanted a government that would support improvements to the land (like roads and bridges), which a slave-based agrarian economy did not support. These regions felt a growing slave power within the federal government that culminated into the factionalism that preconceived the Civil War.
But in the decades following the Civil War, these national policy preferences could be realized with the expansion of the railroad system and the rise of the “New South” (in many ways it still reflected the old South).
This inevitably led to supporting the “robber barons,” or for some, the “industrial statesmen” of the Gilded Age, as well as support for tariffs which sought to benefit growing American industry. They pushed industrial growth to a new level, and in return the government aided in the development of communities and infrastructure to house workers. It wasn’t that great. Look up company towns when you get a chance.
However, a competing political force was in the making.
Democrats attempted to grow a new constituency out of dissatisfied labor in the developing Western states, who were at the whims of railroad tycoons and their control over the supply and transportation markets. Democrats also appealed to (or controlled) exploited immigrants flooding into Northern and Midwestern central cities. The party prided personal liberty and small government (sound familiar) out of perceived traumas from government intrusion during the Reconstruction years. Obviously, this politics was popular in a post-Civil War South, where Whites felt burdened by government schools and initiatives that sought to expand human rights to Southerners of color.
Also, as mentioned, late-19th-century Democrats successfully operated political machines in Northern cities, but Western farmers would go from Republicans to Populists as a third party rose to challenge the orthodoxy that lifted up wealthy interests over the people. One of the Populist party’s platforms was a “Free Silver” policy that sought to increase the amount of currency in circulation. This could potentially help farmers that were negatively impacted by tariffs and railroad monopolies. They saw a hard money tyranny that made it hard for their cash flow and also their ability to pay back loans.
Eventually, the Democratic party incorporated “Free Silver” as a platform, but the U.S. ultimately went on the gold standard in 1900.
From the years 1861 to 1931, only two Democrats would win the presidency: Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. The last person won after the incumbent president of the Republican party (The Bull Moose, Theodore Roosevelt) challenged his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, and thus caused a split within the GOP. This created an opening for Democrats. Wilson would take the nation into its First World War and oversee an era of relative progressivism. By the end of the 1910s, women received the right to vote. This is not because of the Democrats, as both parties featured progressive wings and more of a feature of the changing times and people’s reactions to it. Roosevelt was a progressive Republican that historically challenged the power of J.P. Morgan with the aid of the Sherman Anti-Trust law.
Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy was a young patrician by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was a major admirer of his older cousin and would steadily become one of the most progressive presidents in our history, despite his own personal elitism. FDR and his team famously enshrined the New Deal policy format after austerity policies heralded by the old GOP proved harmful in the face of a global economic shutdown. The government now took an active role in stimulating industries, creating jobs, and offering welfare to people facing the brunt of the Great Depression. Within the red hot 1930s was the popularization of Keynesian economics (named after English economist John Maynard Keynes), and after the biggest government spending project to that point (World War II), there was the birth of the “postwar liberal consensus.” This consensus sought solutions through public institutions and government surveillance instead of through private industry and their leaders. This was a time when living memory points to J.P. Morgan bailing out the U.S. Government.
I’ve written a bit about the rise of the New Right within the framing of a political machine harnessing the volatile reactions to multiculturalism. However, there is a policy reaction that also undergirded the change of America’s political temperature from Center Left to Center Right (some argue we are farther right than that).
The inflationary 1970s branded the memories of a generation that was in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Tax demands did not meet the rising spending (especially from projects like the Vietnam War) and thus created a cycle of stagflation that mired the economy with high prices and slow growth. One of the outcomes of this time was a consensus forming around the role of government, not as a source of modern welfare in a sophisticated, technological world beyond the control of most humans, but as a harbinger of waste, fraud, abuse, and thus, limited economic freedom. Much of the blame was associated with the New Deal and Great Society (under President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s) policy frameworks that rightward Americans saw as the source of economic failure, mainly because of the economic controls this policy culture fostered regarding the private sector.
Miltonian economics, named after American economist Milton Friedman, fostered ideas that sought to lower taxes on private businesses, as well as deregulate their ability to pursue high risk in the hopes of high rewards. In this reading, monetary policy (the supply of cash in the system) is more important than fiscal policy (the government’s ability to tax and spend).
Throughout the Republican Golden Age of the late 19th and early 20th century, American economics existed in a cycle of boom and bust. Overspeculation and natural disasters roiled global markets from time to time with little recourse for the most vulnerable parts of the economy. Much of the progressive era reforms crystallized into the New Deal and Great Society programs as policy professionals, academics, and lawmakers sought to control the way these economic downturns impacted populations left unprepared. The frightening reality of the Great Depression, the biggest bust, informed these efforts.
However, the doctrine of deregulation and low taxes was arguably a reignition of this cycle as Americans experience speculative bubbles that turn into near misses regarding a global economic catastrophe. However, to be fair, this policy playbook aided the rise of a new age of American business, especially in the realm of computer technology.
The business of America is business.
-President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge
The private sector is much wealthier and more expansive than ever before, and many think it can be a provider of human services, for example, health care. Some of the critiques made by today’s conservatives are valid regarding the glut of inefficient bureaucracies compared to efficient business models. Programs have proven to be sources of fraud and abuse, and also not reaching their primary goals. In this case, there can be both sides to a reality that neither praises government nor business.
Still, the modern conservative coalition that successfully hollowed out the postwar liberal consensus’ policy and moral gains (like in voting rights) is made up of free market interests, small to zero government libertarians, and national security hawks who formed during the testy and uncertain Cold War era. However, the most powerful group to make the New Right’s policy dreams come true were social conservatives who practiced their policy preferences through the lens of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. Though government can be abusive and fraudulent, the mission of the government is still somewhat steeped in the interest of the citizenry (at least in placating it enough to carry out other agendas), and this can be reinforced in elections that can result in a change within the executive, legislative, and judicial culture of different levels of government. I say “cultures” to not overlook the unelected bureaucrats and officials who are there no matter the election result, as long as Schedule F isn’t implemented in another Trump administration.
This is all to say that Americans who benefit from government welfare through Social Security to Medicare (and Medicaid for some) may vote Republican in this current era out of fear of a multicultural bureaucracy that they feel doesn’t understand them, their race, their religion, or their slice of the world. Social conservatives played a key role in this gambit as they drove grassroots campaigns to create right-wing friendly publicity, voter drives, and astroturf campaigns that can find their way to the Supreme Court in an effort to limit the rights of queer people and enable homophobes to not offer them their services.
Within this tornado of modern conservative politics, the credible arguments of government overreach are lost as campaigns become short-sighted endeavors that lack much intellectual heft. As the older generations of Americans age, many are forced to understand what Medicare does and how important Social Security can be. They are forced to reckon with their own coming mortality that free markets don’t consider outside of squeezing more money out of the olds for curmudgeonly conspiracy coins.
The market is only serving a small number of Americans with networks, education, and intel, who thus game these forces or live within an information-based economy that has left a manufacturing-based economy behind. Private debt for simple things like going to college (something a developed nation should encourage its citizens to do in order to compete globally) is threatening the economic future of a rising generation and creates the possibility of more unsustainable bubbles that will eventually burst. Sometimes the market only serves preferred citizens, classist standards, or infrastructural development that is years ahead of the community it proclaims to serve. Market abuses are serving billionaires who aren’t necessarily smarter or more talented but have figured out how to exploit legal structures and gaps. Private sector abuses undergird this era formed under the consensus of right-leaning people questioning the efficacy and use of the New Deal and Great Society states.
This is all to say that 2024 can be a renewal year.
America’s political temperature needs to swing leftward so that the needs of a citizenry harmed by a right-wing overcorrection are recognized. It is natural in our history, and it must be done. If we can’t renew the nation’s policy format because of realized multiculturalism or unruly cronyism, then we have fallen prey to forces that mired all of human history.
Thus, American exceptionalism is only a fantasy, and we are not immune to the passage of time and the trials of history.
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