According to some paleontologists, evolution proceeds by fits and starts. Long periods of stasis, without much change, are punctuated by pulses of rapid evolution accompanying speciation. Human history too often proceeds by fits and starts. In the year 2016 (which we cover this December 31 on Logarithmic History) several electoral upsets occurred – the British vote to leave the European Union, the U.S election of Donald Trump to the Presidency – that suggest that a long period of consensus about politics is due to be punctuated.
From Old Deal to New Deal
It’s interesting to compare-and-contrast the current situation in the United States with an earlier episode of stasis and punctuation in American history. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, there was an effective détente between Republicans and Democrats, with each party getting their way on the issues that mattered most to them. The Republicans were the party of Big Business, and Big Business for most of this time was a supporter of protectionism and high tariffs, meant to insulate domestic industry from foreign, especially European, competition. In the industrializing Northeast, much of the middle and working class was on board with this program, welcoming protection from low-wage labor in other countries (although in big cities, Democrats and even Socialists had a base of support from recent immigrants). The Democrats, meanwhile, were above all the party of Race, specifically in the white South, which was effectively under single-party rule, dedicated to keeping African Americans (and low class whites) disenfranchised. The agricultural South and West would have preferred more a more open trade policy, and the industrial Northeast had some misgivings about segregationist excesses, but the two sides managed to keep the peace with one another.
With the onset of the Great Depression, being the party of Big Business stopped working for the Republicans. A very different political alignment came into being with the New Deal. Intellectually too there were major shifts, especially in thinking about race, so that the cultural world of, say, 1950, seems miles away from the world of 1900.
From “The World is Flat” to a Fractured World
From the 1970s until just this year, a different bargain held between Republicans and Democrats. Curiously, this bargain was a kind of inverted version of the earlier détente between the parties. The Republicans were still the party of Big Business, but with the United States having matured into an industrial superpower, this translated into support for reducing barriers to international trade. And the Democrats were again the party of Race, but now non-whites were a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, making up for the party’s weak showing among whites. In particular, Democrats dominated the African American vote as effectively as they had once dominated the white Southern vote. Intellectually, this bargain translated into an ideological fusion of economic internationalism (what left wing critics would call neo-liberalism) and multiculturalism. Geographically, the pattern of support for the two parties was almost exactly the opposite of what it had been a century earlier.
Under the surface, there were signs that the Republican embrace of Big Business and free trade and the Democratic embrace of multiculturalism left a lot of voters dissatisfied. But it took a very unusual political campaign to bring this discontent to the surface. Like Roosevelt, Trump won with the support of Northeastern voters who would previously have supported the other party’s candidate (or stayed home). But analogies with the past go only so far. Trump’s margin of victory was far narrower than Roosevelt’s. The next few years seem more likely to witness an Age of Discord than a stable new political alignment.