If History Is a Guide, American Politics Is About to Get Weird

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This election season bears a striking resemblance to the one back in 1896—you know, the one that radically re-shaped what it meant to be a Democrat.

By Nathan Collins


A cartoon depicting William Jennings Bryan as a Populist snake, swallowing the Democratic Party, dated 1896. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This election year has been a weird one. Despite early assurances that Donald Trump had no shot at earning the Republican nomination, the controversial business magnate has, in fact, emerged victorious from the primary. Trump’s unlikely success hints that his particularly crude, off-the-cuff style of politics could be the future for the Grand Old Party. But we might have seen this coming, according to a new analysis: By a number of political measures, this year bears an uncanny resemblance to the transformative 1896 presidential election.

You could be forgiven for not knowing much about the 1896 election. (A certain reporter with an advanced degree in politics had at best a hazy memory of it.) It pitted Republican William McKinley against Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Although McKinley won—the incumbent, Grover Cleveland, was a Democrat and the economy was bad—Bryan’s candidacy ushered in an era of fieryoratory and Democratic Party populism. Indeed, Cleveland’s pro-business Democratic Party largely vanished from American politics.

That probably sounds at least a little bit familiar, what with Trump’s populism and his own brand of fiery oratory. But, political scientists Julia Azari and Marc Hetherington argue in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the similarity goes well beyond personality.

“When political conflict between the parties becomes polarized, the same polarizing issues tend to become divisive within parties as well.”

For one thing, Azari and Hetherington write, recent elections have been getting closer, as they had been leading up to the McKinley-Bryan race. Forty states have voted for the same party in the last four elections, a pattern of state-level stability unseen since the Gilded Age. Remarkably, the battle then, as now, largely pits Midwestern and Southern states against those in Pacific Coast, Great Lakes, and Northeast regions.

There were similar trends in partisanship too. Measuring party loyalty in terms of the two parties’ vote shares’ stability over four elections, Azari and Hetherington find that partisanship had been increasing to a high-water mark around the turn of the last century, and, after reaching a mid-century low, it’s reached similar highs today. (It might have made more sense for the researchers to use public opinion polls to measure the strength of voters’ party loyalty, but scientific polls hadn’t been invented by 1896.) The same data suggests greater national-party influence now and in 1896 than at any other time in the last 150 years.

Then there’s the matter of public debate, which today focuses on race and economic inequality—just exactly as it did in the late 19th century. Importantly, the debate was not just between parties, but also among them. Certainly, issues of economic inequality and the differing needs of urban and rural voters tore the Democratic party apart in the 1890s, just as similar issues have created intra-party conflicts today.

So what does this mean for the future of American politics? “[W]hen political conflict between the parties becomes polarized, the same polarizing issues tend to become divisive within parties as well,” Azari and Hetherington write. “[T]he fate of previous eras of division suggests that this brand of politics is rarely sustainable in the long term. If not in 2016, it seems change is likely to come soon.”