The Second Era of No Decision

Column: How stagnation, inequality, and immigration create unstable majorities

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March 9, 2018

I had to travel to Silicon Valley to be reminded of how much our time resembles the late nineteenth century. Visiting the Stanford campus this week on a Hoover Institution media fellowship, I spoke to professors who view D.C. politics from a distance both critical and geographic. I was startled by how often the Gilded Age came up, unprompted, in my conversations. It was helpful to be reminded that, while the Beltway is obsessed with personalities—Stormy Daniels, Gary Cohn, Robert Mueller, Jared Kushner, and above all Donald Trump—the structural forces that have brought us to this moment are more important and more enduring.

Niall Ferguson mentioned a lecture he first delivered in 2016 on the five ingredients of a populist backlash. Recalling the Gilded Age of robber barons, bimetallism, the Panic of 1873, and Yellow Journalism, Ferguson pointed to income inequality, immigration, elite corruption, financial crisis, and demagogues as commonalities between that distant era and our own.

In an excellent 2017 presentation, D.C. consultant Bruce Mehlman noted further parallels. Both epochs had massive changes in employment. During the Gilded Age, agricultural jobs disappeared as workers poured into manufacturing. Today, manufacturing jobs go missing as workers enter the service sector. Disruptive technologies and the men who amass fortunes from innovation also define both periods. Then it was Carnegie and steel, Rockefeller and oil, Vanderbilt and railroads. Now it is Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and web search, Jeff Bezos and e-commerce, Mark Zuckerberg and the social network.

Like today, the America of the late nineteenth century was divided between the party of the economically ascendant cities and the party of declining and forgotten rural areas. Only then it was the Republicans who were city-dwellers and the Democrats who were Southerners and Midwestern farmers. Like today, the outsider party was taken over by a charismatic populist. Yet William Jennings Bryan lost all three of his campaigns for president. Trump won on his first attempt.

What, Ferguson wondered, would a Bryan presidency have looked like? There is no way of knowing, of course, but it probably would have faced the same challenges as Donald Trump's. Aggrieved, impassioned, and cut off from elite institutions, populist movements draw strength from segments of the population unlikely to have the credentials to staff a government or the literary and social status to articulate opinion in mass media. The economic and cultural aspirations of Bryan's followers were just as strange and, some might say, deplorable to the elites of his day as those of Trump's followers are to our own. These similarities would have made a Bryan presidency just as contentious, tumultuous, and unusual as the one we are living through currently.

Morris Fiorina, the author of Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate, told me that the politics of the Gilded Age are characterized as the "Era of No Decision" because of the unstable majorities that blew in and out of Congress between 1874 and 1894. Presidential returns were also unusual. The winner of the Electoral College lost the popular vote in both 1876 and 1888, just as happened in 2000 and 2016. Presidents during the Era of No Decision rarely won with a majority of the vote, just as, during this second Era of No Decision, presidents have won more than 50 percent in only three of seven elections.

Ambitious operatives and sensationalist media want us mistakenly to believe that enduring majorities are the norm. This false assumption is based on generalizations from twentieth-century history. From 1896 to 1930, Fiorina explained, Republicans tended to control the presidency, House of Representatives, and Senate. Then, from 1932 to 1952, Democrats tended to control all three institutions. From 1954 and 1992, America experienced divided government, mainly between Republican presidents and Democratic congresses.

Since 1992, however, the combinations have been all over the place. We have had united Democratic control and united Republican control, Republican presidents with Democratic congresses and Democratic presidents with Republican congresses, and both Republican and Democratic presidents with congresses split between the parties. "The reestablishment of unified Democratic control under Bill Clinton," writes Fiorina in his great new book, "began a two-decade-long (and counting) period of electoral outcomes that defy generalizations like those describing the three previous eras."

Why have these post-Cold War majorities been so unstable? Perhaps it is because this most recent wave of globalization inspired changes within the parties similar to those that occurred in the last one. "My contention," writes Fiorina, "is that a significant component of the national pattern of majoritarian instability stems from today's close party divide combined with today's ideologically well-sorted parties."

Fiorina's research has shown that the parties of the Era of No Decision were just as sorted as our own. To win a majority, a party must appeal to the large number of voters who do not identify as either a Republican or a Democrat. Yet, once in office, the ideological nature of our parties moves them to enact policies anathema to the very people who brought them to power. "In short," Fiorina concludes, "the interaction between the close party divide and today's well-sorted parties leads to 'overreach,' with predictable electoral repercussions. The center does hold, frustrating the governing attempts of both parties."

What is interesting is that the Era of No Decision ended when Bryan and the Populists captured the Democratic Party, creating inroads for Republicans among groups alienated by Bryan and open to McKinley's economic message. But at this point our analogy begins to break down, since in 2016 the populist won and, though he certainly alienates swing constituencies such as suburban women and whites with college degrees, the Democrats have not yet capitalized on the opportunity before them. They lack an economic agenda and their own internal divisions are potentially debilitating.

Nor can one ignore the fact that President Trump's inclinations, ambiguities, and personal tics may have prevented the Republican Congress from overreaching as it and Democratic ones have done in the past. It is possible that the repeal of Obamacare would have alienated marginal members of the Republican coalition, especially members of the white working class who defected from Obama to Trump, just as the bill's passage had turned off independents eight years before. That might have increased the chances of a switch in House control this November.

But Obamacare repeal failed. Republicans are left with a tax bill gaining in popularity and presidential trade and immigration policies that are the very things that attracted the voters who won Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin for Trump in the first place. "Thus the irony," writes Fiorina. "Less Republican accomplishment on the policy front from 2016-2018 would lead to lower Democratic gains on the electoral front in 2018."

Still, as I write, the most probable scenario is that Democrats will win the 24 seats necessary to take over the House, and the Second Era of No Decision will continue indefinitely. But this is just one scenario. Historical analogies cannot tell us how to act. They do not reveal how things will end. What history does is enlarge our sense of the possible—and remind us that human nature is tragic and cyclical rather than therapeutic and progressive.