Until Jackson's election, the government had largely wavered between tendencies towards a strong federal government, which manifested itself in both Federalist and Democratic-Republican presidencies, and decentralized, isolationist government policies. To this point, the hostility between supporters of a strong central government and decentralization of power had largely been over such theories as nullification and about tariffs. Jackson, who was originally an advocate of state's rights, became a staunch supporter of a strong federal government. His first vice president, John Calhoun, was a strong defender of state's rights, though, and it was during this partnership that the hostility became more open between the different political philosophies, especially over the issue of slavery. Arguably, the influence of interest groups, such as abolitionists, farmers, and others blossomed with the election of Jackson, and the political process, which, until that point had been rather diplomatic and calm, became downright hostile at certain times.
After Jackson left office, there would not be another president elected to two terms. One could argue that his greatest failure was his lack of addressing the issue of slavery in a timely manner. The Missouri Compromise, which had been rendered in 1820 under James Monroe's presidency as a way to balance the states between free and slave states, was ruled unconstitutional. As the old guard of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster gave way to a more confrontational generation, led by Stephen Douglas and William Seward, the Union hurtled towards inevitable cvil conflict.
1876: The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 was very similar, electorally, to the 1992 election of Bill Clinton: Lincoln assumed office with a plurality of the votes (only 40% of the popular vote) due to the split in the main opposition party (Democrats were split by region: Stephen Douglas was the northern candidate, John Breckenridge was the southern candidate), and he did not have a strong mandate at all. I'm going to skip over the years from 1860-1876, though. The Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction, while part of the same era, are difficult to evaluate on a plane that can be used comparatively across different periods of time. The election of Lincoln and the general who was victorious in the Civil War, Ulysses Grant, in each of the presidential elections were more indicative of affiliation of the non-seceding portion of the country with the Republican Party, whereas the Democrats were seen as consorts with the erstwhile Confederates.
1876, one of several contested elections in our history, was eventually won by Rutherford B. Hayes over his Democratic challenger, Samuel Tilden. The electoral vote for this race could not have been closer - Hayes won by one vote, 185-184 - but the ramifications of the deal that brought him to power could not have been clearer. In exchange for the 4 states and the 20 electoral votes that put Hayes over the top, Reconstruction was effectively ended prematurely. While one can argue about whether or not this was a good idea or not, there is no question that the political battleground was clearly drawn after this: the South voted solidly for Democrats until Nixon's election in 1968, and the North was, for the most part, staunchly Republican. This ensured that the wounds from the Civil War would not be healed properly, and that the South would be left to fix the racial divisions that centuries of slavery had created.
The more important aspect of what would become Republican dominance of the presidency from 1860-1896 (with the exception of the pro-Union Democrat Andrew Johnson and two separated terms of Grover Cleveland) would be the rise of big business during America's Industrial Age. Largely free from regulation from the government (some things never change), monopolies and oligopolies in multiple industries - oil, steel, railroads, just to name a few - sprang up. While immigrants came to America in droves, they were often given the worst jobs and treated with rabid xenophobia, most notably the Irish. Furthermore, politics became inexplicably corrupted. Both of the major political parties, through their machines in urban areas, ran roughshod over any sort of ethics in their quest for power. Despite Chester Arthur's passage of civil service reform, government continued to be afflicted with patronage and nepotism. While one could argue that Andrew Jackson, with his 'kitchen cabinet', was the original initiator of widespread nepotism in government, it was during this era that corruption ran rampant in America. The booms and busts, which occurred with a much more regular frequency during this era, was a result of too much economic power being concentrated in the hands of a few.
1896: The actual electoral result doesn't indicate much: Republican William McKinley beat Democrat/Populist William Jennings Bryan, maintaining a Republican dominance over the presidency until 1932 (with only an eight-year hiatus with Woodrow Wilson). However, despite the ensuing disintegration of the Populist movement in the Midwest, the seeds of the Progressive movement were sewn. People were disaffected by a government that wasn't working in their best interests. The middle class, particularly the farmers of the Midwest, were the worst hit by the boom/bust cycle that occurred with regularity, and the laissez-faire economy, which was dominated by large corporations, were responsible. Until FDR's election in 1932, there was a large rise in the amount of muckraking done that exposed the horrors of what America was becoming - from Jacob Riis' pictures of squalid tenements in New York City, to Upton Sinclair's now-famed look at Chicago meatpacking factories. More importantly, though, despite the rise of yellow journalism, which was probably most responsible for getting us into the Spanish-American War, was the birth of a dedicated group of independent journalists - people who reported the truth to the people. Teddy Roosevelt, who was more loyal to progressivism than to the Republican Party, began to institute some changes to government policy, most notably his much tighter enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act, whichb had been passed in 1890, and his committment to conservation.
The reform movement that lasted throughout the early 1900s died upon Warren Harding's election in 1920, returning the country to a state of 'normalcy', as he called it. Until the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the government acted in a similarly disinterested, isolated fashion that had long been the precedent for Republican presidencies. Big corporations flourished, and American culture thrived, but once the Depression hit, the era of Republican dominance came to an end. Herbert Hoover's ineffectual and often baffling moves, such as the Smoot-Hawley tariff, led to the election that led to an unprecedented era of Democratic dominance in national politics and much-needed reform in government.
1932: With the exception of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, Democrats occupied the White House for 36 years. During this time, America began the process of transforming itself into a welfare state. Several programs were created to help put Americans back to work, and some acts, such as Social Security and the FDIC, continue to last to this very day. With the establishment of the NLRB in 1935, unions finally gained the legitimacy that had so long been denied to them. It's probably more fair to say that our entry into World War II was more responsible for finally lifting America out of the Depression than FDR's programs, but the efforts that Roosevelt put into aiding the middle and lower classes did improve people's lives and further put the government on solid ground.
Truman's 'Fair Deal' was largely an extension of what FDR had done, but it was LBJ's 'Great Society' - with its combination of civil rights and the 'war on poverty' - that have arguably influenced political debate to the present. In establishing such programs as welfare, policies that helped to fight the inherent inequalities that African-Americans had faced in America due to slavery and Jim Crow laws, our country took a large step forward in becoming the true democracy that we envision ourselves as. However, it also split FRD's 'New Deal' coalition. The South, which had remained solidly Democratic despite the Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat experiment in 1948, while remaining predominantly Democratic on the state level, began to shift towards the GOP in the 1960s, when strategists within the party realized that playing on racial insecurities and other cultural values that were 'threatened' by the counterculture revolution could turn the historically Democratic region.
1968: This year may not have been the harbinger of the present era of politics in America had RFK not been assassinated. Even so, Richard Nixon barely squeaked out a victory over incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but it signaled the beginning of a rightwards shift in the country that continues to this day. While Republicans had been much more moderate before Nixon's election, the virulent anticommunism that had existed in the party, along with the extreme conservatism of Barry Goldwater, served to infuse the party with a more conservative tone. Despite Nixon's subsequent resignation and Jimmy Carter's election, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 served to cement the rise of contemporary conservatism in America. Liberalism was now bad not necessarily because of its virtues of running government, but it was no longer associated with 'values'. To this day, liberals are accused of all sorts of immoral traits, from being homosexual to 'feminazis' to being generally deviant.
The era of conservatism has also lowered the level of political discourse and encouraged entertainment over substance. Thoughtful discussion on the problems of the country is no longer the favored method of discourse; instead, it is on mindless shows such as Hardball, the now-defunct Crossfire, where loud arguments, usually backed with faulty evidence, are the norm. The media, which was never 'liberal' to begin with but was rather independent, has been steadily manipulated by Republicans and their backers into a deregulated form of communication where propaganda from Limbaugh, Novak, Hannity, and other right-wingers, many who do not have the journalistic credentials that used to be necessary, are now mainstream.
Furthermore, we have once again entered an era where the government works for the people - but only for the ones at the top of the hill. Tax cuts, based on the flawed and frankly, rather stupid theory of 'trickle down' and supply-side economics, have run our government deeper and deeper into debt, particularly during the Reagan and Bush II administrations. We have increasingly allocated more spending to defense while taking money away from the programs that help out ordinary Americans - Social Security, Medicare, and others. We're being told what our 'values' should be, and despite the liberalization of social norms that is inevitable, we're coming to a point where the courts may no longer uphold that right to privacy we've come to expect when it comes to our personal lives.
So...will 2006 be the year that things turn around? History has shown that critical elections in our nation's history have occurred regularly at 30-40 year intervals. With this being 38 years after the election of Nixon that precipitated the rightward shift of the country, it's prime time for the Democrats to rise up and take power. While September 11 provided a cover for the Republican's ineptitude to the general public long enough to get Bush reelected, this year has been a public relations disaster for the administration. Even some of the Republican base is beginning to see that after attempts to dismantle Social Security, mismanagement in Iraq and the aftermath of Katrina, the first indictment of a sitting White House official in 130 years, and the news that our own government has been spying on us without any oversight or permission. Conservative government has not been working for America, and it's up to us - to Democrats - to prove that our agenda is better, that it will be more effective in solving the problems and dealing with the issues that affect us daily. The critical elections in our nation's history have come at a time when the ruling regime was becoming ineffective and stale to the general population. That is the bulwark for Democrats heading into 2006 - Republicans are ineffective, incompetent, and insensitive to the needs of the average American. What we need to do is formulate a message, which I'll discuss in my next diary.