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I’ve been thinking, in an abstract and theoretical way, about the psychology of political power. I’d call it sociology, but I despised my high school sociology teacher, a football coach who was too dumb to teach science or literature (or sociology either, come to think of it). So I won’t call it sociology. Consider this:

We had Republican Presidents from 1861 to 1932 (except for Cleveland and Wilson).

We had Democratic Presidents from 1933 to 1968 (except for Eisenhower).

We had Republican Presidents from 1969 to 2008 (except for Carter and Clinton).

I think we’re at the beginning of a new era of Democratic Presidents. I suppose I’m the opposite of a concern troll. Call me an enthusiastic and ecstatic elf. I’ll explain in more detail below.

Clear your mind and just for a moment, forget about domestic issues, foreign issues, political philosophies, party platforms, laws passed or tabled or filibustered, and scandals real or imagined. This is not an essay about the differences between Republicans and Democrats. I’m trying to determine why a party stays in power for a while and then loses their power. Here’s my thesis:

In the U.S., the party in power tends to stay in power for 40-50 years (about two generations), then something catastrophic happens to make large numbers of voters to switch to the other side.

Also, you must understand that parties evolve and change over the years. A Republican from 1860 might not recognize the Republican Party of 1900 or 1940 or 1980. Yes, the label has stayed the same, but that’s just a label. Republicans call themselves "The Party of Lincoln" and Democrats have "Jefferson-Jackson Day," but who knows what Jefferson, Jackson, or Lincoln would think about our current American political parties? Lincoln might prefer the Democrats of 2009. Jackson might be a Republican (or not).

We’ll temporarily discard the labels "Republican" and "Democrat." See how abstract this is getting? We’ll just think about the majority party and the minority party. OK?

At any given point in time, the majority party is the party in power and minority party is the one out of power (in the U.S. Presidency and Congress) and, to borrow a couple of terms from physics, the majority party has momentum and inertia. The party in power tends to stay in power until an outside force acts upon it.

Let’s think about how people vote.

By definition, the majority party gets elected because they get more popular votes (Congress) or more electoral votes (President), which means the winners have the support of the people who voted. Many people loyally vote for the same party year after year. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’d guess that children of Democrats tend to be Democrats and children of Republicans tend to be Republicans. As a general rule, party loyalty is passed down to the next generation.

Voters also tend to favor their congressperson and senator. Congresscritters have aides who work on constituent relations. They will help you if you need to get a passport in a hurry, or if a bridge leading to your home is washed out, or if you want to visit Washington, DC, as a tourist. The aides know that you’ll tell your friends good things about the congressperson they work for. Incumbents have an edge over challengers because people come to like them. This favors incumbents (and, pari passu, the majority party).

Let’s look at what rich people want.

Rich people like being rich and they wouldn’t mind being richer. Government has the power to pass and enforce laws. So when the election is over, the hoity-toity bigwigs hobnob with the congress critters. People with vested financial interests (like, say, steel mining or railroads or lumber or software or banking or the internet or whatever is currently big in the economy) will try to influence people in government to get laws passed that will help them. Or they’ll lobby against laws that will hurt them. As long as the majority party holds the power, they’ll continue to get lots of money and advice from the people who have money.

The politicians stay in power because the little people (the voters) like them and the big people (the rich) also like them. So how does the majority party lose their power? It has to be something catastrophic.


Here are the catastrophes that have turned the minority party into the majority party:

The Civil War. In 1860, the issue of slavery had been festering for years, dividing the country into slave states and free states. Lincoln’s election was the trigger for the Civil War, which resulted in a long period of Republican hegemony (after the Union Army beat the Confederate Army).

The Great Depression of 1929. Wall Street crashed in 1929, then banks crashed, then unemployment soared, and Herbert Hoover did almost nothing to fix it. FDR promised a radical change and he delivered. He also managed to get a victory in WWII. Which was a good thing.

The Vietnam War and Civil Rights. LBJ screwed up in Vietnam, but he was spot on when it came to civil rights. Nixon’s southern strategy worked brilliantly. He couldn’t be overtly racist, but phrases like "silent majority," "anti-busing," "law and order," and "peace with honor" convinced enough white middle class (and lower class) voters to switch to the Republican party – or, at the very least, to vote for George Wallace instead of Hubert Humphrey.

The Great Recession of 2008. Bush’s laissez-faire policies of free markets regulated by nobody and nothing (not even common sense) led to an economic disaster of a magnitude not seen since Herbert Hoover got smacked in the face by the invisible hand. The bursting of the dot-com bubble was followed by the bursting of the real estate bubble. Add to that the justifiable war in Afghanistan (to get Bin Laden) and the idiotic WMD war in Iraq (not at all justified by bald-faced lies and pure treachery) and Hurricane Katrina and war crimes (torture) and, my God, so many other things (lowering taxes and ballooning the deficit after Clinton had balanced the budget) – well, the result was that voters realized that:

If I were the word "compassionate" I'd be ashamed to appear in the same sentence as "conservative."

As of 2009, the Republican party is a sinking ship. Curiously, the humans have fled and only the rats remain.

And that’s the end of my rant.

P.S. I almost forgot about the exceptions. Bear with me.

We had Republican Presidents from 1861 to 1932 (except for Cleveland and Wilson).

I don’t have a theory about Grover Cleveland, the only President who was elected, defeated, and then re-elected. I suppose if I cared, I’d figure out how he was elected as a Democrat during the Republican era. Anybody have a theory about it?

Wilson benefitted from Teddy Roosevelt’s third party candidacy (TR was originally a Republican, so he split the Republican vote). Plus WWI was a factor in Wilson’s re-election.

We had Democratic Presidents from 1933 to 1968 (except for Eisenhower).

Eisenhower was a war hero. If he had run as a Democrat, he would have won. He probably could have won as a Socialist. He was the 1952 version of George Washington.  And he was pretty moderate for a Republican (he warned the country about the military-industrial complex). Plus he spent a ton of money on the interstate highway system.  Here’s the only link in this whole diary. Look at the electoral vote map of the 1952 election results here. The only blue states are in the "solid South." The South voted for the Adlai Stevenson. Reverse the colors and it could be a map of the 2012 election.

We had Republican Presidents from 1969 to 2008 (except for Carter and Clinton).

Carter and Clinton proved that the only electable Democrats were Governors from the South who had a brother with a substance abuse problem. JOKE! Just kidding!

Carter got elected as a reaction against Nixon’s resignation (and the Ford pardon), but I think the country was basically Republican by that time. Which is why Reagan beat him four years later.

I think Clinton got elected because of Ross Perot. I believe that Perot took more votes away from the Republicans than he did from the Democrats. And in 2000, Ralph Nader took more votes away from Al Gore than he did from GW. And back in 1968, George Wallace took more votes away from Humphrey than he did from Nixon. And Truman almost lost in 1948 because of the Dixiecrats. Third parties always hurt the party that’s closest to them. Like that song, "You always hurt the one you love."

P.P.S.  Done now. Thanks for reading.

Originally posted to Dbug on Mon Aug 03, 2009 at 08:32 AM PDT.

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