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Is 2010 midterm election like 1890?

Guest Blogger

On one side, there are those who favor government activism; on the other, those who demand a smaller government. One party holds the presidency and both houses of Congress. The other party is determined to shatter the grip of its rival. Just the well-known landscape for the 2010 midterm election, right? Well, it’s 1890 and the parallels to this year are striking. In the late 19th century, as Charles W. Calhoun recounts in “From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age,” recently released by Hill and Wang, the political world was intense and sharply divided. Here, Calhoun, a professor of history at East Carolina University, takes us on an historical journey with an eye trained on the present.

By Charles W. Calhoun

Americans love the Constitution but are wary of the government it created. Or so it would seem from the anti-government, anti-incumbent outcry sweeping the country as the midterm congressional election campaign heats up.

A deep skepticism about government is not new. When Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem, not the solution, and when Bill Clinton proclaimed the era of big government over, each was tapping an age-old suspicion that was embodied in the checks and balances the Founders loaded into the Constitution. In our current political atmosphere, it has burst forth not only in the Tea Party movement but also in a broader-based, inchoate libertarianism.

As party strategists are busily calculating how anti-government notions will affect voters’ actions in November, it’s worth looking back at a similar situation in America’s political past. Historical antecedents are never as predictive as we would like, but they can offer a broader perspective on current events.

As in the midterms today, the 1890 congressional elections -- at the height of the Gilded Age -- witnessed a face-off between the advocates of activist government and those who sought to keep it as small as possible. In that era, the Republicans, who had exerted unprecedented federal authority during the Civil War and Reconstruction, espoused an activist agenda, believing that, as Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed put it, “the danger in a free country is not that power will be exercised too freely, but that it will be exercised too sparingly.” The Democrats, true to their Jeffersonian roots, were the party of “No,” rallying to President Grover Cleveland’s dictum that “though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”

Two years earlier, the Republicans had managed to win the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, thereby breaking the divided party control that had crippled the federal government for a decade and a half. Under the leadership of Reed and President Benjamin Harrison, the Republicans viewed the 1888 elections as a clear mandate to act, and used their strong majorities to pass landmark legislation. The McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 raised import duties to protect American producers from foreign competition but also empowered the president to negotiate fast-track trade agreements to expand exports. Tackling the touchy currency question (before the creation of the Federal Reserve), the Republicans expanded the money supply through the issuance of certificates backed by silver produced in the United States. The GOP also led in the bi-partisan passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act barring combinations “in restraint of trade or commerce,” thereby establishing the core of American anti-monopoly policy.

Happily confronted with a substantial budget surplus, the Republicans spent liberally on public works and defense. They also dramatically increased pensions for military veterans -- a foreshadowing of modern welfare policies. In another augur of later social policy, the House passed the Lodge Federal Elections Bill to restore and protect African Americans’ right to vote in the South.

Democrats steadfastly opposed nearly all of these measures, and Republicans leaned heavily on their majorities to ensure passage. In the House, the speaker routinely crushed the Democrats’ obstructionist tactics, earning the sobriquet, “Czar Reed.”

Congress adjourned just a month before the 1890 election, but Democrats on the stump had already pounced. The McKinley Tariff, they charged, would send consumer prices through the roof and nourish trusts, despite the Sherman Act. Though divided on the silver issue, both hard-money and soft-money Democrats condemned the Republicans’ silver law. Southern and northern Democrats alike denounced the Lodge bill as threatening to revive Reconstruction, with “bayonet rule” and “negro domination.” Lacerating tax-and-spend Republicans, the Democrats damned the “Billion-Dollar Congress” for raiding the Treasury. Reed retorted that America was a billion-dollar country, but voters paid little heed.

In one of the largest shifts of party strength in history, the Democrats won 235 House seats and the GOP, 88. Republicans found the result not only galling but supremely ironic, believing, as Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge said, “the Republican party never since the war deserved so well.” Voters’ rejection of activism continued two years later, when they gave the Senate to the Democrats and the presidency again to Cleveland, who intoned that “the lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned.”

Small-government enthusiasts may find comfort in the parallels between 1890 and today’s midterm campaign, but the laissez-faire triumph of 1890/1892 did not last. The Panic of 1893 devastated the economy, and the minimalist approach of Cleveland and his party proved utterly inadequate to deal with the collapse. In the 1894/1896 election cycle, the Democrats sank to a minority status that lasted for a generation. Not until FDR’s New Deal activism did they regain a solid hold on power.

The political conditions that ran through the early 1890s have telescoped into a single year today: a resurgent suspicion of government alongside demands for government action to meet an economic crisis. How these clashing impulses sway the volatile electorate will determine the outcome in November.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  September 8, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: historical comparison for 2010 midterm election; partisanship; control of congress;  
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What one fears is that GOP/Tea Party gains in 2010 may usher in two years of paralysis when the nation can least afford it. But the point made by Mr. Calhoun that distrust of federal power has always been a powerful force in our nation's politics couldn't be more accurate. The Democratic Party was historically the party most opposed to federal power until FDR changed all that in the 1930s. Now the GOP seems destined to fill that role. At times, the impulse to rein in government power has served us well, but it has also contributed mightly to some of the most difficult episodes in our history, from the near-disaster of War of 1812 and the awful trajedy of the Civil War to the Depressions of the 1890s and 1930s. It's hard to know if what comes next now will be a welcome rethinking of government's role or a reaction against perceived problems that creates a much bigger mess than it solves.

Posted by: jdnathan | September 8, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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