by Caroline Sutton
Countless analysts have claimed that the principle factor behind 2020 Democratic primary voter choice is ‘electability,’ or the candidate who is most easily able to defeat President Donald Trump. At this point in the presidential race, voters, worried for the future, have latched onto the candidate who most closely matches the image of an ‘electable’ candidate that is typically portrayed in political journalism: an older, white male who signals he is an ideological centrist. However, is this perception of ‘electable’ a good fit for our current moment?
History often gives us insights into our current state of affairs, and comparing one past election to anticipate the outcome of a future one is common. A good comparison to our current political landscape is the American Gilded Age (1870-1900), and in particular the years immediately preceding the election of 1896. This time period is relevant because both the economic and political landscapes look similar to that of 1896, and these similar landscapes may provide insights into what ‘electable’ looks like in the 2020 general election.
Much like today, the Gilded Age was noted for party polarization, rapidly increasing economic productivity, wealth inequality, and intense anxiety surrounding the subject of immigration. Congress passed very little serious legislation of any kind; from 1875 to 1896 only five major bills arrived on the president’s desk. The two major parties traded power back and forth regularly, with neither party dominating nationally. Citizens saw the wealthy as holding too much influence on government policies and viewed their institutions as undemocratic. Black men gained suffrage in the years following the Civil War and consistently voted for the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln. Southern Democrats actively sought and managed to disenfranchise black voters: first, in the 1870s and 80s with paramilitary violence designed to suppress turnout, then from 1890 to 1910 through legal measures like rewriting state constitutions and laws that made registering to vote more difficult—these disenfranchisement efforts did not end until the Votings Rights Act of 1965. Populism became a major political force as the People’s Party—a movement made up of farmers which fought for the government to have a more active role in citizens’ lives through regulating big business and ensuring safer working conditions—garnered over a million votes in 1892. As alluded to above, social issues like immigration loomed large in voters’ minds—the Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration from China in 1882, and in the 1870s through 1890s, at the state level, there was a hard push to eliminate foreign language schools serving German immigrants and their children.
Clearly, the major issues of the Gilded Age like xenophobia, wealth inequality, and party polarization mirror our experiences today. With that in mind, what did ‘electability’ look like in this late 19th century context? Beyond ideology, one important way of analyzing voting patterns is through voting blocs or coalitions. In the decades leading up to the election of 1896, coalitions were broad-based, but largely determined by race, as well as cultural issues like prohibition, which was mostly supported by Republicans. However, in 1893, an economic depression known as the Panic of 1893 began and lasted for four years, deeply impacting national politics. In the following election, the bases of each party’s power shifted dramatically. In the election of 1896, the Republican candidate, William McKinley, campaigned fervently along class lines and with an economy-centered policy platform, which catered to labor and established farmers, endorsing protectionism and a national board of arbitration to settle labor disputes. The McKinley campaign made special efforts to attribute the poor economy to the Democratic Party, as Democrat Grover Cleveland, elected in 1892, had overseen the response to the economic downturn in the following year. McKinley defeated his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, a young, charismatic politician who endorsed the free coinage of silver and was supported by the populist movement, with a victory margin of five points.
After McKinley won the election of 1896, class-based coalitions formed the political landscape for the following three decades. The Progressive Era (1900-1920), a time remembered for reforms that improved workforce safety, cut down on wealth inequality, and made the political process more democratic, was ushered in. Republicans nearly monopolized nationwide elections and occupied the White House for all but eight years during that period, losing only to Woodrow Wilson in 1912 after a split within the Republican Party left them vulnerable to a Democratic challenger. Progressive politics dominated domestically, and Republican president Theodore Roosevelt easily won his presidential election in 1904 and engaged in trust busting, supported the rise of organized labor, and strengthened consumer protections. Environmental conservation became a prominent topic, with efforts made to ensure that the nation’s natural resources benefited every segment of society, not only the wealthy and big businesses—such as Roosevelt’s insistence that certain wilderness areas never be developed. By the end of the Era in 1920, progress was made on social issues, as white women gained the right to vote.
What do the decades of electoral politics and coalitions around 1896 teach us about the political landscape and ‘electability’ today? First, we can learn that coalitions have the potential to shift both dramatically and rapidly and that, under the right circumstances, economic issues and class-based identities can quickly overwhelm voters’ priorities where race and social issues once dominated. The popularity of populist campaigns and economic policies, combined with aggravated economic problems, like rising income inequality and the possibility of an impending depression or recession as catastrophic as the Panic of 1893, suggest that we may quickly be approaching a moment similar to the election of 1896. If, indeed, the situation is similar, then the key to winning could be similar as well—the most electable candidate of either party in November 2020 could be the candidate who speaks to economic issues and organizes a class-based coalition.
The national popularity of candidates who speak starkly about class issues in an ‘us versus the billionaires’ narrative may signal that class identities are becoming more influential in voter choice. If the economy continues to worsen in the way it has in recent weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, then this may increase the salience of class identities, and voters may be more inclined to look past party labels, hot button issues, and inflammatory language.
There is limited evidence that political campaigns have a robust ability to change electoral outcomes and set the ‘issues of the day,’ especially when facing a media-savvy opponent like President Trump, but insofar as the Democratic Party is able to direct the national political conversation, I believe 1896 shows us that it would be in their interest to guide voting patterns to be shaped by class identities, with the Democratic Party representing middle and working class voters. In recent decades, Democrats have struggled to hold onto power at the state and local levels and most recently lost an election to a candidate many analysts considered to be a weak opponent. Common narratives included that President Trump’s lack of support among minority voters would cause him to hit a ‘ceiling’ and be unable to form a coalition big enough to win and that Republican voters would not coalesce behind a controversial, populist candidate. Neither of these factors prevented President Trump from securing a narrow victory that is relatively typical of the party parity we have experienced in recent election cycles. In the decades following 1896, however, the party of the middle class won the White House consistently and only lost the presidency for two terms. The Democratic Party would be advantaged to escape party parity and rely on a coalition which delivers victory more reliably.
Some in the Democatic Party might argue that these seem like substantial, risky changes and that they cannot imagine trying something so radical and new at a time when they simply want to win the next election and return to ‘normal.’ But flexibility is one of the primary assets of a democratic system, and there are signs that our democratic institutions have been failing us for longer than the past few years—not only is wealth inequality the highest in living memory, but these problems intensify if an individual comes from a minority background, due to discrimination that dates back far longer than the last election cycle. Congress has a 74 percent disapproval rating as of last month, and a majority of the public has not approved of the institution since 2003. In fact, back in 2004, Thomas Frank observed in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? that large swaths of the country actually appear to vote against their own economic interests in order to vote their preference on social issues. For example, a tax plan which overwhelmingly favored the wealthy and that was seemingly passed through this economic-for-social preference tradeoff had devastating effects for Kansas: lost government revenue, underfunded schools, and slower economic growth compared to the rest of the country. Clearly, a profound overhaul of the political discourse needs to occur to address these problems, and if we really are repeating the election of 1896, then Americans seem to be ready; in 2019, ruby red Kansas elected a Democratic governor in response to the GOP’s failed tax plan.
In sum, simplifying the ‘electability question’ into a question about candidate ideology ignores a great deal of context, social factors, and power dynamics in society, all of which influence voter choice and election outcomes. By looking back on a past critical election cycle, we can gain insights into the ‘type’ of presidential candidate most likely to succeed in this political landscape. Given the dominance of race-based coalitions and cultural issues in recent decades, combined with the recent rise of populism and economic hardship, 1896 is a good case study. Will Democrats replicate the success of William McKinley and organize based on class? With Sanders now out of the race, it seems less likely. But history appears to tell us that they should at least try.