We often hear that the election that takes place next Tuesday will be one of the most important in American history. Such statements, however, are often little more than hyperbole. To make the case that an election is momentous, you need to compare it with previous critical ones.
The most important elections are those in which political history changes course. There have been only three genuine realignments in the past 125 years. They centered on the presidential elections of 1896, 1932 and 1968.
It’s often assumed that realignments are the positive results of the actions of popular leaders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. In fact, however, the origins of realignments are always negative. Voters turn against a party that has long held power when it presides over a major failure.
A long period of Republican dominance began with the 1896 election as the result of an economic collapse, the Panic of 1893, that started under the Democrats. GOP supremacy continued until an economic collapse on its watch, the Panic of 1929, turned the public against the party. The Democratic ascendancy that was made possible by the Panic of 1929 and began with the Election of 1932 lasted until 1968, when a disastrous, unnecessary war discredited the party.
The 1968 turning point was somewhat disguised in that year’s election because of the third-party candidacy of George Wallace and a very narrow victory by Richard Nixon. But Republican strategists understood that if they could add the Wallace vote to Nixon’s they would have a substantial majority and that they could do that by running against “the Sixties.” The GOP used that formula to win an overwhelming victory in 1972. Watergate temporarily slowed the Republican ascendancy, but it was clear by 1980.
Now the long period of Republican dominance that began with a negative reaction against the Democrats in 1968 appears likely to end next Tuesday because both a disastrous, unnecessary war and the Panic of 2008 have discredited the Republicans. If so, Barack Obama will be presented with an opportunity to turn a negative rejection of the party blamed with messing things up into a positive mandate for change and a lasting majority for his party. FDR was able to take advantage of such an opportunity, but Nixon was not, leaving it for Reagan to do so a decade later.
As for which previous election this year’s most resembles, several candidates have been nominated. The two mentioned most often are 1960 and 1980.
In 1960, a young, inexperienced “celebrity” Democrat from a minority that had never before produced a president ran against a more experienced but less likable Republican. The young, handsome, Catholic John F. Kennedy won a narrow victory over the experienced, monochromatic Republican vice president, Richard Nixon.
Voters in 1980 were very upset with the failings of the incumbent party’s president but were also fearful that the challenger was not up to the job, had no experience in foreign policy, and might be dangerous. In the closing days of the campaign, though, a majority of voters decided that it was even riskier to keep going in the same direction with Jimmy Carter than to take a leap into the unknown with Ronald Reagan.
Both of these elections parallel that of 2008 and point toward an Obama victory this year. There are, though, three other elections that are even more similar to the one this year.
In 1896, the party in power under which the economy had collapsed nominated a man who disagreed with the party’s president on some issues. Although William Jennings Bryan was far more different from Democratic President Grover Cleveland than John McCain is from Republican President George W. Bush, Bryan’s party affiliation helped to doom him and William McKinley was elected.
In 1920, the incumbent party’s president had become very unpopular as a result of a war that had not produced the idealistic results he had promised when the United States entered it. Woodrow Wilson was not on the ballot, but his party’s nominee, James Cox, was chained to his party’s unpopular president, who pulled him down like an anchor, and Republican Warren Harding won in a landslide.
In 1932, as in 1896, the economy had collapsed and the incumbent president was extremely unpopular. The challenger was a man who was criticized as being all fluff and no substance. That challenger, Franklin Roosevelt, easily defeated the incumbent, Herbert Hoover.
Next week’s election is shaping up as a combination of 1932 and 1920. The Panic of 2008 is having an effect on the Republican nominee similar to that of the Panic of 1929 on the Republican candidate in 1932. But, unlike Hoover in 1932, McCain is not the incumbent president. That circumstance makes the 2008 election more like that of 1920: McCain is being weighed down by his party’s president and that president’s war, as Cox was in 1920.
The equation for next Tuesday, then, is: 1920+1932 = 2008.
And we can take some comfort in the fact that history indicates that while realignments are caused by party failures, they usually set the country in a fresh direction and usher in needed reforms.
by Robert S. McElvaine
History News Service
Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of “The Great Depression.”
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