In 1800 and 1824, the House of Representatives had to vote on who would be the next president. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln didn't even appear on the ballot in a number of Southern States. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes had to promise to end Reconstruction in order to get a committee to let him into the White House. In 1888, Benjamin Harrison moved into the White House after losing the popular vote.
The Presidency in the nineteenth century was filled with intrigue and instability. Between Jackson and Grant (forty years), not a single president served two terms. Two died in office and one was assassinated. The major political parties were bitterly divided and about half the country despised any given President at any given time. Divisions were often based on geographic differences and there often arose a battle between rural and urban interests.
As a result of all of this, a president had to spend much of his time balancing factions within the country and trying to smooth over serious disagreements between representatives from different parts of the nation. Andrew Jackson had to spend a considerable amount of time trying to keep South Carolina from seceding in response to high tariffs. Jackson eventually won, but South Carolina never renounced the legality of secession. Polk's annexation of Texas created all kinds of problems for the Presidency since the North was immediately suspicious of a Southern Conspiracy to extend slave territory. The Missouri compromise was yet another balancing act the president had to oversee in an effort to unite a deeply divided country. In the 1850's, Kansas broke out into outright warfare as locals tried to decide whether or not the state would be slave or free. In fact, every time a state was added, emotions ran high and distrust abounded. The federal government (especially the Presidency) was seen as an institution that was not to be trusted and to be viewed with keen suspicion any time it passed any major legislation.
All of this started to break down after the Civil War. The south was politically castrated (and rural interests with it), and federal policy was left to run riot on issues of fiat money, military policy, and social policy. With the absence of the slavery problem, the feds had free reign in the territories and proceeded to eradicate the Indians as quickly as possible. The federal government instituted the first large-scale welfare program with pensions for all Union soldiers from the War. Pension fraud was widespread. All the while the vision of empire became more and more clear in the minds of national leaders. With the coming of the 20th Century, the vision of empire spread to the entire globe. The Filipinos were brought under our control. The Hawaiians had been fully pacified, and the Puerto Ricans were set straight. Teddy Roosevelt sent a great fleet of warships around the world to show people how powerful we were.
The troublesome dissenters in the U.S. had finally been dealt with, so the U.S. could get on with the business of reining in everyone else in too. The South was kept nice and poor, so they couldn't give us any trouble anymore. The West was full of Union soldiers with Army pensions and their descendants who owed the Feds for running out the Indians and for financing the railroads. Everyone owed something to the feds and the "national consensus" was born. Before we knew it, we were meddling in every little conflict (and every big one) that we could find. We managed to find a permanent enemy with the Soviets, and the feds found that any number of federal grip-tightening measures could be justified by saying it was to fight the communists. We were told that if government were not given a free hand to promote the "greatness" of the United States, we'd all end up freezing in a nuclear winter. The old geographic differences had broken down. Sure, there were still large differences between the ideologies of rich and poor, and whites and blacks. Nevertheless, these interests were spread out in all kinds of places, and no clear regional differences were discernible. The President who once had to act as National Arbitrator was now free to engage in social engineering, and making the world "safe for democracy".
This federal snow job lasted pretty well until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The cloud of communism could no longer be used to force Americans to love whatever federal policies were forwarded as being necessary for the defense of the "free world". Then another strange thing happened: White Southerners suddenly became conservative Republicans instead of conservative Democrats. The balance of power changed in the congress for the first time in decades. The federal government became sharply divided culminating in the impeachment of a President. Sure, the U.S. kept on meddling with and bombing other countries, but such things were only supported by a fairly small minority of the population. Clinton was not able to muster 50% of the vote in either 1992 or 1996. His Congress remained in Republican hands. All the while, the urban centers on the West coast and in the Northeast grew plenty liberal while the South and West became solidly conservative.
Then came the election of 2000. Any casual look at the results of the election show that the geographic divisions of the 19th Century have returned. As with Slavery, the main division is along lines of social policy. Matters of religion, morality, and local values rule. Economics is not to be discounted though. The net tax receivers live in places like California, New York, and Illinois. The tax producers live in the technologically advanced West and the newly recovered South. Southerners and westerners are tired of being forced to endure regulations and taxes which benefit people hundreds of miles away who ridicule their religions and way of life. Mistrust and suspicion has begun to resurface in the American landscape. Major changes in federal policy are a thing of the past. Juggling American factions has become difficult and time consuming. The president can no longer simply defer to American "greatness" or the Communist threat or to the "will of the people" to install massive federal programs.
As these geographic blocs begin to solidify, the rhetoric will undoubtedly become even more biting and even more savage. Presidents will be lucky to get anything other than cosmetic bills passed, and gridlock will be a way of life. With the census over and reapportionment taking place in Congress, changes will reflect population movements to the West and South. Places like Colorado, Nevada, and Texas will receive more seats in Congress and more electoral votes diminishing the relative power of the liberal urban areas. The balance of power will become more even. Compromise will again become a common term in American politics. No matter who ends up in the White House this year, he will have to spend most of his time begging for support from Congress and the American electorate. Moderation will be his middle name. "Greatness" will be far out of reach.
Lovers of liberty everywhere should cheer this development. We're looking at a possible rebirth of 19th century style political wrangling and gridlock. The more time Washington politicians spend trying to screw each other, the less time they have to screw us. With an evenly divided electorate, there is no mandate. There is no clear vision of "greatness" and there is no consensus. Let's all pause for a moment and cheer the return of the 19th Century. We've been waiting a long time.
November 14, 2000
Ryan McMaken is a graduate student in American politics at the University of Colorado. He edits the Western Mercury.