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Stuart Rothenberg: How today's politics is a throwback -- to the 1890s

Stuart Rothenberg, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

According to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, there were split results in only 16 House districts in 2020 — or just under 4 percent.

Finally, Jensen noted, “Turnout was doubly important since the two parties were very evenly matched in the 1880s, both in the Midwest and in the nation at large.”

Here again, the current situation echoes the earlier period. Today, the Senate is split evenly, and Democrats hold a narrow single-digit advantage in the House. The last two presidential elections turned on a handful of states that were narrowly decided.

Many political analysts believe that the percentage of swing voters is shrinking and that the key to winning elections now is turnout.

So how did the country move past the partisanship and polarization of the 1890s? The election of 1896, won by Republican William McKinley, produced a new partisan alignment that ushered in decades of GOP dominance.

As political scientist James Sundquist noted in his classic “Dynamics of the Party System”:


“The massive swing to the Republicans in the North was predominantly urban. In rural counties in the Midwest and even in the East, the Democrats showed relatively slight losses from their strength in 1892. But in the urban centers the shift was decisive and lasting, and it was reflected in state as well as national elections.

Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, emphasized Sundquist, “failed disastrously to win over the urban element of his ‘toiling masses’ coalition.”

Jensen made the same point when he argued, “The largest cities provided the greatest Republican gains in 1896, thanks to their ethno-religious composition, their industrialized and commercialized economic base, and their relative freedom from the constraints of traditional party loyalties.”

I don’t know whether 2024 or 2028 will turn out to be another realigning election (and if one of them does, who will benefit). But Jensen’s observations about the period from 1888 to 1896 surely present food for thought and remind us that what seems unique — in this case extreme polarization and partisanship — often is not.

The political behavior of urban — and particularly suburban — America could well prove to be the key to whether and how our politics changes.

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