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The Anatomy of a Wave Election

Salena Zito on

CARLISLE, Pennsylvania -- It was called the political storm of the century. It would end with the largest single turnover of power in American history -- and one for the ages.

It was fall of 1894. People were still feeling the effects of the Panic of 1893, which had shut down most of the economy and plunged the nation into a catastrophic recession, with every segment of the country in a world of pain. Farmers were disgusted with the cost of wheat; laborers were desperate for jobs and higher pay.

The biggest punch of all, the Pullman Strike, had caused a massive, nationwide boycott of all trains that carried Pullman passenger cars. It pitted labor against the company, the press, the federal government and President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat in the beginning half of his second nonconsecutive term in office.

When Cleveland called in the U.S. Army to quell the strikers, the die was cast for his party. Just four years earlier, Democrats had gained 86 House seats and a majority. On election night 1894, Republicans gained 130 seats -- a whopping 35% of the lower chamber, which totaled 357 seats at that time. Democrats lost 125 seats outright, with Republicans picking up third-party seats as well. It remains the largest numerical loss for a political party in history, according to the House historian.

Newspaper accounts at the time wrote of dancing and celebration in the streets, with headlines that read, "Crowds gone Wild," and the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette writing, "Thousands of them assembled on Pittsburgh's streets last night to cheer the returns. They also indulged all the infernal devices for making noise the diabolical mind of man has been able to invent."

Here in Cumberland County, the headlines read that Republicans took a 200,000-vote plurality in the state. This foreshadowed the demise of Tammany Hall in New York City, as Democrats there, too, were swept out of office.

 

The Democrats had woefully handled every crisis that came their way that year. And their use of the press as a weapon against the people had backfired. America was in the middle of the Gilded Age -- when agricultural markets crashed, the railroads were the next domino to fall, then the steel industry, and then manufacturing.

Cleveland hesitated to act. When he finally tried to repeal the Silver Purchase Act in an attempt to strengthen gold, it was too late. His move caused a bank run and a stock market crash, unemployment neared 20%, and voters wanted the lot of his party thrown out.

Making Democrats' problems even worse was a new populist movement -- a left-wing faction of the party that was siphoning off the support of farmers and laborers especially. They were furious over Democrats being in bed with big business.

The populists not only cost the Democrats even more seats, but their politics had a lingering effect on the Democratic Party. It would be 16 years before Democrats won a House majority again.

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