In the new norm, neither party has clear or durable mandate

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Political scientists usually break the history of political parties down into what we call party eras. There are at least four identifiable partisan eras from 1828 to 1968.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson swept into office and initiated the first Democratic Party era in American politics. In the sixteen sessions of Congress between 1828 and 1860, Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress for eleven of those sessions. In only one session of Congress (1841-43) did the Whig Party control both Houses. Democrats held the White House for twenty-four of the thirty-two years in that period, and the Democratic Party held both the White House and Congress for eighteen years.

The rise of the Republican Party and the Civil War ushered in the second party era. Abraham Lincoln’s election came at the expense of a deeply fractured Democratic Party. Republicans controlled Congress and the presidency in the first seven of the eight congressional sessions between 1861 and 1877. Democrats won control of the House in 1874 but lost it again in 1876 – the only two-year period where Democrats controlled any part of the federal government.

I’ll come back to the twenty-year period between 1876 and 1896 shortly.

The election of 1896 once again solidified Republican control over the federal government, which lasted until the Democratic landslide election of 1932. In this third party era, Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress and the presidency for twenty-six of the thirty-four years. Woodrow Wilson was the only Democratic president of this era, and he served with a Democratic-controlled Congress for just the first four years of his tenure.

Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932 shepherded in the New Deal and the fourth party era. Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress sixteen of the eighteen sessions between 1933 and 1969. Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress only once (1953-55), and Dwight Eisenhower was the only Republican president in this thirty-six year period.

Now, consider 1968 to the present.

In the twenty-three Congresses between 1968 and 2014 (I’ll include the 113th), Democrats have controlled both Houses twelve sessions, while Republicans have controlled Capitol Hill for five sessions. In the other six sessions, one party has controlled the House while the other has controlled the Senate.

There have been only six sessions in this forty-six year period where the president’s party has also controlled both Houses of Congress: Jimmy Carter’s entire term (1977-1981); the first two years of Bill Clinton’s term (1993-1995); the last two years of George W. Bush’s first term and the first two years of his second (2003-2007); and the first two years of Barack Obama’s first term (2009-2011). Conservatives consider Ronald Reagan a transformational president, and yet Reagan only managed to flip the Senate Republican the first six years of his presidency.

In this new norm, there is no clear and durable mandate for either party at the national level. When voters have given both the Congress and the presidency to one or the other parties, they have quickly snatched it back.

The current period looks very much like the post-Reconstruction era. From 1876-1896, there were only two years (1893-1895) where one party controlled both Congress and the presidency and only two sessions of Congress where either party controlled both Houses of Congress. No one talks about that period as some Golden Era of American politics.

One could make the argument that perhaps voters these days are sending a clear signal to both parties: work together, compromise, come to the center. But the consequences seem clear, for better or worse: ambitious agendas of political parties swept into office with clear mandates, once the norm in American politics, are a thing of the past – leaving presidents and Congress to instead play small ball. 

 Malone is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Pace University in New York City.