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Will 2018 look like 1890?

Will 2018 look like 1890?
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After considering the large number of incumbent retirements, the large margin in the generic ballot, and the abysmally low approval rating of the president, most political analysts have concluded that a Democratic wave is poised to drench the midterm elections.

Even though uncertainty remains relating to how big the wave will be and whether the Senate will prove impervious to the flood waters, few doubt there are stormy seas ahead.  

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But aside from the polling and the probabilities, there is another intriguing historical parallel that is worth exploring in the run-up to this year's midterm: the 1890 election.

 

The reason for this is that political circumstances then are not all that dissimilar to today.

It is important to realize, as I have described before, that the Gilded Age was a time of "rancorous partisanship, factional fights and general dysfunction" in our national politics. The change from an agricultural to an industrial economy had led to vast inequalities in wealth and created a restlessness among the public that was fueled by fear and uncertainty.

The Global Age, in which we are currently situated, moving from an industrial to a digital economy is fostering many of the same societal issues.

The political parties in both times have understood little about the changing technologies or how best to harness the future for the public's benefit, but a lot about the righteousness of their side's policies. As has been the case over the last couple of decades, partisan control of the Congress switched regularly, and sometimes violently, during the Gilded Age.

In 1889, the Republicans had full control of the government. Along with winning solid majorities in the House and Senate in the 1888 election, Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison had prevailed in the Electoral College (233 of 401 votes, or 58 percent) and won the presidency. These results, however, masked the closeness of the presidential contest.

Harrison had lost the popular vote to Democratic President Grover Cleveland by about 100,000 votes of the nearly 11.4 million ballots cast. Had Cleveland been able to win about 15,000 more votes (out of the more than 1.3 million cast) in New York (the state where he was governor before president), he would have garnered 36 more electoral votes and been returned to the White House.

Republicans forgot the closeness of the election almost immediately. As historian Charles Calhoun described, "In his inaugural address, Benjamin Harrison put the country on notice that the Republican administration and Congress would pursue an activist agenda."

And even though the 51st Congress was "one of the longest and most productive sessions in its history," the legislation garnered little Democratic support (e.g., the McKinley Tariff, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act). Democrats were also angry that House Speaker Thomas Reed instituted new rules that prevented them from effectively obstructing the majority's partisan agenda through dilatory tactics.

But the Democrats soon exacted their revenge. In the 1890 midterm, Republicans resoundingly lost their majority in the House. They lost 93 seats, which was more than half of the GOP conference (52 percent of their 179 seats) and a full 28 percent of the 332-seat chamber. They were able to retain majority control in the Senate, but they lost four seats in the 88-seat Senate. Interestingly, Populists picked up a fair number of the Republican seats in the House (8) and the Senate (2), suggesting once again (and as we have seen in our own elections since 2006) that the American public was likely voting against the incumbent president and his partisan agenda, and not necessarily for the challengers' policy promises.

While partisan gerrymandering and population sorting make it nearly impossible for the Republicans to lose an equivalent 125 seats (or 52 percent of their 241 seats) in the House, a midterm wave that ousts between 50 and 60 Republicans does not seem out of the question. The Senate is likely to go with the flow, but how high the blue tide rises, as Nate Silver has pointed out, is a lot more complicated of a calculation.

Still, if we understand that the coming wave has its origins in the closeness of the 2016 results and the Republicans' one-sided policy-making since winning, then it seems likely that the public's frustration with the federal government will continue to grow, not abate. Said another way, one-party legislative productivity doesn't help sustain one's majority when the country is at parity. Backlash becomes the name of the game.  

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.