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Party like its 1889: America is stuck in the see-saw politics of the Gilded Age

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The Capitol is seen in Washington, Nov. 11, 2022. Republicans have won control of the U.S. House. A call by The Associated Press on Wednesday, Nov. 16, for Republican Mike Garcia in California’s 27th District secured the party the 218 seats needed for the majority.

The Republicans’ capture of control of the House appears to be one more example of the see-saw politics in America, as the president’s party once again took a hit, albeit nowhere near as serious as expected, during the first midterms. But the reality is that America is in an unusual repeat cycle. For most of the 20th Century, stability in control of Congress was the norm. We have to go back over a century to see the one time in America when power continually shifted and the parties were in a tight battle — the Gilded Age.

In the 20th Century, a change in control of either chamber of Congress was rare, but the House of Representatives was especially static. Except for a brief six years in the Progressive Era, the Republicans were in control of the House from 1894 to 1931. Once control switched, the Democrats had little to worry. Except for two solitary post-war terms in 1946 and 1952, Congress was solidly Democratic for half a century, from 1931-1994. Then, after their big success in 1994, Republicans managed to maintain control for 12 straight years.

But volatility is now the order of the day for Congress. This is the fourth change in control since 2006. The large majorities of the past are also gone. Only in 2008 did one party top 250 seats, a majority normal in the 20th Century.

The Senate appears to still be in Democratic hands, but that in itself points to a surprising development in current politics. In the 20th Century, Congress was usually completely controlled by one party. A split House/Senate was rare. Outside of the first three Congressional sessions of Reagan’s tenure, when the Republicans held the Senate from 1981 to 1987, it had occurred only a couple of times in the 20th century, in 1910 and 1930 (which itself deserves an asterisk, as the Democrats gained control of the House due to deaths of Republican members). In both of those cases, the split existed for only one Congressional session at a time. Those days of single-party control of Congress appear to be over. This will be the fifth split Congress since 2001.

The presidential elections are also seeing the same Gilded Age return. Blowouts were the norm in presidential elections; 18 presidential elections in the 20th Century saw a 7.5 point or higher margin of victory in the popular vote.

The highest total of the 21st Century was Obama’s 2008 7.2-point victory. No one else has even hit a 5-point spread. Similarly, Electoral College margins have shrunk: 17 presidential races in the 20th Century saw a 200-vote Electoral College margin. No one has reached that since, with only Obama topping a 100-vote margin.

There is precedent for this: We are stuck in a new Gilded Age.

In the post-Civil War era, there were six switches in the House in a 20-year period from 1874 to 1896, and there were also six divided Congresses. Presidential elections were frequently nail-biters, including two “wrong-winners” in the disputed 1876 election and 1888. Trump is also looking to be the first president to try to return to office after a re-election defeat since Grover Cleveland in 1892. 

Even some of the big issues of the 1880s — such as immigration, tariffs and, strangely, Civil Service reform — are key topics in the political arena. Even voter turnout was higher in the 1870s-1890s than in the 1860s or 1900s.

With this inability to establish a lasting majority in the legislature, it is perhaps unsurprising that Congress has been unable to pass many significant pieces of legislation — a problem even in the best of days. We also shouldn’t be shocked that another result has been both parties looking at a more stable player — the courts — as the more decisive actor. The result has been a drop in support for a Supreme Court that is increasingly seen as more politicized.

In the Gilded Age, it took a major recession and a shift in the electorate to end the legislative see-saw. It’s not clear what will end it now.

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and a senior research fellow at the Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center. He also writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Tags congressional gridlock control of Congress control of the House Gilded Age partisan gridlock political polarization Republican control split Congress Volatility

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