What explains the timing of political crises? Specifically, given the long-standing clash between pro- and antislavery interests since the American Revolution, why did the American Civil War begin in 1861 and not before? And why, despite long-standing trends in globalization, economic inequality, and immigration, is the Far Right coming to power only now? This chapter outlines the shared logic of both political crises, namely, that their timing depended on the sequence of partisan reactions and counterreactions following a challenge to the mainstream party system.
The antebellum or Jacksonian two-party system was designed to avoid the politicization of slavery. But beginning in 1844, a new generation of Democrats advanced a legislative agenda based on Manifest Destiny, the notion that Americans were preordained by God to colonize the present-day continental United States and beyond. These so-called Young America Democrats hoped to oust their party elders by promising landless white voters a life of economic independence out West. Manifest Destiny, however, threatened to undo the party system and the slaveholding republic, because it raised the question of whether slavery would be permitted in the new territories.
The resulting colonization of what was then still northern Mexico touched off a bitter debate over whether slavery could be established there. White voters who had been seduced by the promise of Manifest Destiny thus remained in landless limbo, while the party system split into numerous factions. This chapter explains how the Whig Party exploited the political turmoil by offering a presidential candidate and a compromise that would preserve the Union. The Whigs rode the message of unionism back to power, roundly defeating the Democrats and reabsorbing the pro- and antislavery factions back into the mainstream party system.
This chapter suggests that the Whigs' reabsorption strategy backfired badly. The victory of unionism had the unintended effect of ending factional strife in the Democratic Party. Once back in power, the reunified Democrats doubled down on the politics of territorial expansion and passed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reignited the debate over slavery by allowing voters to decide whether territories, even in the North, would be free or slave. The Democratic resurgence and the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to two competing Whig counterreactions that tore the Union apart and led directly to the Civil War.
In contrast to antebellum Democrats, Depression-era Democrats were able to contain the challenge posed by militant trade unions and third parties like the Farmer-Labor and Communist parties. Though the New Deal is often seen as the golden age of social democratic politics in the United States, this chapter argues that the Democrats used collective bargaining laws and social programs to divide and then reabsorb renegade workers into mainstream institutional politics. This was the class contradiction underpinning the New Deal, but the New Deal also contained important racial contradictions, for it reserved many of its benefits for white Americans. When the Democrats later promised to close these racial loopholes through civil rights legislation, the Republicans rose to power by promising to maintain whites' privileged access to New Deal programs and by undermining the power of the state to intervene in the market.
In the midst of the Great Recession, Barack Obama's insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination promised a New New Deal. The postracial neoliberal establishment of both parties did not take this challenge to their power lightly, however. They moved swiftly to reabsorb the president into mainstream politics. From the left, Clinton Democrats infiltrated the Obama administration from inside the White House. From the right, the Republican congressional leadership sought to harness the grassroots energy of the Tea Party to block the Obama agenda. By 2010, the Obama administration had embraced the status quo.
This chapter suggests that the establishment's reabsorption strategy backfired. The Obama administration's neoliberal turn ensured that social inequalities grew and festered, leading to three left-wing insurgencies: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign. On the right, the introduction of the Tea Party into the halls of power encouraged the proliferation and intransigence of the Far Right, most famously of the "birthers" and Donald Trump himself. The resulting factionalization of the GOP ensured that no one conservative candidate could defeat Donald Trump's campaign for the Republican nomination. Subsequently, young voters, union members, and black voters who were alienated from the Democratic establishment either defected from the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential campaign or stayed home on election day. This perfect storm led to the election of Donald Trump.
This chapter explores the potential paths out of our present crisis. There is evidence to suggest that the United States is on a path of Caesarism, or rule by an authoritarian charismatic figure. There is also evidence that neoliberals within the Republican Party may succeed in containing Donald Trump's seemingly antineoliberal agenda. Less clear is a progressive path. The chapter ends with an alternative agenda based on the concept of economic democracy. Economic democracy is an intersectional vision of solidarity, in which the struggle for economic justice is inseparable from the fight for racial and gender equity.