To hear Martin Van Buren tell it, losing the 1840 presidential election was the best thing that ever happened to him. The former president returned to his farm in upstate New York and watched his potatoes grow after directing a troubled economy for four years. Three of his sons lived nearby and his first grandson was born later that summer.
But Van Buren was either fooling himself or putting on a show, for his actions suggested that he was carefully planning a political comeback. He went on a national tour in early 1842, not even a year after his removal from office, to lay the groundwork for the next presidential campaign. This was no mean feat: Americans did not then have the modern conveniences of air or even train travel. On the first leg of his trip, the former president traveled overland down the Eastern Seaboard and then turned west across the Deep South. On the last leg, he traveled north through the Midwest and became the first former president to visit the boomtown of Chicago.1
Van Buren returned to his farm on July 28, 1842, having traveled some seven thousand miles. He had reestablished his relationships with the heads of all the major local and state Democratic Party machines and in the process burnished his credentials as a leader with nationwide appeal. No other Democrat came close to his stature midway through the opposition’s administration, and it was clear to any casual observer that he was the party’s presumptive nominee in 1844. Soon after the national tour, the Democratic Review published a sonnet to him. It began, “Fallen? No thou art not!”2
Martin Van Buren therefore had good reason to believe that he would prevail at the 1844 Democratic National Convention. A majority of the party’s delegates had pledged themselves to him by 1843. The opposition only helped to strengthen his self-assurance. President William Henry Harrison, leader of the Whig Party, had died in the first weeks of his administration, leaving the White House to his vice president, John Tyler, whose accidental tenure was marked above all by gross ineptitude. Democrats in Congress shared their leader’s confidence, so much so in fact that they counted their chickens before they were hatched, electing a staunch Van Burenite, John W. Jones of Virginia, Speaker of the House to push through their presumptive leader’s legislative agenda.
Since the 1840s, American voters have become well acquainted with the phenomenon of the frontrunner. The perennial frontrunner in our own time has been Hillary Clinton. Like Van Buren before her, Senator Clinton headed into the 2008 Democratic primary elections with the swagger of an odds-on favorite, while Barack Obama bore the mantle of the quixotic challenger. In January 2007, Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy for the highest office in the land from the living room of her home in Washington. Seated comfortably on her couch in her trademark pantsuit, the senator from New York said, “I’m in, and I’m in it to win.” One reporter for the influential online magazine Politico expressed what was on everyone’s minds when he called her “Hillary the inevitable.”3
This was not just a theme imposed upon the race by a cynical mass media, for the Clinton campaign itself deliberately cultivated the air of inevitability. Indeed, this seemed to be the core of the campaign’s strategy: to shock and awe the American public into a Clinton coronation. The Obama campaign countered by painting Senator Clinton as just another candidate. In one instance of this back-and-forth, Obama strategist David Plouffe released a memo saying that Senator Clinton’s advantages were similar to those of an incumbent, whose support was broad but thin. Clinton strategist Mark Penn responded with his own memo, citing over forty polls in which his candidate was not only winning but widening her lead over the Democratic field. Penn wrote, “Hillary’s electoral strength has grown in the last quarter and she is better positioned today than ever before to become the next President of the United States.”4
The Clinton campaign had plenty of reason to crow. Their candidate was a U.S. senator, heir-apparent to the throne of the Democrats’ leading faction, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and First Lady to the hugely popular president Bill Clinton, the party’s newest patriarch. George W. Bush had by that point led the country into the quagmire that was the Iraq War and bungled the rescue and resettlement of Americans in Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, the voters issued a signal rebuke to the Bush administration by turning both houses of Congress over to the Democrats for the first time since the early 1990s. It was clear to most observers that whoever became the Democratic nominee would almost certainly become the next president, and no one stood a better chance of winning the nomination than Hillary Clinton.
Of course, we now know that neither frontrunner did what they set out to do. James K. Polk, who was by all accounts a washed-up politician in 1844, was drafted in the last minute to break a deadlocked Democratic convention. The original “dark horse” candidate, he defeated Van Buren and went on to beat Henry Clay by the thinnest of margins to become president. Barack Obama, though certainly the star of his party’s convention in 2004, was a first-term senator and a long shot for the nomination, yet he defeated the most powerful Democrat in America to become the nation’s first black president.
This book is about the events that followed the unanticipated victories of presidents Polk and Obama and that led in each case to a “crisis of hegemony,” a moment in which the party system disintegrates into factions and the people withdraw their consent to be governed by the establishment. The major parties of the nineteenth century were coalitions of northern and southern states that united on either side of economic issues, in large part to avoid the politicization of slavery. Keeping the electorate’s eyes on the tyranny of banks and tariffs meant that voters and legislators paid less attention to the scourge of bonded servitude. Mr. Polk’s election was a mandate for “Manifest Destiny,” a program of aggressive territorial expansion that promised cheap land to less affluent white men and a life of economic independence out West. Far from delivering on that promise, however, the further colonization of indigenous lands and what was then still northern Mexico led instead to a toxic debate over whether slavery would be permitted in the new territories. That dispute led to the factionalization of the two-party system, the secession of eleven southern states from the Union, and eventually to the Civil War in 1861.
I use the case of the Civil War to help us make sense of our own time. The nineteenth and twenty-first centuries are by no means historical twins, but there is a shared logic or pattern at work in which the politics of race and economics backfires on the political establishment. Until recently, the contemporary party system studiously avoided the politicization of racial inequality and neoliberal economic policies like free trade and deregulation. That globalization was good, that government was bad, and that the struggle for civil rights was settled became received wisdom. To run afoul of those conventions was to commit political suicide. The Great Recession of 2008, the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, created the conditions for a break with the status quo, and Barack Obama came to symbolize that break. Though he steered clear of civil rights policy, Mr. Obama promised an ambitious regulatory overhaul of Wall Street and an unprecedented expansion of government spending to update the country’s ailing infrastructure and thereby put the unemployed back to work. Far from welcoming this challenge to politics-as-usual, the establishment moved in to suppress “the New New Deal.” The failed promise of the Obama agenda, in turn, factionalized the major parties, rendering them incapable of stopping Donald Trump’s epic rise in 2016. The Trump phenomenon, in other words, is not the beginning of the story but the end result of party polarization and fracture since the Great Recession.
The sequence of partisan reactions and counter-reactions to insurgent political programs—Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century and the New New Deal in the twenty-first century—eventuated in a crisis of public confidence. Though party politics were at the center of these watershed moments, commentators tend to downplay the importance of parties and politicians in causing such crises, instead attributing them to changing social and economic dynamics on the ground. With few exceptions, students of electoral “realignments,” for example, explain shifts in power from one political party to another by pointing to shocks like depressions or wars.5 Similarly, prominent historians argue that the U.S. Secession Crisis reflected the social conflict over slavery, especially the threat that abolitionism posed to the largest slave owners’ economic interests.6 Today debates on populism and the rise of the Far Right focus on the social disruption caused by economic downturns, changing moral values, and mounting class inequality.7 In few instances do political parties play a role.
One key problem with these theories is that they cannot explain the timing of political crises. Changes like globalization have been playing out for at least two generations: so why is the Far Right coming to power only now? The conflict over slavery was at least a century old by the time of the Civil War, going back to the American Revolution and the colonial period before that. If the threat to the largest slave owners’ economic interests was the root cause of the Civil War, then why did the South secede in 1861 and not before?
To solve the puzzle of timing I focus on the back-and-forth dynamic that follows an unexpected challenge to the party system. Such a challenge has the potential to touch off a “crisis sequence,” a chain of partisan reactions and counter-reactions that destabilizes the relationship between political parties and their constituents and ends in a crisis of hegemony.
The basic idea is this. Party systems typically want to debate some things but not others and in doing so tend to reinforce a particular kind of social order.8 Since its founding as a white settler colonial state, the United States government has maintained certain racial, class, and gender compromises that form the basis of American society. Thus, the political elites of the slaveholding republic promised universal white manhood suffrage at the expense of the rights of people of color and women. Similarly, the postracial neoliberal order of 1968–2008 conceded civil rights but resisted the desegregation of schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces; at the same time, establishment politicians conceded the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, even as they dismantled the social safety net and either outsourced union jobs overseas or destroyed jobs through automation.
Every once in a while, however, politicians and social movement activists insist on debating issues that the major parties want to avoid. This unanticipated challenge to the status quo convinces politicians and voters alike to defect from the mainstream parties. But the establishment does not take a challenge to its power lightly, and rather than yield to the insurgency it tries to reabsorb the defectors—that is, to lead them back to politics-as-usual. If the establishment succeeds, then the story ends there and the political crisis is contained; but in a crisis sequence the process of reabsorption backfires and leads to a full-blown crisis of hegemony. In brief, the four episodes of the crisis sequence are (1) unexpected challenge, (2) defection, (3) failed reabsorption, and (4) crisis.
The timing of the U.S. Secession Crisis makes sense if we think about it as the endpoint of a political back-and-forth that went awry. The crisis sequence in this case began with the unexpected challenge to the status quo posed by James K. Polk, whose candidacy shifted public debate from economic issues, which Van Buren employed deliberately to depoliticize slavery, to territorial expansion, which was the pet project of Mr. Polk, southern Democrats, and a new generation of party leaders called “Young America” Democrats. The resulting colonization of northern Mexico, from Texas to Northern California, led to a bitter debate over whether or not slavery would be permitted there. To cool the ensuing strife between the North and South, the political establishment passed the Compromise of 1850, thereby settling the debate over slavery for good, or so they thought. But the dynamics of compromise unintentionally led to a second defection that emboldened the secessionist “Southern Rights” faction of the Democratic Party, gave rise to the Republican Party in the North, and permanently destroyed the Whig Party. The destruction of the existing two-party system in turn led to the exodus of eleven southern states from the Union in 1861.
The election of Donald Trump also makes sense if we think of how it might also represent the endpoint of a crisis sequence. That sequence began with the campaign and election of Barack Obama and his advocacy of the New New Deal, which challenged the free market fundamentalism of the post–Civil Rights era. That vision inspired voters and politicians alike to defect to Mr. Obama’s insurgent campaign and vault him past Hillary Clinton and John McCain to the presidency. The neoliberal establishment refused to roll over. Clinton Democrats infiltrated the Obama transition team and administration from the inside, while congressional Republicans, with the initial support of the Tea Party, stonewalled the president’s legislative agenda and defeated him in the 2010 midterm elections. Not even halfway through his administration, then, Mr. Obama had bowed to the establishment and traded the New New Deal in for a tax-cutting neoliberal agenda. But the reabsorption of the president’s self-styled insurgency did not ultimately save the establishment, for the reabsorption strategy backfired badly, fueling infighting across the political spectrum. On the left, Barack Obama’s neoliberal turn meant that economic and racial inequality festered, touching off successive insurgencies from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and the Bernie Sanders campaign. On the right, the Tea Party shut down the government in 2013 and inspired a rebellion of disgruntled factions within the Republican Party from “birthers,” evangelicals, and libertarians, ensuring that no two candidates could unite with sufficient strength to defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries. With the party system in crisis, Mr. Trump was able to capture the Republican nomination and defeat a weakened Democratic Party. In the Rust Belt in particular, those who had voted for Barack Obama’s New New Deal in 2008 defected in the thousands: white union members voted for Donald Trump’s economic nationalist agenda, while black voters in city centers stayed home on Election Day.
In both instances, we see a pattern of unexpected challenge, defection, failed reabsorption, and crisis. Each step in the sequence is a necessary condition for the next. An unanticipated challenge to the status quo is necessary to prompt a defection. Otherwise politics-as-usual would be sufficient to maintain party loyalty. Defection is necessary to prompt reabsorption—absent a defection, the political establishment would not need to reabsorb anyone. Finally, the failure to reabsorb is a necessary condition for the last event in the sequence, which is a crisis of hegemony, because a party that reabsorbs the power that was slipping from its grasp by definition regains the people’s consent to govern.9
1. Widmer 2005, 145–46.
2. Widmer 2005, 146–47.
3. Greene 2007.
4. Penn 2007.
5. For a review of the research on realignments, see de Leon (2014). For an exception, see Carmines and Stimson (1990), who argue that after a long hiatus in which racial inequality was forced off the public policy radar, political elites like presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, together with the civil rights movement, moved race to the center of party politics in the 1960s.
6. See Ayers (2005).
7. For a review of the research on populism and the Far Right, see Jansen (2011); and Veugelers (1999).
8. Slez and Martin 2007.
9. According to Jim Mahoney, a reactive sequence must have two features. First, in order to avoid the problem of infinite historical regress, the reactive sequence must begin with a contingent event, a breakpoint that could not have been anticipated or predicted. Second, the sequence must have inherent sequentiality. There are three dimensions to inherent sequentiality: events in the sequence are necessary or sufficient conditions for subsequent events; each intermediary event represents a causal mechanism that links an initial breakpoint with a final outcome; and there is a clear temporal ordering among events in a sequence (Mahoney 2000, 527, 530–31).