History shows America’s political structures and ideologies go through paradigm shifts every few decades.
Many people believe America is undergoing such a paradigm shift right now. Hence, there is a lot we could learn from past paradigm shifts in American politics.
There have been seven big paradigm shifts in American politics since the launch of the current United States government in 1787. Those shifts are:
- The Jeffersonian Shift of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson’s libertarian philosophy of small, limited government supplanted the Federalist strong-government philosophy behind the Constitution.
- The Jacksonian Shift of 1828-1836, in which populist democracy replaced government by elitist Eastern aristocrats.
- The Republican Shift of 1860, in which Northern industrialists and financiers replaced the Southern Slave Power as America’s ruling class.
- The Progressive Shift of the early 1900s, in which urban working and middle classes replaced rural residents as America’s primary voters.
- The New Deal of the 1930s, which marked the emergence of a strong, technocratic, federal government.
- The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, in which Big Finance became the dominant force in American government.
What we can learn from Past Paradigm Shifts in American Politics
If American politics are undergoing a paradigm shift, past upheavals can show us how that disruption could turn out.
Some lessons we can learn from past paradigm shifts in American politics include:
American political upheavals are usually geographic in nature
The Jacksonian Revolution began with the shift of political power from the East Coast to the West and the South.
Importantly, the Revolution’s leader; President Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee), was a westerner himself. The elite Jackson pushed out, comprised aristocratic easterners; such as President John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts), the son of a Founding Father.
In addition, the shift of American political power to the Midwest from the South preceded the Republican Shift of 1860. In particular, Midwestern industry replaced the Southern Slave Power as the engine that drove America’s economy.
The Progressive and New Deal Shifts marked the movement of political and cultural power from rural areas to cities. In particular, those events marked the emergence of urban working and middle classes and urban intellectuals as dominant elements in American culture and politics.
Finally, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s can be seen as the triumph of the Sunbelt, the South, and suburbia over the old northeastern urban New Deal power structure. Notably, Reagan was from California and his power base was there.
Paradigm Political Shifts do not Always Displace old Elites
After the Jeffersonian shift, the same cadre of aristocratic elitists still led America. Those leaders were mostly slave-owning Virginians, who had led the nation through the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention.
Moreover, the political leadership of New Deal America contained old-fashioned Democratic politicians, such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D-New York). For instance, FDR was a social conservative and a white supremacist. Most of FDR’s congressional allies were conservative; and openly racist, Southern Democrats who had been in office for years or decades.
Recently, the supposedly disruptive President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) filled his administration with veteran Republican officeholders. U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, for example, held the same job under President George W. Bush (R-Texas).
Established Political Figures lead the Greatest Political Disruptions
President Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia), was an influential political figure for over 25 years before he ignited a paradigm shift. In particular, Jefferson had had been governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, U.S. Secretary of State, and Vice President before becoming president.
In addition, Andrew Jackson had been a Congressman, a U.S. Senator, a territorial governor, and a Tennessee state Supreme Court justice, before becoming President. Moreover, FDR had been the 1920 Democratic Vice presidential candidate and Governor of New York before his presidential run. Reagan was a little more of an outsider but he had been a perennial presidential candidate and Governor of California before reaching the White.
Even Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) leader of the shift of 1860, had served as a state legislator and Congressman before the presidency. In addition, Lincoln was a well-known political figure because of his highly-publicized challenge to U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (D-Illinois) in 1858. Many Northerners viewed Douglas as the Slaveocracy’s most potent representative on Capitol Hill.
Paradigm Shifts are battles between rival elites disguised as politics
The Southern Slave Power, for example, became richer and more powerful after the Jacksonian Revolution. By clearing away the old Aristocracy, Jackson helped the Slave Power seize control of the federal government.
The Republican Shift of 1860 smashed the Slaveocracy in the Civil War, but cleared the way for the Industrial Robber Barons to dominate America for nearly three generations. Thus, an interesting way to think of the Civil War is as a battle between the Slave Power and the industrialists. Notably, the industrialists; who had superior firepower, better technology, and more money, won.
The New Deal and World War II created powerful classes of military officers, technocrats, and intellectuals who still shape national policy. The Reagan Revolution empowered a class of financiers and technologists whose wealth, power, and influence rivals that of the 19th Century Robber Barons, or the Slave Power.
Interestingly, I think today’s looming paradigm shift is partially a battle between Wall Street and Silicon Valley for America’s future. Disturbingly, today’s struggle between Big Finance and Big Tech is reminiscent of the conflict between industry and slavery in the Civil War era.
Thus, Paradigm Shifts are often battles between elites. Historically, American paradigm shifts occur when a rising new elite crashes into an existing power structure. For example, the industrialists’ clash with the Slave Power in the 1850s and 1860s.
Paradigm Shifts are Class Warfare Disguised as Politics
Strangely, America’s ideological paradigm shifts often begin as class warfare. The Jacksonian Revolution began as a popular revolt against aristocratic government among farmers, urban workers, and small merchants, for instance.
Meanwhile, the Republican Revolution was the revolt of the northern and Midwestern middle and upper classes against the Slave Power. The Progressive Shift was the revolt of the urban and rural middle and working classes against the Robber Barons.
The Reagan Revolution was the revolt of the middle class against the New Deal elite. Today’s political movements around Trump and left-wing Democrats are middle and working class revolts against Big Finance and Big Tech.
Political Paradigm Shifts make Radical Ideas Mainstream
Americans viewed abolition of slavery as a radical and dangerous idea in the 1850s. During the Civil War, abolition became national policy.
Likewise, Americans viewed Social Security, Labor Unions, and the minimum wage as dangerous socialist ideas in the 1920s. All three ideas became national policy during the New Deal and both major U.S. political parties embrace one key New Deal policy; Social Security.
Tellingly, just 20years ago Americans viewed many of today’s mainstream political policies; including gay marriage, impeachment, privatization of government functions, extreme tax cuts, and an interventionist foreign policy, as dangerous and radical.
Consequently, the next political paradigm shift could make policies; such as Single-Payer healthcare (Medicare for All), Free College, the Basic Income (the Freedom Dividend), and the Value Added-Tax (VAT) fixtures of American politics.
Political Paradigm Shifts are all about the Money
History shows any radical policy that could benefit voters financially is likely to go mainstream. For instance, no politician; no matter how right wing, will dare challenge Social Security or Medicare in America.
Therefore, financial insecurity and income inequality; real or imagined, often trigger paradigm shifts. The farmers and merchants who launched the Jacksonian revolution believed elite Institutes like the Bank of the United States shut them out of the financial system. Indeed, one of the great events of Jackson’s presidency was the “Bank War” to destroy the Bank of the United States.
One of the main arguments for abolition was the threat slavery posed to free labor and businesses dependent upon free labor. The argument; constantly made by abolitionist orators like Frederick Douglass, was slavery destroyed white workers’ jobs. In fact, efforts to extend slavery to new territories like Kansas and California helped trigger the Civil War.
Thus, abolitionists viewed the Slave Power and slavery itself, as economic threats to average Americans. Hence, economics motivated the Republican Revolution of 1860.
Fear of the Robber Barons motivated the Progressive Movement. One of the Progressives’ signature policies was the income tax; which they designed to take the Robber Barons’ money. Money was the source of the industrialists’ power.
The breakdown of the economy in Great Depression of the 1930s triggered the New Deal. High taxes in the 1960s and 1970s sparked the Reagan Revolution. One rationale for the Reagan Revolution was to deprive federal technocrats of their money which came from taxes.
Today, rising income inequality and growing technological unemployment drive the Populist revolts of Donald J. Trump (R-New York), Andrew Yang (D-New York), and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). All three men speak to the economic losers and offer radical policies designed to benefit those groups.
Yang; in particular, wants to take money away from politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, and Big Business and redistribute it to ordinary people through a Basic Income – the Freedom Dividend. Notably, Yang has emerged as the breakthrough candidate in the Democratic presidential primary.
Thus, American political paradigm shifts are as likely to be about economics as politics. Government failure to address economic issues often triggers political revolts that lead to paradigm shifts. For instance, the Republican establishment’s failure to address trade and industrial policies drove Trump’s popularity.
Political Paradigm Shifts make for Strange Bedfellows
Weird alliances of seemingly unrelated elements of society lead American political paradigm shifts.
For instance, an alliance of wealthy slave owners and small farmers drove the Jacksonian Revolution. A bizarre alliance of abolitionists, racists (they were afraid the Slave Power planned to bring blacks to their neighborhoods), free blacks, and industrialists drove the Republican Revolution to victory in 1860.
Moreover, during the New Deal, Marxist intellectuals worked with Southern racists and Catholic leaders to implement radical social policies. During the Reagan Revolution, Wall Street and Big Business worked closely with Libertarians and working-class Evangelical Christians.
Today, Trump’s power base is a strange alliance of Big Business, Evangelical Christians, and secular working-class whites. Meanwhile, leftists like U.S. Senator Liz Warren (D-Warren) struggle to reconcile elitist intellectuals; who obsess over cultural issues, with people of color and middle-class followers who seek a dramatic expansion of the welfare state.
One reason such bizarre combinations work is that their members do not care about the others’ agenda. For instance, Big Business and Libertarians have no interest in culture. Meanwhile, many Evangelical Christians and religious conservatives have no interest in economics.
Likewise, left-wing culturalists; such as gay-rights activists, have no interest in economics. However, many working and middle-class welfare state backers do not care about culture.
Given the history, I think America’s next political paradigm shift will be messy and confusing. However, history shows most Americans will accept the results of the shift.