The Disruptors: the People who Make American Politics

American politics is a process of creative destruction. Americans periodically tear down their political system and replace it with a new one.

In our politics there is a class of people I call the Disruptors. The Disruptors are renegade political insiders who decide to blow up the political system for personal or ideological reasons.

A Disruptor helped create each of the Five Party Systems that shaped American history. Each party system was a new political order that arose from the rubble of the old status quo.

Meet the Disruptors

We should not confuse Disruptors with the populists who challenge the system from the outside. Instead, disruptors work within the system to change it.

If you want a business metaphor. Disruptors resemble executives who try to remake a corporation to take advantage of new opportunities or markets. In contrast, the populists are entrepreneurs who build new businesses to supplant old ones.

Hence, a Disruptor; such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), is the political equivalent of former Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger. Johnson completely remade the federal government and the US Senate from the inside, just as Iger transformed Disney from the executive suite.

How the Disruptors Work

Conversely, a Populist such as Eugene Debs (S-Indiana) or William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska) resembles Elon Musk. Debs and Bryan tried to build new political movements to achieve their goals, just as Musk builds new corporations to achieve his goals.

Disruptors often steal populists’ policies and strategies and apply them to established political institutions. For example, the Disruptor President Richard M. Nixon (R-California) stole his strategy and political program from the populist Governor George Wallace (D-Alabama).

By operating within the establishment, Nixon had the resources to make Wallace’s political program of working-class rage and racial fear work. Wallace became a footnote in history because he always remained on the outside. Nixon became president because he never challenged the Republican Party’s leaders.

How to Spot the Disruptors

The Disruptors have been part of our political system from the beginning. Thus studying past Disruptors could show us who modern Disruptors are.

All Disruptors share a few traits in common. They have an extensive knowledge of the system, often learned from decades of toil in the political vineyards.

Most Disruptors claim to be loyal party members and defenders of the status quo. Conversely, disruptors usually have private contempt for the status quo. The contempt manifests itself as a willingness to violate norms, bend rules, and hack the system to achieve their goals.

Finally, most disruptors have a deep frustration with the system. The frustration becomes an axe they have to grind by wrecking the system. The frustration can come from unfilled ambitions or anger at corruption or injustice.

Examples of Disruptors

The best way to understand disruptors is to study them. Some historical disruptors to study include:

Aaron Burr (R-New York)

America’s third vice president became its first great political Disruptor. Burr was an ambitious politician who was not part of the Founding Father’s club. For example, Burr was not at the Constitutional Convention.

In 1800, Burr; a clever lawyer and political strategist, spotted a loophole in the new electoral system. The loophole was that a Dark Horse candidate, such as Burr, could manipulate electors to win a presidential election.

Nominally, Burr was a member of Thomas Jefferson’s rising Republican Party. However, Burr thought that he and not Jefferson should lead the Republican Revolution of 1800.

In 1800, the Electoral College used a crude ranked choice voting to elect a president. Burr made himself enough Electors’ second choice to threaten Jefferson’s first-place position.

Shockingly, Burr almost succeeded with his political hack and nearly became president. Jefferson had to resort to backroom deals to block Burr’s ascension.

Unfortunately, flaws in the original Electoral System allowed Burr to become vice president. That led to a very uncomfortable administration in which Jefferson had to share power with his worst enemy.

Unfortunately, flaws in the original Electoral System allowed Burr to become vice president. That led to a very uncomfortable administration in which Jefferson had to share power with his worst enemy.

Burr eventually returned to New York and spent the rest of life practicing law in obscurity. Burr was a disruptor because he looked like a typical politician of the early Republic. He was a lawyer, a decorated veteran of the Revolutionary War, and a well-known political operator. Yet, Burr almost wrecked Jefferson’s administration and the new Republic with his schemes.

Henry Clay (W-Kentucky)

Few Disruptors have operated longer or done more damage than Henry Clay.

Clay was a typical 19th Century American politician who became the dominant figure of his age. To elaborate, Clay was a small-town lawyer who saw politics as the path to fame and fortune. Yet Clay could never achieve his objective: the White House.

It was Clay’s backroom shenanigans that wrecked America’s First Party System and ended the Era of Good Feelings. In 1824, Clay was one of several presidential candidates competing in the first presidential election that relied partially on a popular vote.

No presidential candidate won enough Electoral College votes to win in 1824. Instead, there were four presidential candidates each claiming to be the Republican standard bearer. Clay, the US Speaker of the House, was one of the four.

Clay destroyed the First Party System’s informal electoral apparatus by making a deal with the runner-up John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts). Clay agreed to use his influence in the House to elect Adams in exchange for the office of Secretary of State.

Incredibly, early 19th Century Americans viewed Secretary of State as a more prestigious office than the Speaker’s chair. They saw Secretary of State as a stepping stone to the presidency. Clay would change that.

Clay’s backroom deal with Adams was made public and become known as the Corrupt Bargain. The Corrupt Bargain enraged many Americans including the front runner General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee.

Jackson and his working-class followers had played by the rules and got screwed by the Elite. Adams was the son of a Founding Father President John Adams (F-Massachusetts).

Clay’s Corrupt Bargain drove Jackson and his followers to leave the political system and form a new political party: the Democrats. In 1828, the Democrats conducted the first unified national presidential campaign and won in a landslide.

Instead of elevating himself to the Presidency. Clay wrecked the political system and found himself shut out. Consequently, Clay had to organize another party, the Whigs, to challenge Jackson’s Democrats. Thus, Clay created the Second Party System.

Jackson, vowing to avoid another Corrupt Bargain, restructured the political system. For example, firing most federal employees and replacing them with loyal Democrats.

John Quincy Adams

Ironically, Clay the man who put Jackson in the White House, became the symbol of of resistance to Old Hickory. Clay remained a major player in American politics until his death in 1851.

In fact, Clay was the Whig presidential nominee in 1832 and 1844, both times he lost. Voters remembered the Corrupt Bargain, although Whig leaders forgot.

Although ordinary voters despised him. Clay became a folk hero to generations of American politicians. Clay’s admirers include Abraham Lincoln and US Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).

Voters’ frustration of Clay’s presidential ambitions was a good thing. The havoc Clay could have wreaked from the White House was vast. For example, Clay could have tried to implement his lunatic scheme of deporting all blacks, slave and free, to Africa.

Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois)

Ironically, Douglas, a loyal Democrat, was Clay’s successor as master of the Senate and dominant force in US politics.

Like Clay, Douglas was a ruthless man with no ethics who would do anything to reach the Presidency. In some ways, Douglas the Little Giant was worse than Clay. Douglas had no values, ideals, or philosophy, only a sociopath’s lust for power, wealth, and prestige.

Ironically, Douglas the supposed master politician had no grasp of popular opinion or understanding of voters. Instead, like Clay, Douglas was a master of the backroom deal who could never see beyond the backroom.

For example, Douglas could never understand why slavery horrified many Americans. Additionally, Douglas never understood why Southerners were so distrustful of the North and its leaders.

No major political figure has been more out of touch with ordinary Americans than Douglas. In contrast, Clay had some grasp of public opinion, Douglas had none.

Yet by 1853, Douglas had become the most influential figure in American politics. Douglas’s power and influence was greater than that of President Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire). Worst of all, Douglas was a disruptor who had the power to throw the entire American political system into chaos.

The events that led to Douglas’s undoing began in the Mexican War. President James K. Polk (D-Tennessee) sold to the war to Southerners by promising that they could form several slave states from conquered Mexican territory. However, by 1850 Southerners knew would would only get one new slave state; Texas, from the Western territories.

In response, angry Southerners withdrew from national politics and oppose any legislation Northern members of Congress put forward. In this environment, Douglas needed a powerful incentive to get Southerners to back his pet project: the Transcontinental Railroad.

Douglas wanted the Eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad in Chicago, where he owned enormous of real estate. To get Southern Support for the railroad, Douglas cooked up the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas used all his influence to get the Act passed and signed by President Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire).

Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, residents of two strategic territories that most Americans considered free could vote to allow slavery. Douglas probably assumed the people of Kansas would vote to ban slavery as Californians had.

Instead, Southern politicians realized they could seize control of Kansas by voting in slavery. The Southerners wanted control of Kansas because it contained a key route to the West the Santa Fe Trail.

To ensure an electoral victory, Southerners began sending armed thugs to Kansas to terrorize settlers into voting for slavery. By 1856, Bleeding Kansas had become a war zone with pitched battles between pro-slavery and anti-slavery paramilitary forces.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act destroyed Douglas’s reputation. Mobs booed the Senator and burned Douglas in effigy in his adopted hometown of Chicago. Northerners were angry because Douglas had opened the door to slavery in all US territories.

In 1856, Voters correctly blamed Douglas for Bleeding Kansas, dashing his presidential hopes. Democrats nominated James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) for president instead of Douglas. Buchanan’s main attribute was that he had nothing to do with the Kansas-Nebraska debacle. Buchanan had been out of the country serving as the US ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Kansas-Nebraska debate.

As President Buchanan shut Douglas out of the government by ignoring him. By 1860, Douglas was a has-been, known for being humiliated by his old friend Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

When Northern Democrats needed a sacrificial lamb to serve as their 1860 standard bearer they chose Douglas. Douglas came in fourth in a four-way presidential election winning almost no states. In 1861, after pledging total support for Lincoln’s war on the Confederacy, Douglas died. Years of hard living with no exercise caught up with the Little Giant.

Douglas was the greatest disruptor in American political history because he helped trigger the Civil War with his Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) the Disruptor in Chief

President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) was a different kind of disruptor.

Personal gain did not motivate Roosevelt’s disruptions. Instead, philosophy, ethics, and ideology drove Roosevelt’s disruptions. Unlike Clay and Douglas, Roosevelt was a highly ethical man who wanted to hold the country to a high moral standard.

Roosevelt had nothing to gain and much to lose from most of his disruptions. In fact, TR often found himself isolated and attacked by his own party and at war with moneyed interests and Big Business. For example, Teddy tried to break up trusts, sided with striking workers against management, regulate the meatpacking industry, and protect federal lands from loggers and miners.

Roosevelt was free to disrupt for three reasons. First, Teddy Roosevelt was an independently wealthy man who could live luxuriously on his family fortune. He did not need the money, in contrast to most early 20th Century politicians who often relied on bribes to pay the bills.  

Second, Roosevelt did not care what other people thought of him. Third, TR was the first celebrity president who could use the media to appeal directly to the people and get support without political machines. Most early 20th Century politicians needed the machines’ support to reach voters.

Roosevelt also introduced the disruptive concept of the use of Presidential executive orders for partisan political ends. Thus, Roosevelt created the idea of the President as the champion of the people against the elites.

One reason these disruptions succeeded was Roosevelt’s personal integrity. Nobody could dismiss TR as a corrupt politician. Another was Roosevelt’s celebrity; Teddy was always in the public eye and talking to reporters.

After his disruptive presidency, Roosevelt waged a disruptive presidential campaign in 1912 that introduced the idea of an American welfare state to the popular discourse. Roosevelt lost but the package of proposals in his 1912 New Nationalism became the basis of his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (D-New York) 1930s New Deal.

Kinds of Disruptors

Aaron Burr, Henry Clay, Stephen Douglas, and Theodore Roosevelt are examples of different varieties of disruptors. Each man ushered in a new age of American politics with his disruptions.

For example, Burr brought unified parties to American politics by showing the need for discipline and loyalty. Clay ushered in the Second Party system with his Corrupt Bargain, Stephen Douglas helped wreck the Second Party System, nearly destroyed the Democratic Party, and sparked the Civil War with his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Roosevelt scuttled the Third Party System and launched the Fourth Party system with his disruptions.

Some other disruptors include: presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York), Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri), and Richard M. Nixon (R-California). US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), and Ohio governor Mike DeWine (R).

Thus we need to search today’s politics for disruptors and identify the people who could usher in a new age of American politics. Those who see disruptors coming could predict our politics. Surprise will catch people who cannot see the disruptors.