What Political Eras Resemble Ours?

We are in a new era of politics that feels alien to many Americans. The dramatic changes in our politics confuse and frighten many people.

Changes we have seen in recent years include; the return of political violence, the Republican Party’s growing hostility to democracy and popular opinion, the return of racism as a political issue, growing hostility to capitalism, the politicization of culture, attacks on the political system itself by many of its participants,and the failure of political institutions to function.

The current political environment feels alien to Americans because it is outside their experiences. Most Americans have not seen political violence, overt racism in politics, attacks on the voting system, and politicians attacking the system in their lifetimes.

However, political violence, racism, and hostility towards democracy were common in some earlier eras of American history. Hence, the best way to understand our current politics is to identify those eras that resemble our own and study them.

So what earlier political eras resemble ours?

I think there are three eras in American history that bear some resemblance to ours. Those eras are:

1. The Jacksonian Revolution (Roughly 1820 to 1835)

2. The 1850s, Prelude to the Civil War (1848-1860)

3. The Progressive Era (1896-1916)

The 1960s are not here because there are significant differences between our era and the Sixties. For example, the political violence of the 1960s was one-sided, for example, leftists bombing campus offices or Klansmen bombing black churches.

No, it is not the 1960s All Over Again

In contrast, today’s violence comprises open fighting between radicals on both sides. For instance, the Antifa/Proud Boys brawls that are becoming an almost daily occurrence on the West Coast.

Moreover, the radicalism and violence of the 1960s did not spill over into political institutions themselves. There were no impeachment attempts or efforts to shut down the government during the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement. Segregationists did not shut down the government in the mid-60s, and antiwar Democrats did not impeach LBJ.

Today, we see politicians of all stripes willing to shut the whole system down to advance their pet ideologies. For example, US Senators Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Arizona) and Joe Manchin’s (D-West Virginia) willingness to block popular legislation to advance their vague ideas of “centrism” and “compromise.”

Or US Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) constant efforts to shut down the federal government by blocking budget legislation. Similarly, Democrats made two attempts to impeach President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) while some prominent Republicans, including US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) are threatening to impeach President Joe Biden (D-Delaware).

Meanwhile, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D-San Francisco) faces a messy and destructive recall election. Frighteningly, the California recall has no purpose beyond getting Newsom. Unlike former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-Queens), they accuse Newsom of no crimes. Instead, the California recall is pure politics motivated by nihilism.

Its Worse than the 1960s

At their worst, the Sixties offered nothing comparable to the Trump impeachments or the Newsom recall. Similarly, there were no deliberate attacks on government officials, such as the 6 January Capitol riots in the 1960s. The antiwar protesters never stormed the Capitol or attempted to lynch U.S. Senators, as the January 6 mob did.

Overall, the 1960s was a stable era in American political history. For example, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress with large majorities for the entire decade. Moreover, the radicalism seen in the streets of Berkeley did not reach the halls of Congress.

Yes, the radicals were yelling for revolution in 1967, but nobody was trying to impeach President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas). Similarly, nobody in Congress in the late 1960s was defending the antiwar protesters or trying to justify their excesses. As some Republicans today defend the Capitol rioters.

I think our era is more violent and dangerous than the Sixties. However, the radicalism and violence we see today is not unprecedented in American history.

The Jacksonian Revolution

Interestingly, our era has many similarities to the Era of Good Feelings and the Jacksonian Revolution in the early 19th Century.

A small clique of elitist aristocrats dominated American politics and controlled the federal government during the first three decades of the Republic. These Aristocrats were Founding Fathers or their relatives.

For instance, five of the first six US presidents; George Washington, John Adams (F-Massachusetts), Thomas Jefferson (R-Virginia), James Madison (R-Virginia), and James Monroe (R-Virginia) were Founders. The sixth president John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts) was John Adams’ son.

Moreover, the first six presidents came from just two states, Virginia and Massachusetts. Additionally, four of the first six presidents were wealthy Virginia slaveholders and plantation owners. In addition, five of the first six presidents were college graduates in a nation where much of the population never attended school.

Hence, a wealthy coastal elite dominated America in the first five decades of the Republic. Predictably, this elite frustrated ordinary Americans. In particular, the settlers in the new states West of the Alleghenies hated the elite. Many of those settlers went west specifically to escape elite domination.

There were ethnic and religious components to the resentment. Many of the settlers were recent immigrants of Scotch-Irish heritage. Most of the Founders came from old families of old English stock. Most Founders were high-church Episcopalians and Congregationalists. Settlers were often Presbyterians and Baptists.

One result of this situation was widespread suspicion of centralized institutions such as the Bank of the United States and the federal government. Many working and middle-class people feared the Founders had built such institutions to concentrate elite power against them.

They attacked the Bank of the United States, America’s first central bank, as an instrument of elite control over the economy. Radicals saw Federal roads as highways the military could use to attack settlers.

To counteract the elitist Federalist Party, Thomas Jefferson’s Republican or Democratic Republican Party launched a massive effort to expand the vote. By the 1820s, these efforts expanded the vote to include most white men in most states. Before then, property requirements barred most citizens from the polls.

One result of this expansion was the complete collapse and disappearance of the Federalist Party. Another was the rise of a populist leader with a radical agenda.

That leader was the war hero General Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee). Jackson was Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian, the son of immigrants, a self-made man from a working-class family, and a resident of a Western state; Tennessee. Jackson shared many of the prejudices of the working-class he hated the banks, the British, and Native Americans and had contempt for the elites.

Jackson was not a political outsider, instead, he was a renegade member of the elite. Old Hickory was a slaveholder, a plantation owner, a federal official, a former State Supreme Justice, and a US Senator. He was also the nation’s highest-ranking general and greatest war hero.

In 1824, Jackson ran for President and triggered a series of events that blew up the political system. Jackson won the most popular votes and electoral votes in the 1824 presidential election. However, the elite screwed Old Hickory out of the presidency with the Corrupt Bargain.

In the Corrupt Bargain, US Speaker of the House Henry Clay (R-Kentucky) withdrew from the race and threw his votes behind John Quincy Adams (R-Massachusetts). Adams became president, Clay became US Secretary of State, and Jackson’s followers got angry.

The elite had cheated a working-class hero out of presidency and given it to one of their own. The result was the organization of a new national political party, the Democrats, that swept Jackson into the White House in 1828.

As president, Jackson implemented a radical agenda included the removal of his political opponents from federal offices, the destruction of the Bank of the United States, and the removal of Native Americans from lands east of the Mississippi. This was the Jacksonian Revolution.

The Age of Jackson offers many similarities to our own. For example, politics were incredibly nasty. During the presidential campaign of 1828, pamphlets branded Jackson a murderer and called his wife Rachel a whore.

The pamphleteers called Jackson a murderer because he had ordered the execution of disobedient soldiers in the War of 1812, a common 19th Century military practice. The same-pamphleteers attacked Rachel Jackson as a whore because she was married and divorced before marrying Andy.

Not to be outdone, Democratic propagandists called John Quincy Adams a pimp. The allegation was that Adams had turned American women into sex slaves and sold them to Czar Alexander I of Russia.

Hence, the only thing new about QAnon is the technology the propagandists used to spread their lunacy. Interestingly, the viciousness in the political press did not translate into violence during the Jacksonian Revolution.

The elite accepted the change of power, even though many of them hated Jackson. To counter Old Hickory, the elite manufactured their own populist heroes including William Henry Harrison (W-Indiana) and Henry Clay (W-Kentucky). They also organized the Whig Party to counter the Democrats and mobilize the middle class against the working class.

The elite accepted the change of power, even though many of them hated Jackson. To counter Old Hickory, the elite manufactured their own populist heroes including William Henry Harrison (W-Indiana) and Henry Clay (W-Kentucky). They also organized the Whig Party to counter the Democrats and mobilize the middle class against the working class.

The Jacksonian Revolution shows political upheaval can end with peaceful change and wider democracy. In particular, the Jacksonian Revolution led to a new party system, and political order that elevated Westerners and middle-class politicians and displaced the old elite.

Unfortunately, the success of the Jacksonian Revolution was at the expense of people of color. Under Jackson, slavery expanded, black voters were disenfranchised in states such as Pennsylvania, and Native Americans stripped of their rights and driven from their lands.

Prelude to Civil War the Crazy 1850s

The upheaval that led to Civil War has some similarities to our own era. The first and most destructive of those similarities was a wealthy and powerful class that refused to relinquish power.

The class was the Southern Slaveocracy, popularly known as the Slave Power. In the 1850s, the Slave Power was the wealthiest class in the country and it had control of the federal government and the Courts. In particular, both the US Supreme Court and the Presidents did its bidding.

For example, the US Supreme Court found a “right to slavery” in the Constitution in its controversial Dred Scottdecision. Similarly, Presidents Franklin Pierce (D-New Hampshire) and James Buchanan (D-Pennsylvania) did everything they could to advance slavery. On the eve of Civil War in 1861, Buchanan even sent a proposal to annex Cuba and turn it into a slave state to Congress.

The corruption of politics and the judiciary by slave money alienated much of the population. By 1860s, most Northerners were willing to vote for the anti-slavery Republican Party.

The Slave Power’s refusal to share power with the Republicans; who were willing to tolerate slavery to preserve the Union, was the immediate cause of the Civil War. The Slave Power leaders walked out of Congress and formed the Confederacy.

Such intransigence reminds many Americans of today’s conservatives and white nationalists. It is their refusal to share power with leftists, people of color, and others that drives today’s political conflict. The Slave Power would accept no compromise no matter how reasonable.

Similarly, it was efforts to compromise to preserve the Union that set the stage for Civil War. Northern politicians kept trying to accommodate the slave power by meeting more and more of their demands.

For example, US Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois) tried to appease the Slave Power by creating more slave states through the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The main result of the act was to drive many Northern Democrats into the Republican Party.

Douglas became the most hated man in America because of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Ironically, by 1860 Douglas was less popular in the South than Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois).

Similarly, modern appeasers such as US Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) find themselves hated by most Democrats just as most Northerners hated Douglas. Manchin and Sinema’s efforts to accommodate Republicans only anger rank-and-file Democrats.

Specifically, Sinema and Manchin are trying to preserve the traditional Congressional power structure by fighting for the filibuster. I think they will destroy both the filibuster and the traditional Congressional power structure by fighting for the filibuster.

To explain, Sinema and Manchin are providing a reason to destroy that power structure with their willingness to sacrifice voting rights for the filibuster. The two demonstrate that Republicans and moderate Democrats are a threat to ordinary Americans. Just as Douglas demonstrated Democrats were a threat to free states by opening Kansas to slavery.

In the 1850s, each effort at compromise widened the gulfs between Southerners and Northerners and slavery supporters and opponents. One reason for this was that the compromises made each side view the other as a threat to its existence.

By the late 1850s, Northerners feared Southerners could force slavery on them. Similarly, Southerners feared Northerners would free the slaves by force. These fears were irrational, but they kept growing and by 1860 became the popular narrative.

Another parallel between the 1850s and our era was rising political violence.  That violence began with attacks on slave catchers and efforts to free slaves in Northern States. It escalated to organized warfare between pro and antislavery forces in Bleeding Kansas, and peaked in John Brown’s terrorist attack on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

As in our time, the 1850s establishment ignored the violence as it escalated. Instead of trying to understand or respond to the violence, leaders such as Buchanan tried to pretend violence as not escalating.

Not even violence in the Capitol could convince America’s leaders that the situation was spiraling out of control, another similarity to today. The violence occurred on 22 May 1856 when US Representative Preston Brooks (D-South Carolina) savagely beat US Senator Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts) with a cane on the floor of the US Senate. Disgustingly, another Congressman used a pistol to keep others from coming to Sumner’s aid.

Brooks beat Sumner for exercising his right to free speech in the Senate. That is reminiscent of recent violence in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, where ordinary Americans are being attacked for exercising free speech at “Culture War” flashpoints.

Frighteningly, Southerners rushed to Brooks’ defense and even mailed him canes. Worse, South Carolina residents reelected Brooks who had resigned his seat to office. Efforts to censure US Representative Henry. A. Edmundson (D) who helped Brooks in the assault failed. Brooks was not censured because he died before the next Congress took office.

This will remind modern Americans of the Republicans’ willingness to defend both former President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida) and the January 6 Capitol rioters. By normalizing violence, Southerners opened the door to Civil War.

One person who noticed the Sumner assault was John Brown. Two days after the Senate beating, Brown and his sons hacked five men to death with swords in the Pottawatomie Massacre on 24 May 1856. Brown later told the press the purpose of the Massacre was to “strike terror in the hearts of the proslavery people.”

Like Brooks, Brown became a hero to radical abolitionists and traveled openly in the North. By 1859, Brown had enough followers and money to attack Harper’s Ferry.

Thus the cycle of violence, and the failure to compromise before the Civil War resembles our era. The Civil War broke out because violence had become normalized and the politicians of the 1860s were unable to reach a political settlement.

The Progressive Era

One era widely compared to our own is the Later Gilded Age or Progressive Era (1893-1916).

The Progressive Era was a time of vast income inequality, technological change, corruption, widespread political violence, growing racism and racial conflict, radical politics, labor unrest, and deep distrust of institutions. In particular, the technological change, frustration with institutions, violence, and income inequality of the Progressive Era mirror our age.

For example, economist Gabriel Zucman estimates America’s richest 0.01% held 10% of US wealth in July 2021, Yahoo! News reports. In 1913, Zucman estimates the 0.01% held 9% of America’s wealth. If Zucman is correct, America’s income inequality is greater than in the Gilded Age.

Gilded Age technological progress rivals the technology explosion in our own era. Automobiles, radio, electric trains, trolleys, movies, telephones, and airplanes were either invented or popularized during the Progressive Era. New technology drove the concentration of wealth which corrupted the political system. In the 1900s, the press called the US Senate the Millionaire’s Club.

Interestingly, violence was more widespread in the late Gilded Age than in the pre-Civil War era. Progressive Era violence included lynchings, labor violence, terrorism, and organized race riots. Some of the worst violence included the Ludlow Massacre and the Coal Wars in Colorado, open guerrilla warfare between the miners’ union, the National Guard, and thugs hired by mine owners. The violence only ended when President Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) deployed the Regular Army to the Coal Fields.

Progressive Era terrorism included the 1910 Los Angeles Times bombing and assassinations and bombings carried out by the International Workers of the World or Wobblies a radical union. Racial violence hundreds of lynchings, many of them with political overtones.

The key difference between the Progressive Era and the Civil War Era was that leaders were able to reach a workable political compromise. One reason for the compromise was that the rich backed down and accepted the new progressive political program.

In particular, tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller Junior renounced violence. Rockefeller Junior even visited Colorado and apologized for the Ludlow Massacre. The Tycoons then accepted such reforms as the income tax and an elected US Senate.

Another reason why the Progressive Era ended peacefully was that leaders such as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) and Wilson were taking to take dramatic action to force compromise and keep the peace. Roosevelt forced mine owners and union leaders to sit down and negotiate an end to the Coal Strike of 1902, for example.

Roosevelt got the two sides to the table by threatening to nationalize he mines. A threat that led financier J.P. Morgan to force mine owners to compromise. Wilson was willing to use federal troops to end the Colorado Labor Wars.

Importantly, Progressive Era reformers realized that structural change was the key to workable reform. For example, they cleaned up much of the corruption in Washington by creating an elected US Senate through the 17th Amendment. Similarly, reforms such as the primary election and secret ballots ended the worst excesses of local politics. In addition, they replaced many political appointees with permanent civil servants.

Finally, Progressive Era leaders were able to reach compromises most people could live with. Extending the vote to women, but not to blacks for example. The compromise was horrendous and evil but it was workable.

The Progressive Era created a lasting system of reform that laid the groundwork for the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s.

One reason the Progressive Era succeeded was visionary leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York), Eugene Debs (S-Indiana), and William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska). Bryan and Debs set the stage for reform by criticizing from without. Roosevelt triggered reform by attacking it from within.

Only history will show if the current Age of Chaos will end with a workable political settlement as the Age of Jackson and the Progressive Age did or if it will end in catastrophe as the 1850s did.