President Obama and the Tea Party

Readers of this blog know that I have repeatedly asserted that President Obama’s election in 2008 marked a generational transition in accord with a theory of constitutional change set forth in my book on Jacksonian Demoracy.  Basically, the idea is that every thirty years or so the established party system falls apart, there is a realigning election, and a new movement, after overcoming intense opposition, creates a new governing philosophy.

There is one major exception to that pattern, and it’s the subject of my forthcoming book on William Jennings Bryan and the Populists (hopefully coming to a store near you in September). Bryan (depicted on the right) was another young and charismatic leader who came along in a time of economic distress and political turmoil.  But he lost the crucial 1896 election (and in 1900 and 1908), in part because he scared a lot of people.  The result was a backlash against his policies that reset the constitutional baseline in a totally different direction (Jim Crow, liberty of contract, etc.)

Is it possible that Obama is another Bryan?  (Not from a personal standpoint, but from a political one).  My initial take was, “No, because Obama won.”  Consider, though, the following hypothetical.  Suppose that Bryan had won in 1896 and his presidency turned out to be a disaster.  In 1898, the Republicans regained control of Congress with the help of a new grass-roots movement that mobilized against Bryanism.  And in 1900, the GOP captured the presidency as well and, energized by these new citizen activists, embraced far more conservative policies than they had followed before 1896.

The only difference between this and what actually happened is that Bryan was stopped (and the backlash took hold) before he won.  But that isn’t much of a difference.  And it suggests that the Populist example is worth considering more carefully for clues about how this Presidency will unfold.  Since most Presidents at the start of a realignment run into problems, one cannot conclude that the Obama Administration will fail and provoke an even more intense counter-reaction from the Tea Party.  But that outcome is possible.

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3 Responses

  1. “The result was a backlash against his policies that reset the constitutional baseline in a totally different direction (Jim Crow, liberty of contract, etc.)”

    Jim Crow? So the Democratic stronghold that was the South backlashed – with Jim Crow – against the policies of the three-time Democratic-nominee…and, I’m guessing, just to cover their tracks, also by providing most of the votes for that same three-time Democratic-nominee?

    As to Liberty of Contract, I would think Lochner would be the poster case for this and of that 5-4 decision – three of the 4 dissenters were appointed by Republicans (and they include 2 of the 3 that were appointed after 1896). Possibly Mr. Bryan would have selected that 5th vote (instead of Justice McKenna) but there is no guarantee he would have won re-election and then picked the likes of Justice Holmes (or Day).

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    You’ll have to buy the book to learn the answer. It’ll be an excellent Xmas gift. 🙂

    More seriously, the argument is that Bryan’s defeat undermined Southern Populists, who were opposed to the Democracy there and took a (relatively) more tolerant position on racial issues. It’s a long story, though, that I can’t possibly due full justice to here.

  3. I’ll wait then…although intuitively the idea that the Democratic nominee (and, had he been elected, he would have continue to identify himself as a Democrat vice Populist) would have been a boon to southern Populists unhappy with Southern Democrats just doesn’t fit. If anything, I would think a Bryan victory would have strengthened the hand of Southern Democrats, to the detriment of fellow citizens who didn’t see things their way.