The economy has been staggering, with stagnant or no growth, for several years, after a financial crisis. Loud complaints have been raised against Wall Street financiers and the concentration of great wealth in few hands. Rapid technological development is generating massive economic change, with many old-line jobs vanishing. Majorities disapprove of the Democratic president, as they had of his Republican predecessor.
All this is happening after a protracted period of partisan polarization and political deadlock between roughly equal-sized Democratic and Republican parties. The polarization is all the more bitter because it is based on vastly different outlooks on cultural issues.
These two paragraphs are a reasonably accurate description of the nation in the midst of the 2016 presidential election cycle. But they also depict, with similar accuracy, the United States 120 years ago, as it entered election year 1896. That’s the story told by longtime political consultant and top George W. Bush aide Karl Rove in his new book about the 1896 election, “The Triumph of William McKinley.”
Rove vividly describes how the lives of Americans in the 1890s were being transformed more starkly than they have been recently by the ubiquity of smartphones and Twitter. Their homes were being fitted with indoor plumbing, electricity and telephones. They could venture far beyond on streetcars, railroads and a newfangled transportation mode called the bicycle, which would soon lead to the automobile.
But for many this progress was overshadowed by economic turmoil. Strikes at the Carnegie steel and Pullman railcar factories in Pittsburgh and Chicago led to violence and pitched battles with state and federal troops.
Meanwhile, farm prices were crashing because of growing production of wheat and beef in Canada, Australia, Argentina and Ukraine. And the financial crisis forced bankers to call loans and squeeze highly indebted farmers into ruin.
The solution, many Americans came to believe, was inflation, in the form of the free coinage of silver, to replace the gold standard that had provided a hard and inflation-proof currency after the retirement of the greenbacks that had been used to finance the Civil War.
That issue cut across normal party lines, which were based on the stands people had taken on the Civil War. Republicans appealed to Northern Protestants, particularly of New England Yankee descent, and blacks, who were being deprived of the vote by Democrats in the South. Democrats were supported by white Southerners and Irish Catholics immigrants whose forebears had rioted against the Civil War draft.
This was the situation confronting William McKinley, longtime Ohio congressman and two-term governor, when he set out on the first concerted campaign to win enough delegates to be nominated for president at his party’s national convention.
McKinley’s trademark issue was protectionism. He sponsored carefully tailored tariff law to encourage domestic manufacturing and shelter politically critical farm products. He planned to run as a candidate of change in a time of strife and against Democrats’ lower tariffs.
The free silver issue split both parties, just as issues like abortion and immigration have split both parties in recent times. McKinley’s shrewd organization got him a first-ballot nomination, with mining-state Republicans walking out of the convention. Among Democrats free silver forces prevailed, repudiating pro-gold incumbent Grover Cleveland and nominating 36-year-old Nebraska lawyer William Jennings Bryan after his dramatic “cross of gold” speech.
McKinley, after hesitation, endorsed the gold standard and framed it adroitly: The workingman should be paid in 100-cent dollars, not 52-cent dollars. His meticulously organized campaign sent 18 million pieces of literature and organized trains for 750,000 people to see McKinley deliver speeches on his front porch in Canton.
Progressive historians depicted McKinley as a boss-driven stand-patter. Rove makes it clear he was a creative candidate and innovative policymaker, adapting to a changing nation, who led his party to 36 years of domination.
Rove’s book’s subtitle is “Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters.” He suggests three lessons to be learned here.
One is to tackle the big issues, as McKinley tackled silver after some hesitation. And tackle them in a way that shows voters how these policies will improve their lives.
The second is to modernize the party. McKinley reached out to Catholic, Jewish and Scandinavian immigrants — and to Confederate as well as Union veterans.
Finally, look not to the past — as Bryan appealed to an idealized agrarian America — but to the nation that is taking shape, industrial then, post-industrial now.
Interesting advice — but not being followed much by either party this cycle.