American politics seems especially fraught today because we are nearing the end of the Republican Party’s long political dominance, and the old order is fighting change with every last ounce of its strength. Even so, demographic shifts and changes in public opinion seem to herald a new regime with a new dominant coalition and a new dominant party, most likely the Democrats.
That is not the only problem. The United States has been suffering from a long period of mounting political polarization, and for the past several decades our constitutional system has decayed into an oligarchical and corrupt politics with growing inequalities of wealth. But we have also faced this dangerous combination before — in the first Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. That period ultimately gave way to the reforms of the Progressive Era. We are now in our second Gilded Age, and increasing disgust with inequality, corruption and oligarchy in our time has already begun to produce mobilizations for political reform, akin to the first decades of the 20th century.
Because of our presidential and party system, American political history has featured a series of constitutional regimes, long periods in which one party dominates politics. The dominant party doesn’t win all of the elections, but it wins most of them, and it sets the agenda for what people think is politically possible. As political scientist Stephen Skowronek of Yale University explains, there have been six such regimes from the founding to the present: Federalist (1789-1800), Jeffersonian (1800-1828), Jacksonian (1828-1860), Republican (1860-1932), New Deal-Civil Rights (1932-1980) and the Reagan regime that has structured American politics from 1980 to the present. In each political era, a new dominant party arises, forms a winning coalition, promotes its interests and ideology, and eventually decays and collapses, often the victim of its own past success.
Compare the last two regimes. In the New Deal-Civil Rights regime that lasted from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascension to about 1980, the Democratic Party was dominant. Politics was relatively depolarized — there were liberals and conservatives in both parties. This regime produced the Social Security Act, Medicare, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Civil Rights Act. Liberalism was ascendant, the administrative state grew and redistributive programs expanded. Taxes on the wealthy were higher, and organized labor was relatively strong.
Buffeted by the upheavals of the 1960s and the stagnation of the 1970s, the Democratic coalition fractured and gave way to the Reagan regime that began in the 1980s. Since then, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have set the tone for politics. This is the era of neoliberalism, deregulation, weak labor unions, decreasing investment in public institutions, increasing wealth inequality and mounting political polarization. The two Democratic presidents of this era, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, found themselves constantly beset by the conservative political forces around them, and they had to tack and make concessions to the era’s prevailing ideology. (This is typical when the “opposition” party wins the presidency during any given regime.) Obama said his health plan was borrowed from the conservative Heritage Foundation — though conservatives gave him no credit for that — while Clinton sheepishly announced that the era of big government was over.
But the conservative coalition that kept Republicans dominant for decades has begun to fray. The wealthy donors who bankroll the party’s policies of upward redistribution of wealth and downward redistribution of risk are increasingly out of touch with the concerns of rural, working-class and non-college educated voters who constitute the mass of the party. Increasingly, only cultural warfare and distrust of liberal institutions have kept the GOP together, and it is having difficulty attracting younger voters. The party’s ideology of privatization, deregulation and ever lower taxes, its attacks on public programs, and its complacency about wealth inequality appeared increasingly tone-deaf even before the country faced both a pandemic and a recession. In its weakened state, the GOP has been captured by a cartoonish demagogue who cares more about stoking hatreds and lining his own pockets than attending to the public good.
The old regime is flailing, creating an opportunity — but by no means a certainty — that a new coalition will arise to shape American politics for a generation or more. Demographic shifts and the growing popularity of interventions to reduce inequality, guarantee affordable health care, combat racism and fight climate change signal the possibility of a new political regime.
If the Reagan regime finally does give way in 2020, the most likely successor will feature the Democrats as the dominant party. The new majority coalition will be the natural evolution of the Obama coalition of minorities, women, college-educated professionals, city-dwellers and suburbanites. This coalition will have a different ideology and a different set of interests. What once seemed impossible in politics will become possible.
Catastrophe has created an opportunity. But even if the Democrats win the White House in 2020, we cannot conclude that the Reagan regime is finally over. Old regimes rarely go out without a fight. To close the door on Reaganism, the newly dominant party will actually have to make things better and win public confidence. Democrats will face not only economic contraction and a health crisis, but — among other things — an older conservative order that still controls the federal judiciary. If the Democrats stumble (by failing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and to bring the country out of its economic woes, for example) the Reagan regime may get a second wind. It is likely to move forward on Trumpist terms — a strange brew of white-grievance politics, conservative Christianity, bare-knuckled capitalism, deepening corruption and authoritarian politics.
There have been several missed opportunities for a new regime before in American history. In 1896, for example, the GOP, which had dominated politics since the Civil War, seemed ripe for repudiation. Americans were tired of Gilded Age corruption and growing inequalities of wealth. But the Democrats, led by William Jennings Bryan, blew their chance, in part because another Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was in the White House when the Panic (that is, the depression) of 1893 struck. The Republicans, led by William McKinley, expanded their coalition to attract urban workers and professionals in America’s growing cities and continued to dominate politics for another 36 years.
But there are some important differences between 1896 and 2020. There seems no clear path for expanding the Trump coalition, which emphasizes white identity politics combined with upward income redistribution. The segments of the American public that support such an agenda are growing older and losing population. If this is a replay of 1896, the political coalition of professionals, African Americans, immigrants and urban workers will probably win once again. But this time it will be represented by the Democrats.
There are other reasons that this moment resembles the first Gilded Age — as opposed to the 1930s (when the old Republican regime ended) or the 1970s (when the New Deal coalition was on the ropes). The 1890s was a period of what I call “constitutional rot,” in which the very foundations of the republic were eroding. Technological innovations had created vast new fortunes and huge monopolies. Newspapers pushed out sensationalist stories with little regard for truth. Huge waves of immigration roiled American politics, while racial tensions grew. Demagogues sprang up to stoke fears and hatreds. Close presidential elections resulted in two contests — in 1876 and 1888 — in which the electoral college winner lost the popular vote. The parties were at each other’s throats and resorted to every dirty trick and connivance. Politics was deeply corrupt, and obscene inequalities of wealth made the country little more than an oligarchy controlled by the rich.
We also suffer from constitutional rot today. Ours is a deeply divided age. Indeed, one of the defining features of the Reagan regime has been mounting polarization. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans perfected the dark arts of division and cultural warfare, while conservative media sowed distrust and promoted propaganda. The strategy of polarization was a Faustian bargain: It helped Republicans maintain their political dominance for many years, but as a result we now have mutual hatreds of the kind we have not seen since the Civil War.
Increasing wealth inequality, polarization and loss of trust in institutions have gravely weakened American democracy: Politics has become increasingly oligarchical and corrupt. As the dominant party, the Republicans have taken the lead in eroding the democratic system, with tax breaks for the rich, restrictions on the franchise and the pay-for-play politics of dark money. Not to be outdone, the party’s leader, President Trump, has engaged in flagrant lawbreaking, promiscuous financial corruption and unrepentant conflicts of interest.
If you had lived in the first Gilded Age, you might well have feared — just as many people do today — that American democracy would fail. And yet it didn't. Public frustration with the Gilded Age spurred mobilizations for change that led to the Progressive Era, and later, the New Deal. Politics slowly began to depolarize, and reform movements sprang up in both parties.
We now are in the last difficult days of America’s second Gilded Age. If voters decisively reject Trump’s corrupt, demagogic brand of politics, we may see something far more significant than a new political regime with a new dominant party. We may be headed toward a second Progressive Era of democratic reform. And because the new majority coalition is likely to be fully multiracial, we may even have a third Reconstruction that will finally address racial injustices long ignored. It will not be a smooth ride, and it will take many years to cure our nation’s constitutional rot. But there is a way forward.
Things will not happen exactly the same way as in the 1890s, or the 1930s, or even the 1970s. Every age has its own unique features and its own complications. But the past offers us a story of hope. It shows how resilient our experiment in democracy has been, even in its darkest days. Trump promised an end to American carnage; instead he multiplied it. We are captive for the moment in the wreckage of his failed presidency. But we must keep our eyes on the possibilities for renewal.