31 August 2010

The Bipolarchy of Olden Days

At under 200 pages of text, Charles W. Calhoun's From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail: The Transformation of Politics and Governance in the Gilded Age is a concise and clear history of political and partisan issues in the period between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century. It offers ample proof of the historic inconsistency of the two major parties that still dominate American politics. Calhoun portrays a Republican party convinced of the economic benefits of government intervention, especially in trade policy, and a Democratic party dominated by a fiscal conservatism that would seem extreme to Tea Partiers today. Grover Cleveland, the lone Democratic President of the era, would stand well to the right of anyone planning a presidential run in 2012. He was fond of saying that it was the people's duty to support the government, but not government's duty to support the people. His party claimed to champion the poor, as it claims to do today, by trying to reduce consumer prices by lowering tariffs. Republicans claimed to champion the poor by maintaining high tariffs, which they claimed kept Americans at work. Calhoun does a good job explaining the importance of the tariff and the money supply as the key issues of the period, but he also shows how Republicans, in particular, played the bipolarchy game of lesser-evilism. For decades after the Civil War, the GOP warned that Democratic victories would put Confederates in power; this was called "waving the bloody shirt." Democrats did little to dispel that impression, being for all intents and purposes complicit in terrorism to suppress black voting in the South. But Democrats had support outside the South from people who hoped to benefit from free trade and others who worried that measures proposed to tame the South would expand federal power to a dangerous degree.

Calhoun disappoints a little in his dismissive treatment of third parties, particularly the Peoples/Populist party that waged perhaps the most formidable assault on the Bipolarchy ever in the 1890s. While acknowledging Populist successes, he rejects their claim that Republicans and Democrats fought battles irrelevant to the interests of ordinary Americans. He cites high election turnout as proof that Americans took the tariff and silver issues seriously, and the facts inescapably prove that the majority rejected Populism. Calhoun's point in writing the book was to get people to take the issues of the Gilded Age seriously, as if the Populist critique had prevailed in retrospect. He does give us a good idea of the stakes involved in those issues, but the fact that they mattered to many people doesn't mean that they mattered most to everyone, or even to a majority of the electorate -- many of whom may have voted Republican or Democrat for sectional or ethnocultural reasons. Given the unflattering portrait he paints of a nation divided between the grafters of the North and the terrorists of the South, he might have made more of an effort to step outside the Bipolarchy box and see it from an alternative viewpoint. But I can't complain very much after admiring the book's brevity in the first place. Calhoun deserves credit for laying out the facts in a way that at least leaves you asking questions, even if he has neither the time or the inclination to answer all of them.

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