Monday, June 24, 2013

A thought about the economic basis of U.S. political epochs

There have been a few moments in American history when a major shift occurred in political power. Consider"
  • While Washington was elected as an independent, the next five presidents were Federalists or Democratic Republicans (the two Adams presidents from Massachusetts, and Jefferson, Madison and Monroe from Virginia).
  • The election of 1828. Andrew Jackson was elected by the Democratic Party, representing the birth of that party. From then until 1860, elections were won by Democrats or Whigs.
  • From 1860 yo 1932, all the elected presidents were Republicans except Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. Had Teddy Roosevelt not run as the Bull Moose candidate in 1912, Wilson would not have been elected that year.
  • In 1932, in the depth of the Depression, the Democrats took the White House, and held it until 1968 with the exception of the election of Eisenhower, a war hero.
  • The Civil Rights legislation under the Lyndon Johnson administration led to the southern Democrats switching to the Republican Party. From 1968 to 2008 Republicans held the White House, except for the one term presidency of Carter (elected after Watergate) and Clinton's two terms.
We will now see whether the Clinton, Bush, Obama trade offs will signal a new political domain.

I wonder whether there is an economic basis for the changes.
  • The British colonial policy kept colonies dependent on manufactured products from England, paid for with primary products. The British had after the French and Indian War tried to limit colonization to the eastern seaboard. Thus at independence the original states were agricultural, but divided between the plantation-slavery states of the south and the family farms of the north.
  • Obviously, the revolutionary period changed the governance system of the nation. Settlement was opened in the west, and the Jefferson administration completed the Louisiana Purchase.
  • The 1828 to 1860 period was marked by the increase in power of the population that had migrated west. The split between slave owning, plantation based export agriculture of the south and the family farm agriculture of the north continued. However, during this period railroads, clipper ships, the American System of Manufacturing and canals were being developed, as was iron and coal production. Large scale Irish immigration started in the 1840s. Texas joined the Union, the Mexican American War resulted in the addition of California and the South West to the Union, The California Gold Rush occurred and the Comstock Load of silver was discovered in 1859.
  • The Civil War ended slavery, and decimated the economies of the southern states. The Reconstruction resulted in a temporary shift of power in the south to Republicans, and the following period saw whites establish segregation, share cropping, and eventually Jim Crow laws. The The Guilded Age (1865 to 1900)  laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. industrial economy. By 1890, the USA leaped ahead of Britain for first place in manufacturing output. There was massive immigration from new geographic areas, but also of tycoons who became very rich developing very large scale corporations. 
  • Reaction to the excesses of the Guilded Age led to the creation of the Labor Movement and the Progressive Age beginning in the 1890s and continuing into the first World War.  (Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson were all progressive politicians).
  • The Roaring 20s saw the development of mass production of consumer products, including the automobile, the popularization of the stock market, radio based mass communication, and ended with the crash or 1929 and the beginning of the Depression.
  • The Democratic domination of the New Deal saw the recovery from the Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as a period in which the United States produced half of the world's goods and services. It was the baby boom, the Civil Rights movement, and the anti-war movement.
  • The 1970s saw massive inflation, leading to the Reagan years in which inflation was controlled, and eventually the Cold War ended in the administration of Bush I.

United States history saw the transformation of the economy from one based on agriculture, forestry and fishing (displacing the previous Native American hunting-gathering economy), through a manufacturing economy through the first and second Industrial Revolutions, to a service economy tied in part to the Information Revolution. Household technology was revolutionized and women entered the workforce in huge numbers. Life expectancy increased radically in the 20th century and birth rates declined, so for the first time the population includes a large and increasing portion of retired people.

During its history the United States expanded from a narrow strip along the Atlantic Coast of North America, to a continent spanning nation; its markets expanded from England and the Caribbean to globalization. The United States was transformed from a rural to an urban society. Not surprisingly, the political views of its people have changed. Importantly, suffrage has greatly expanded to include women, and slavery has been abolished and the descendants of the slave enfranchised. Political parties have changed and there have been third party movements.

However, we are left with some political institutions largely defined in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our constitution, once revolutionary and a model to be widely emulated, is now less progressive than those of many other nations. As the previous post showed, the electoral college favors rural over urban voters. States have used their power under the Constitution to define Congressional districts using modern computation and statistics in order to gerrymander districts so that members of the House of Representatives generally only depend on winning their party primaries, and thus are becoming more partisan. The Senate, using rules developed to protect slavery, has become gridlocked by the threat of filibuster.


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