100 years ago today, on November 2, 1920, Republican Warren Harding was elected president, defeating Democrat James Cox, in the biggest popular vote victory in American history--60% to 34%. This was a devastating repudiation of the presidency of Democrat Woodrow Wilson that signaled a political realignment favoring the dominance of the Republican Party. This was the first of three overwhelming presidential defeats for the Democratic Party. This was also the beginning of a decade in which Republicans had large majorities in both houses of Congress. We have to wonder whether the election tomorrow will bring another realignment--this time signaling repudiation of the Trump Republicans and dominant majority power for the Democratic Party.
Coming after the end of World War I in 1918, the last two years of Wilson's presidency had been some of the most turbulent in American history. The world suffered the worst pandemic in human history--killing as many as 675,000 people in the United States alone. As a proportion of the population, the equivalent number for the U.S. today would be over two million people dead. Even President Wilson and the Prime Minister of Great Britain were infected by the flu, although they recovered.
It was also a time of violent social unrest. The migration of many rural blacks from the South to northern and western cities sparked racial violence, including race riots in over 25 northern cities in the summer of 1919, in which over 100 people died. Blacks organized marches protesting white violence against blacks. Anarchists and left-wing radicals mailed packages with bombs to 36 government officials. One bomb exploded outside the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Federal agents arrested some 5,000 radicals. Americans had reason to fear that the Communist revolutionary ferment in Russia might spread to the U.S. Cities were shut down by general strikes led by the radical International Workers of the World. There were more labor union strikes than ever in American history. In addition to all this disorder, the country fell into a deep economic recession with over 20% unemployment.
The theme for Harding's successful campaign for the presidency was his promise of a "return to normalcy." Sound familiar?
Remembering this history should teach Americans two lessons. The first is that the social and political turmoil in our lives today is not unique, and that the country has recovered from much worse disorder in the past.
The second lesson is that the evolution of the American two-party system has produced two major parties that are so adaptive in their resilience that they can survive devastating electoral defeats and then find ways to return to dominance. And so it was, that the realigning election of 1920 that made the Republican Party the dominant party was followed by the realigning election of 1932 that reversed the positions of the two parties and elevated the Democratic Party to majority status. Franklin Roosevelt's 57 to 40 percent victory over Herbert Hoover was the largest Democratic majority up to that time. And this was the first of five consecutive presidential elections won by the Democratic candidate. In 1934, the Democrats gained House seats and increased their majority to 319-103, which was the only mid-term election between 1838 and 2002 in which the president's party gained House seats.
If the Republican Party does suffer a defeat tomorrow comparable to what the Democratic Party suffered in 1920, some pundits will wonder whether this is the end of the Republican Party, or at least the beginning of a long period in which Republicans will be a minority. This could happen. But if the Republican Party is still as adaptive in making innovative changes as it has been in the past, it can turn away from Trump's illiberal populism and find new leaders that can broaden the party's appeal to voters.
That will require a moral appeal to voters. The Trumpist Republicans have decided that moral character does not matter--that Trump's immoral character does not matter, as long as one agrees with his policies. Trump boasted about this when he said that even if he murdered someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York, his supporters would still love him.
Against this, Joe Biden's claim that this election is a "battle for the soul of the nation" argues that Trump's immorality does matter because it corrupts America's moral identity. Presidential statecraft is soulcraft. If Trump and the Trump Republicans lose in a big way, that will confirm Biden's argument that a president must provide moral leadership that manifests and shapes the moral character of the country. The Republican Party will then have to persuade Americans that it will never again embrace the political leadership of a grandiose narcissist like Trump who lacks the moral and intellectual virtues.
I have written previously about Trump's grandiose narcissism.