While it is clear that the Reaganite period of US history has entered its moribund disjunctive phase, and that the period succeeding it will be populist and led by the Bernie crowd, I'm starting to worry about whether the transition will occur in 2020 or 2024.
Usually there's only one disjunctive term at the end of an era -- Carter at the end of the New Deal, Hoover at the end of the Progressive Republican era, John Quincy Adams at the end of the Jeffersonian era, and John Adams at the end of the quasi-reign of the Federalists.
But there was one time when there were in fact two disjunctive terms back-to-back before a transition to a whole new era. And in true ineffectual fashion, they were served by two separate one-termers, neither of whom would be re-nominated by their party despite being the incumbent president. That would be the lead-up to the Civil War, as the Jacksonian period wound down. Before the pivotal year of 1860, both Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan served as end-of-an-era, do-nothing, can-kicking presidents for their period's dominant party (Democrats).
Why bother starting the analogy? Because of the strong parallels between then and now -- mainly the partisan polarization that clearly portends some degree of Civil War 2.0 (see Peter Turchin, Ages of Discord). Americans have never spoken this openly of civil war and secession, whether as earnest zealots or as gallows-humor observers, since the original Civil War.
By analogy, the Republicans of the Reaganite period are like the Democrats of the Jacksonian period. Ignore how similar or different they are in substance, although there is a lot of overlap on policy -- expansionist militarism, low tariffs, agriculture over manufacturing, cheap labor uber alles, etc. We're only analyzing the dynamics of political coalitions as they go through different phases of a cycle, and where one is dominant and the other is opposition, regardless of what they stand for.
That makes today's Democrats like the Whigs of the Jacksonian period -- again, ignoring similarities of substance, and only looking at them as the opposition.
After Pierce's election in 1852, that should have been the final term for the Jacksonian period -- once a coalition goes disjunctive, it only lasts one term, right? Well, yes for every other time except the pre-Civil War period. That's what most knowledgeable or intuitive people would think about today -- Trump's term is the final phase of Reaganism, before the GOP gets dethroned and replaced with a whole different paradigm.
But in this nightmare scenario, Trump is akin to Pierce, not Buchanan -- there might be another do-nothing, can-kicking Reaganite Republican after Trump's single term! Trump not seeking or receiving the nomination next time is the least controversial piece of the analogy -- "I've already accomplished so very much in such record time, folks -- more than any other leader in world history -- that I wouldn't have anything left to do in another term! Still might play king-maker at the convention, though -- be careful!"
For the sake of argument, assume it's a Marco Rubio ticket that wins in 2020, since he's trying to position himself as both a faithful devotee of Saint Ronald while also saying maybe we need something other than "tax cuts to fuel corporate stock buybacks" as a path toward widespread prosperity. He's also criticizing Trump's weakness on the Chinese economic danger, like the president's trade hawk advisers rather than his Establishment free trade advisers.
Then it's 2024 when the Bernie revolution takes over -- with or without Bernie as the nominee, since there are a growing number moving over to his side, or coming in as freshmen already on his side. Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard -- whoever -- call it the Populist party. The Reaganite Republican coalition finally gets dethroned, they fade into impotence like the Democrats of the Civil War / Reconstruction period, and are generally shut out from re-shaping society during and after Civil War 2.0. We enjoy a full cycle of populist government -- roughly 40 years.
And yet, who says the party that dethrones the Reaganite GOP will be the Democrat party? Under the Civil War analogy, today's opposition party -- the Democrats -- will go entirely defunct, just like the Whigs. The individual Democrats would not vanish from the political scene, of course. Perhaps 80% of the Democrats will carry over into the new Populists, along with a large swath of former GOP supporters who want populism and are alienated from the Reaganite system. Just like how most of the Whigs still existed as politicians and activists, but re-grouped and re-branded as the Republican Party, bringing over a lot of former supporters of their era's dominant party, the Jacksonian Democrats, who had become alienated over the slavery issue.
That would still mean 20% of Democrats get banned from joining the new Populists, or just want nothing to do with it -- akin to the left-overs of the Whigs who did not make it into the Republicans. These left-overs are those most similar to the old dominant party, who do not want a whole new way of doing things -- either on a policy level, or as a political party. And they especially do not want anything to do with a massive cross-over of folks from "the other party" to transform their own party from the opposition into the dominant party.
For the Whigs, these left-overs were the Know-Nothings, who while technically neutral on slavery were in favor of the status quo, meaning pro-slavery -- making them like their era's dominant party (Jacksonian Democrats). The left-overs of today's Democrat party would be those most similar to their era's dominant party (Reaganite Republicans), namely the corporate globalists or neoliberals, such as Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, etc. The Know-Nothings could not stand the abolitionist defectors from the Democrats who were crossing over into the Republican re-branding of the Whigs, and the neoliberals could not stand Trump-voting populists crossing over into the Populist re-branding of the Democrats. They'd rather die than share power with a bunch of "deplorables".
How sick could they get? Well, by the 1856 election -- after the first disjunctive Jacksonian, Pierce -- the opposition party, the Whigs, were basically defunct. The Republican party had replaced them as the second major party. But the left-overs from the Whigs, the Know-Nothings, ran a third-party candidate who got over 20% of the popular vote, and won an important state! That was Millard Fillmore, a former president from the Whigs, who won the slave state of Maryland.
By analogy, in 2020, after the Reaganites' first disjunctive term under Trump, the old opposition party has fractured so badly that it doesn't really run its own candidate. A new Populist party runs Bernie, Tulsi, or whoever, as the second major party, while the left-overs of the opposition Democrats run a third-party candidate who emphasizes their similarity to the dominant party, as the sensible pragmatic choice to hold together the competing sides before a civil war breaks out. Both former opposition presidents are term-limited this time around, but let's just say Hillary Clinton runs again, channeling Bill, only on a separate Neoliberal party ticket -- and gets 20% of the popular vote, as well as winning the neoliberal ground zero of Maryland, just like Fillmore.
That fracturing of the opposition is the defining feature of their failure to limit the disjunctive phase to just one term before dethroning the old dominant party and taking their place as the new dominant party. It's not so much that people wanted a second helping of a do-nothing, can-kicking party whose coalition and power was in disarray.
Usually, a substantial third-party run (say, over 10% of the popular vote) is a splinter from the dominant party, not from the opposition. Think of Perot peeling off mainly Republicans during the Reagan era in 1992, or Wallace peeling of Democrats during the New Deal era in 1968, or "Bull Moose" Roosevelt and La Follette peeling off Republicans during the Progressive GOP era in 1912 and 1924, or "Free Soil" Van Buren peeling off Democrats during the Jacksonian era in 1848. And in 1860, at the end of the Jacksonian era, one of the two Democrats must be considered a third party -- Breckinridge, judging by the popular vote, or Douglas, judging by the Electoral College vote.
Dominant party coalitions can tolerate the occasional splinter group, which will cause it a short-term loss, because they are still cohesive and powerful enough to patch things up and re-gain control before long. An opposition coalition cannot tolerate splintering -- they are already so weak and loosely held together, that a big split would be terminal, rather than a brief set-back before re-gaining control.
Indeed, there was only one period where a substantial third-party campaign was a splinter from their era's opposition party rather than the dominant party -- right before the Civil War, in 1856 and again in 1860, when the pro-slavery Know-Nothings (Fillmore and Bell) split off from the abolitionist Republicans (Fremont and Lincoln). The first time, it sunk the opposition's chances, leading to a second disjunctive term for the dominant party (Buchanan). The second time, the re-branded opposition won despite its splinter group, because so many from the old dominant party crossed over: discontent with the status quo had risen so much greater after an unbearable second disjunctive administration.
Who says that can't happen again, now that we're leading up to another civil war? There's so much talk, and even action, about the splintering of the Democrat party. Only, contrary to the clueless elites, it would be the Neoliberals like Hillary and Cuomo who would be the third party in 2020, and Bernie Populists as the second major party. There is no electoral coalition for Hillary or Cuomo, in a race between Bernie and some Trump-era Republican. It's populism or death, as the corporate elitist Reagan era comes to an end. Like third-party Fillmore in 1856, maybe she gets 20% of the popular vote, even wins the most anti-populist of the blue states, Swamp Central in Maryland. Then Cuomo runs third-party in 2024, like third-party Bell in 1860, gets even less of the popular vote, wins a few unimportant states -- and then that's the end of them.
The Know-Nothings did not keep at their attempts to splinter the old Whig party after the Jacksonian period ended, and the Republican party became dominant in the Lincoln era. With abolition, there was nothing left for them to concern-troll about. Likewise, the Neoliberals will stop bothering with their splinter attempts within the old Democrat party, after the Reagan period ends, and the Populist party becomes dominant in the Bernie era. With major populist policies enacted, they won't have anything left to concern-troll about.
Like the Know-Nothings, the Neoliberal third party of Hillary and Cuomo would be remembered in utter disgust by the future -- for splintering the opposition at a pivotal end-of-an-era moment, prolonging the disjunctive phase of the dominant party and causing pre-civil war tensions to pressure-cook even more, and doing so just to preserve the absolute worst elements of overlap between the splinter group and the dominant party! Slavery for the Know-Nothings, yuppie corporatism for the Neoliberals.
It's bad enough to be on the wrong side of an upcoming civil war, but to choose to do so rather than just dragging along that way through inertia is even worse. Nobody made the Know-Nothings splinter the opposition to the dominant Jacksonians, and nobody is making the Neoliberals splinter the opposition to the dominant Reaganites. The Jacksonians and Reaganites, we understand to be on the wrong side of an upcoming civil war because they've been dominant for so long and their sclerosis prevents them from adapting.
I hope this proves to be "just an analogy," and that the Neoliberals let the populist revolution take over the Democrat party, which dethrones Trump and the entire Reagan era in 2020, restricting the disjunctive phase to merely one term, and a relatively painless civil conflict to follow.
But given the other observable parallels between now and the lead-up to the first Civil War -- especially partisan polarization, and the moralizing of party affiliation -- this analogy must be taken very seriously. I give it at least a 1-in-10 chance of how things unfold.
The more that near-term events resemble a splintering of the Democrat party, rather than ordinary coalitional difficulties within a single party, the more we may be headed for a second disjunctive term, the end of the Democrat party, its re-grouping as a Populist party, a splinter Neoliberal party (which at least gives up once the Bernie revolution wins the White House), and a far more vicious civil war since there will have been four additional years of pressure-cooking before the opposition overthrows the dominant party.
Today's dominant party should not want that outcome either -- for while it may delay the end of their era by another term, and let them troll the libs for another four years, it will mean even more decisive crushing once their era ends and the new era begins. When the Lincoln-led Republicans swept into office, ending the Jacksonian era, the old dominant party Democrats did not just fade into the background as the new opposition -- they got brutally crushed in a civil war, their local political leaders were replaced by generals from their rivals' occupying army, and they were shut out of the White House, Congress, and Supreme Court for most of the next 70 years.
And to all the mouth-breathers dreaming of secession during a civil war -- remember that this means even more decisive policies against your interests, now that you will have zero representation in the real nation's government. So much got passed and enacted by the Lincoln administration because there were no opposition members in the Congress to obstruct things -- they left the nation altogether! OK then, don't mind us while we get things done at a record pace without you here to stop us! Even assassinating Lincoln didn't slow things down -- Johnson, from the opposition party who ran on a unity ticket with Lincoln, had most of his vetoes over-ridden by a Democrat-deprived Congress, who impeached and nearly removed him from office.
I do favor regional break-up eventually for our over-extended empire, but peacefully rather than concurrent with a civil war. But, worst comes to worst, Civil War 2.0 leads to a permanent secession, and then the Bernie coalition still gets to pass and enact all its wonderful plans without obstruction from the recently dethroned Reaganites. I just hope, in that scenario, that the core nation contains the Midwest and the Northeast -- the South and Plains can form their own country, and the West Coast a third one still.