An earlier post looked at the history of midterms during disjunctive, end-of-an-era administrations. Unlike the standard pattern of midterms swinging control against the incumbent party of the White House, these midterms almost always began and ended with the White House party in control of Congress as well.
A couple clarifications are in order, though. First, we can ignore the results of Cleveland's midterms, as his admin was more of an interregnum between the Lincoln and McKinley eras, both of which saw the Republicans as the dominant party.
I put Cleveland as an end-of-an-era president because he was the last of the pure laissez-faire presidents before McKinley became a trailblazer against that orthodoxy. But Cleveland was from the opposition of his era -- the Democrats -- and so does not really qualify as a disjunctive president, who must be from the dominant party, representing the disintegration of the dominant coalition of the era. The fact that Cleveland's final midterm saw his party lose control of Congress is more likely due it its status as the opposition party of its era, hence always vulnerable to getting demoted back to second place.
More importantly, I only looked at the disjunctive midterm under Buchanan at the end of the Jacksonian era, when I should have included Pierce's as well. He was the first of the disintegration presidents before the Civil War: the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act under his watch in 1854 was a clear signal of the breakdown of the dominant coalition and the coming end of its rule. It broke the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (before the Jacksonian era, during the Era of Good Feelings), which limited the expansion of slavery in the new territories out West. By allowing slavery in the new territories, all bets were off on the pro and anti-slavery states maintaining their uneasy truce.
Going into the midterms, the disjunctive Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress. You might think that the catastrophe of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was signed on May 30, would have dealt the dominant party a severe blow by midterm time. And while the Democrats did lose seats in both chambers, they still held the Senate outright, and held the largest number of seats in the House, albeit a plurality rather than a majority, as the non-Democrats fractured into a number of opposition parties.
Among these, two basic groups cohered -- a realignment coalition that wanted to check or abolish slavery, lead by the Republicans, and a pro-status quo coalition that wanted to emphatically ignore the slavery question, lead by the Know Nothings AKA the American Party. With such divergent goals on the major issue of their time, as the nation was building up to civil war, it was truly as though three factions were vying for control -- the anti-slavery Republicans, the increasingly unhinged Democrats who were now allowing slavery anywhere, and the status quo American Party that wanted to avoid the issue altogether.
In two earlier posts, here and here, I showed how the Russiagaters today are like the American Party (Know Nothings) of the final terms of the Jacksonian era. Their obsession with blaming an external leader -- Putin or the Pope -- for their own electoral failures, was just a rationalization. Their real issue was maintaining the status quo instead of going along with a long overdue realignment, rejecting the extremists of "both sides". The American Party saw both the abolitionists and the secessionists as extremes to be avoided, just as the Russiagaters view the Bernie and Trump camps as extremes to be avoided.
Another parallel is that the American Party initially drew lots of Democrats, who were the dominant and incumbent party, rather than being a pure splinter group from the opposition Whig party. Today, that's like the Russiagaters having a good number of Republicans on their side -- not so much among voters, but among politicians and officials, who are the ones who ultimately allow or delay a realignment. Their shared fixation on Russia is superficial -- they really join forces to prevent Trump from delivering on his populist campaign promises, and to prevent Bernie from doing much the same thing if he were to take over.
And yet, with all those defectors from both the dominant and opposition party who poured into the American Party in the 1854 midterms, they still couldn't crack a majority. In 2018, that may not take the form of separate parties, but there will be a surge in anti-realignment politicians hailing from both the dominant and opposition parties -- Russiagaters from Democrats, and Never Trumpers and anti-tariff Republicans.
Just as in 1854, that won't knock the dominant party into a minority in either house of Congress. Back then, they only had a plurality in the House (but majority in the Senate) because the defections were at the party level, whereas this time around when the parties have stabilized more, it will be more at the sub-party level. That means the GOP will keep both the House and Senate, even though they will lose members in the House and do about even in the Senate.
Why? Just look back at 1854, which is where we're at now in the cycle. There was a disastrous act passed that opened the door to civil war over slavery, and yet the American Party's main campaign theme was to ignore it and try to preserve the status quo? During these kinds of crises that only explode during a disjunctive phase, the opposition must offer radical change to realign the system. But they are too hidebound to offer that much change, at least during a midterm season without a national presidential candidate to spearhead a major realignment movement.
So, while voters remove support from the dominant party, it's not enough to remove them from power because the alternative is not offering major change to a major crisis.
If that seems unlikely, remember that during the disjunctive Hoover admin, the GOP began with full control of government after the 1928 election, and despite the Great Depression exploding during late 1929, they still held onto full control of the White House and both houses of Congress after the 1930 midterms. After the Great Depression! The opposition Democrats were not offering the New Deal programs just yet, so what good were they going to be in saving the country from the collapsing economy? The GOP lost plenty of seats, but not enough to lose majority status.
This year's opposition Democrats are not offering enough of a radical change to counter the escalation of militarism, the record widening trade deficits and de-industrialization, soaring numbers of cheap labor immigrants, falling real wages and deteriorating standard of living, and last-ditch inflation of the bubble economy by cutting taxes without paying for them, leading to yet another record year for our national debt. So while voters will not be pleased with the GOP's performance so far, they will not transfer power to the Democrats.
The big story is the rise of the Bernie candidates, just as 1854 saw the first-ever explosion of the realigning Republicans. They began with no one in the Senate before 1854, and picked up 3 (out of 62). And they began with only 4 in the House and ended with 37 (out of 118). Whether they're affiliated with Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, the Democratic Socialists of America, or are their own economic populist and anti-imperialist, these candidates are the clear wave of the future.
The bad news is that it's looking more and more like we're headed for the Civil War parallels, where there will be two disjunctive terms instead of only one. Just as there were Pierce and Buchanan, we're going to have to suffer through both the Trump and the Pence/Haley admins before populist realignment. The opposition Democrats are just as fragmented as the Whigs during the 1850s, and it is the psychotic centrists who will spoil the election of 2020 just as they did in 1856, by running a former big wig of the opposition whose sole campaign theme will be preserving the status quo and ignoring the big issues that are coming to an explosive head.
In 1856, the "ignore the big problems" campaign was led by a former president of the opposition party, Fillmore, but technically he was only elected to the vice presidency, and ascended to the presidency on the death of his senior running mate, Taylor. If history repeats itself, that leaves the last guy who got elected vice president for the opposition -- Joe Biden, whose sole campaign theme will be "Why can't we just go back to 2012?"
In a three-way battle between Bernie, Biden, and whoever the Republican is, the GOP will win by an even wider margin than in 2016, owing to the vote-splitting effect among the opposition, just as the disjunctive Democrat Buchanan won by an even wider margin in 1856 than his predecessor did in 1852, again due to the psychotic centrist splitting the vote among the opposition.
For now I'm keeping the chances of this "two disjunctive terms" scenario below 50%, but when the Democrats fail to pick up either house of Congress in the midterms, I will raise it above 50% if the psychotic centrists double down on ignoring the major issues and offering only the status quo, at a time when it is rapidly disintegrating. When the status quo was strong, during the '90s, it was feasible to offer their take on the status quo and win. But by now, Reaganism is dead, and they must offer a wholly different system -- at least as radically different as the system that Trump campaigned on in 2016.
This is not a general feature of disjunctive phases -- every other time there was a shift of regimes, the disjunctive phases lasted only one term. But at a time of soaring partisan polarization, as we last saw during the 1850s, the stubbornness and hyper-competitiveness applies even within the party, not just between them. Not only is bipartisanship dead, partisanship itself is coming undone -- now political solidarity and collective action only scale up to the level of a faction or wing within a party.