Podcast: Key Congressional Elections in History

Jeffrey Rosen [00:00:06] I'm Jeffrey Rosen president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. And welcome to We the People the weekly show of constitutional debate. The National Constitution Center is a nonpartisan nonprofit chartered by Congress to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people. The 2018 midterm elections are coming up and it's time to delve into constitutional history. What did the framers expect that congressional elections would look like? What have they looked like over the course of history and are there parallels to our current times in the past 200 years. Joining us to discuss the constitutional and historical dimensions of congressional midterm elections are two of America's leading experts on Congress congressional history and elections. Matthew Green is Professor of Politics at Catholic University and author of the speaker of the House a study of leadership as well as a forthcoming study of Newt Gingrich. Matthew thank you so much for joining.

 

Matthew Green [00:01:13] Thank you.

 

Rosen [00:01:15} And Thomas Mann is Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He has written extensively on Congress and his many books including the invaluable and best selling The Broken Branch How Congress Is Failing America and how to get it back on track coauthored with Norm Ornstein and many other works. Tom thank you so much for joining us.

 

Thomas Mann [00:01:35] My pleasure Jeff.

 

Rosen [00:01:38] Let's jump right in. Are there historical parallels to the current midterm elections and what did the framers expect that congressional election midterm elections would look like.

 

Green [00:01:51] Well it's probably a little early to say exactly what previous midterms are similar to the one that we are about to have since we don't know what the outcome will be. But in terms of public engagement in the election and the potential for a change in power in at least one chamber in Congress we certainly have seen that before in congressional history and in fact I would say it's one of the factors that distinguishes ordinary midterms you might say from ones that we would consider significant. So a change in party control. And also if there's a large swing in seats from one party to the other and have a lot of new members coming which could happen in this election. That is also something that we have seen before and often makes a midterm significant. You know what the founders intended isn't exactly what we have today for a number of reasons. One of which being that we now have popular elections for the House and Senate whereas initially Senators were appointed by the states by state legislatures. And so they were somewhat more immune in a way from the electoral tides that can influence the house. Then of course the House you have elections every two years. And part of the idea there is that they're closer to the people. And in that respect more directly connected to what voters would like based on you know in any given election where a senator serving for six years they have more time to legislate and focus on matters of policymaking.

 

Rosen [00:03:30] Thank you so much for that. Tom same opening question to you. Are there historic parallels to the midterm elections of 2018 and what did the framers expect from congressional midterm elections.

 

Mann [00:03:40] No obvious parallels but certainly some interesting midterm elections that we can discuss as Matt said the framers really have a House is the only body that would be directly elected by the public. The president was to be chosen by a electors. Who in turn were appointed by the states. And that explains the appointment of Senators as well. There also was no mention of political parties in the Constitution and if you look today we have coming up an election in which the framers would be aghast. And of course they talk constantly about that fear of a demagogue without the requisite Republican virtue merging in the system and tried to set up a structure of institutions with incentives that would prevent that. But right now we're facing a situation where we have the most demagogic like occupant of the White House in our in our history and the question of this midterm is is the is one of the checks the framers had in mind for protecting the system and the rule of law that is the election of a new Congress. Is that going to be up to the task? That's up for the American people.

 

Rosen [00:05:33] Thank you for that. Matt. Tom has made a provocative point. He said that the framers intended Congress to check demagogues. Do you agree with that point and let's go back to the 19th century you have identified a series of important 19th century elections including as we were talking before the show started 1826, 1854, 66, 74, 94. Give us a sense of how some of those important 19th century elections functioned and whether you agree with Tom or not that they were supposed to attract demagogues.

 

Green [00:06:05] Well I think Thomas has point and I would actually expand it to say that the founders intended the legislative branch in particular to check the executive branch period regardless of who the occupant was. And he's right that the founders did not envision parties and it's not in the Constitution. And so one of the concerns that many people have had is that with parties members of Congress think more like teams and less like an independent branch of the national government and so when the president is of the same party as the party that controls Congress there is a distinct lack of oversight. And this was not something that the Founders intended at all. So so I do think that that is a marked departure from what the founders intended. Now in terms of midterm elections I mentioned some of the things that I would say make them significant. And in addition to the change in party control the size of the freshman class. And then if it leads to some significant change in American politics or policymaking or the way Congress operates and we've seen that in the 19th century and some of the ones that I would identify as being significant because of one or more of those reasons would be the midterm election of 1826. This is when you have the decline of the existing party system and the rise of what would become the Jacksonian Democrats. And Andrew Jackson is elected president in 1828 but in 1826 you start to see members of Congress who are pro Jacksonian or proto Democrats I guess you could say. And so this midterm is one of those examples of one that indicates a significant change in party the party system or in presidential at the upcoming presidential election. Then you have a couple others I'll just mention briefly. The election of 1854 which is another example of a midterm which is preceding some significant national changes and this is one in which the Democrats lose control of the house. But a new party the No-nothing party gains a sizable number of seats there an anti Catholic anti immigrant party and you end up having a two month period where the House cannot pick their speaker because the house is so divided among different factions. And that is an early preview of what will come with the civil war. And then after the Civil War in 1874 there's a big election because Democrats retake the House for the first time since the 1850s and it's also at the same time you have election related race riots in Alabama. So you're seeing how in the south, Southern whites are and they've done it before and they're doing in this election, willing to use violence to suppress the black vote which ends up helping them solidify power in the south.

 

Rosen [00:08:59] Thank you very much for that. Tom your thoughts on some of the 19th century elections have flagged including 26 the rise of the Jacksonian Democrats 54 the rise of a no nothing 74 the Democrats retaking the House. What do they say. These 19th century elections about the fact that once parties did arise after the election of 1800 they came to serve a function in amalgamating function of the framers hadn't anticipated.

 

Mann [00:09:26] Indeed. I think Matt’s choices of elections are very good and what they what they tell us is a couple of things one it's a opportunity to for the public to weigh in on how the course of American politics and presidential leadership is is proceeding so over time they tended they tended to be referendums on presidents. The House in particular. And because of the fact that they blow up two years after a presidential victory they they almost always tend to be to a loss of seats in the Presidents party and one of the complaints of typically is gee you elect a parliamentary system and it's it's together and there might be a four or five year term and absent that Prime Minister's loss of support in his own party there's some element of stability there in our system. At various periods of time we've had one party elected into office and both the president the Congress and then two years later that unified party government gives way to a divided party. And And that's been  problematic in our history ever since. I think it's it's important to acknowledge that mid-term elections as Matt said both are indicators of what's going on in our politics and what new forces are are arising and certainly the election of 1826 and the development of a mass political party with Jackson and Martin Van Buren that were were absolutely critical but an election a couple of things to think about. One 1858. I mean this was this was critical. The old Whigs were dying a new Republican Party had started up. The faith in James Buchanan and the Democratic Party was was sinking and that election sort of set the stage for Abraham Lincoln's election two years hence forth and and the secession of the southern states. So it was it was immensely significant and then 1874 another election that that Matt identified was was a period in which the you know the grand ambitions of Lincoln then and and Grant and other other Republican Party leaders to deal with the problem of slavery and race in American politics. That election basically gave control to the Democrats who were against reconstruction and effectively ended up ended the Great Experiment following following the Civil War. So and then and then finally I just I mention the election of 1894 was was the featured the largest loss of seats by the president's party in American history well over a hundred closer to 125 seats lost in a in a house that was much smaller than it is is now and it really set the stage for a period of dominance by by the Republican Party after a very competitive period. So lots of passions in these elections. Party is a absolute significant factor. The other thing Jeff I just introduced is is the last point again one of the problem Matt is is once we had sort of if you will mass public elections for the for the president we have this problem that the electorate in presidential years is much different than the electorate in midterm years. It's usually a 20 percentage point decline in the midterm elections. Very different composition. And so the question is who speaks for America in the electoral cycle.

 

Rosen [00:14:25] Thank you very much for all of that and thank you for flagging the election of 1894 and Matt I'd like to ask you about that. As Tom said it was a landslide defeat for the Democrats 100 seats lost to the Republicans the largest swing in history. It was also the first time that a party completely lost control of both houses of Congress. And it marked the end of the third party system of the Civil War and the beginning of the Fourth Party System known as the Progressive Era and one of the causes of it was the tariff which our listeners know from my endless references to William Howard Taft his taking on the tariff on the issue of the tariff combined with the Panic of 1893 led to this election so what why was 1893 a realigning election and what defines a realigning election? What factors can help us identify whether an election is realigning or not?

 

Green [00:15:15] So there's a lot of debate in the Political Science World about realignment, realignment theory and how much evidence there is for it. I would say the traditional definition of a realigning election is one in which you have a durable shift in the voting behavior of large numbers of voting citizens. And that leads to a change in which party is more dominant nationally and that party remains dominant more or less for a fairly long time and so from any realignment realigning theories are theorists of realignment 1894 particularly 1896. The presidential election was realigning because as you said the Republicans established this dominant majority in Congress and also the the ability to win presidential elections fairly consistently. Is certainly true whether you would argue it's a realigning election or not, as Tom said, that 1894 election was a huge shift in seats. It a massive defeat for the Democratic Party and they never took them a long time to to recover. They did not gain control of either chamber until 1910 so it was a long time in the minority and that of course established the ability of the Republicans as we were talking about that concept. One of the reasons a midterm is significant is because of a durable shift in what follows with the Republicans having control of the House and Senate and the White House they were able to pursue a variety of policies that they couldn't in the period before when you have swinging control of Congress and also the White House

 

Rosen [00:17:03] thanks very much for that. So Tom let's enter the 20th century and the election of 1930 was significant it followed the stock market crash. The GOP was severely punished it was Herbert Hoover's first midterm and the Democrats got 52 seats in the House and six in the Senate although the GOP narrowly got control of both houses. So if that wasn't a realigning election what was the realigning election of the 30s and how would you define a realigning election?

 

Mann [00:17:32] Yes it's it's certainly the seeds of it began in in in 1930. In some ways you could begin to see some changes as far back as the 1928 election. What's significant is that you know because of deaths among some Republican members the Democrats had actually organized that house after the 1930 election and held it every Congress except for two in 46 and 52, until 1994. So it was the beginning of a permanent Democratic majority even in the Senate. That was a quarter century stretch of Democratic dominance in the Congress as well. So we have a long period of time in which Republicans became almost a permanent minority. So I'd say that 30 1930 is really important it shows you the importance of the state of the economy of course after the Great Depression and in Hoover's Hoover's approach to it. Franklin Roosevelt's success in putting together a coalition a new deal coalition. It was an odd coalition because of course it included Northern liberals including some free blacks as well as as white segregationists in the south. And politically legislatively during much of the period after Roosevelt's enormous legislative strides you you had Congress dominated by conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and in the Republican minority. So that was a long period of time that that really began in that 1930 election and it didn't end till much much later when Newt Gingrich succeeded in his effort to return Republicans to the majority in the House of Representatives. Now Republicans have had more success than congressional elections than Democrats.

 

Rosen [00:20:06] Many thanks for that. So Matt what are we to make of that long stretch between 1932 to 1994 when the Democrats held Congress and there were some significant midterms within them like 1958 where you had a weakened conservative coalition precipitating passage of the Civil Rights Act 1966 eroding democratic control and stemming the Great Society and in 74 the first post Watergate election. But was it just blips or how would you characterize that long stretch of Democratic dominance of Congress.

 

Green [00:20:41] Well first I just just to add to what Tom was saying about the 1930 election. I agree with him it's significant in no small part because it was the beginning of this long dominance of the Democratic Party in Congress and in the Senate until 1980 in the house until 1994. I think it also is a good example of how sometimes it's hard to know what a midterm might portend because in 1930 Democrats as Tom mentioned were able to organize Congress or at least the House. But the party itself wasn't yet I would argue fully FDR as party. There were Democrats who actually felt the way to get out of the Great Depression was to cut government spending because that was the conventional wisdom as opposed to the Keynesian economics that the party ended up embracing embracing later. So sometimes a midterm is very helpful to a party and maybe the beginning of their dominance but it's not yet clear exactly the circumstances under which their party will change or they'll become the dominant party. Now as far as that stretch from 1930/32 until 1980 in the Senate 1994 in the house. I do think there are significant midterms within that stretch and it would be a mistake to just say that nothing changed and nothing was important until the end. Take for example the midterm that I would point to as one would be that midterm of 1958 when the Democrats have a majority in the House and Senate. But it's a year in which a lot of new members are elected and new Democrats and the size of the majority that the Democrats have particularly the House grows and it actually establishes something of a floor for their for their for the number of seats they have. I think from 1957 until 1994 they always had at least 55 percent of the seats in the House for instance. So I think it was an important election in further establishing the Democratic Party's dominance before then it looks like it was a more competitive Congress between the Republicans and Democrats they'd swung back and forth in control as you mentioned 1946 in 1952 but that 1958 brought in these younger liberal more liberal Democrats who were there for a long time and also pursued a series of reforms in Congress that ultimately changed and changed the institution.

 

Rosen [00:23:04] Thank you so much for that. In a moment we the people will be back with more constitutional conversations after this brief message. Tom what do you have to say about all of those elections between 1930 and 32 and 1994 which ones would you call out as significant. And to what degree do they presage a preview of of the shift that would culminate in change control of the House in 94.

 

Mann [00:23:47] Many things as Matt said were going on. You were you were seeing really the birth of the modern Republican Party starting without gaining power immediately in elite politics and then Goldwater's candidacy and and building slowly from that but it took decades before Republicans succeeded in winning a majority in the house. The Democratic Party at the same time was changing as the changes in the broader society were were leading to big shifts in the south an area of the country that was a solid block to the Democrats and most responsible for their long term majority in the in the Congress. But after the the Voting Rights Act the Civil Rights Act you'd began to see a starting in the in the party. So regional realignment Democratic liberals who as Matt said really began forcefully in the 1958 election were working hard within Congress to keep the Southern Democrats who'd been there forever and chaired the committees from dominating the legislative agenda and the class of 1974 provided the extra numbers for a series of procedural changes. But this was you know this was then succeeded by the arrival of Newt Gingrich in Congress in 1978 and the beginning of a 16 year guerrilla war to try to put the Republicans back in the majority. Things were changing and in the country we saw differentiate ideological differentiation of the parties. There was more agreement within each party and greater distance between them. It became a more important identity and it took a while for for that to reach full blossom in the 21st century when one party has come to to really mean hyper-partisanship and tribalism and strong identities and the nationalization of politics which has changed in some respects the character of midterm elections and their uniqueness. Now we have a permanent campaign indeed a permanent war of senators are no less immune to the partisan forces them members of the House are and it it's come to the point where someone like Donald Trump. Unimaginable as a president when he first emerged, has has now sort of seized on opportunities presented by changes in the Republican Party I'd say since the Tea Party movement and and made it Donald Trump's party which has led to disaffection of Republican intellectual conservative intellectuals but not not of the sort of the voters the mass public in the party and put us now on a really really dangerous stage you know. There's there is Jeff I'd say a mismatch between between our Constitution and our party system. A highly polarized and detribalised system in which one party doesn't accept the legitimacy of the other and in campaigning is war and it doesn't matter what you say it matters how you feel. Among voters has put us in a really dangerous period in our in our politics. So it's been a fascinating evolution with midterms playing an important historical role in various of these certainly Obama's election was followed by the election in 2010 a wipe out for the for the Republican Party that has has put it in the you know in really a dominant dominant position on the question. And they have become basically enablers of Donald Trump. The question now becomes is is whether in 2018 we will see we will see a return to a divided party government or or whether we will have what is in many respects the minority party in terms of the popular vote for the president except in the House but that is really seized power and is maintaining and extending it.

 

Rosen [00:29:40] Thank you very much for that very provocative statement. Appropriate for the We The People podcast. Tom Mann has claimed that there is now mismatch between our Constitution and our party system. We are now in a highly tribalised system in which one party doesn't accept the legitimacy of the other. A hyper partisanship the Founders would not have recognized. Matt first of all and most importantly do you agree or not with that statement. And regardless of your answer then take us back to 94 because you've written you're writing a book about Newt Gingrich. To what degree was the election in 94 and the changes in Congress that followed from it important in contributing to this hyper partisanship and then maybe before we get to 2018. Take us up a little. From 94 to 2010 or so and describe why you think that this hyper partisanship accelerated.

 

Green [00:30:26] Yeah well first of all I agree completely with Tom and I think the the reasons for the origins are complicated. It's difficult to tease out all the different things that have contributed to the political environment we're in now but absolutely you see certainly in Congress and depending on how you measure it among voters as well very very strong if not hyper partisanship and a sense that the other party is not just a group of people that you disagree with but is actually a separate team that you simply want nothing to do with. And I'm happy to talk more about how we got to that place today. Going back to the election of 1994 was obviously highly significant because the Democrats lost control of the house for the first time in 40 years and also lost control of the Senate. I actually as it happened I was working on Capitol Hill when that election happened and I like to tell the story of how you that was the day after election you knew you could tell just by walking the halls of the House office buildings which party people belong to because they were either completely jubilant or looked like they were about to to you know someone in their family just passed away. So it was a tremendously huge election. You can't understate its influence on Congress. And obviously Gingrich who had been this minority party rabble rouser had by then become the minority whip and then became Speaker of the house after that election. And part of I think where how we got to where we are today was the fact that Gingrich was resented by so many Democrats for the kinds of tactics that he had used in the minority and and wanted to exact revenge to be perfectly honest and did not feel inclined to cooperate with Gingrich. And for the Republicans part they saw him as the as you know their messiah they had brought him control he had brought them control of the house. And there was a sense that 1984 was a mandate from voters. Both the House and the Senate to pursue more conservative policy. And so it was an environment that was ripe for a partisan conflict. Another thing to point out too Frances Lee at University of Maryland has pointed out that when you have a smaller margins between the two parties or a sense that you could easily win back control of your chamber in an election you have less incentive to cooperate with the other party and that can also feed partisan conflict. And so the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 but their margins were very small. Many Democrats once they got over being in the minority saw this as every election had was of tremendous stakes and you could not give an inch inch to the other party and where Republicans became a minority party in 2006 they arguably adopted the same philosophy. So that way of approaching governance because you think you're that close to winning control of Congress makes every election midterms and presidential high stakes.

 

Rosen [00:33:38] Many thanks for that. Alright he question is set. And we want to use our remaining time to understand why this tribalism and hyper partisanship transformed Congress and whether the elections were symptoms or causes of the partisanship. Tom you've written, you're the world expert on this, and in The Broken Branch you describe a series of changes within Congress that have contributed and been caused by hyper partisanship ranging from declining institutional identity indifference to reform, disappearance of oversight and the decline of regular order and other factors so a very broad question but what are some of the main factors that you believe contributed to the rise of this hyper partisanship between the election of 94 and today?

 

Mann [00:34:31] Good question. And as Matt indicated it's not simple. It's very complicated. Figuring out did did the change begin in Congress among among party elites which in turn reshape the orientations and loyalties and identity of the voters? Or or did it emerge from from the public and and that was then reflected in in changes in Congress? Well what I'll say is this I'm a great believer in the importance of not just elected officials but but party activists and officials and central interest group leaders who work hard for years to try to build coalitions that will sustain, produce and sustain majorities in legislatures and in winning the presidency and gubernatorial seats. So these efforts were have been under way for many years. If I had to single one thing out it would be race. When when when support among African Americans was shared by the two parties it tended to remove one of the historically important sources of conflict in American politics. But following the the if you will the Second Reconstruction and the Voting Rights Act then Civil Rights Act then and mobilization of blacks the the party sorted this question and then other issues having having to do with abortion and religion ended up being important and it served coalition in each party was was developed. There was more agreement in the parties therefore they were willing members in Congress willing to delegate power to their leaders so that they could deliver and win legislative victories which they hoped would help subsequent electoral victories. So it's a combination that Newt Gingrich was uniquely important but it wasn't him he sees some opportunities he was in in some ways very hard nosed. It was it was about power and and it was about destroying the enemy which then which became the Democrats. Gingrich who began as a Rockefeller moderate Republican saw where the opportunity was and and he took it. Right now Jeff the problem is that we don't have the overlapping interests that the framers counted that a large republic would produce. That is we may disagree on this but we agree on that. And when you have the possibility of agreement across parties then it's you have different procedures within the institution and you have a market for bargaining, negotiation, and compromise. But when the major interests identify with one or the other parties then you strengthen the importance of party in the electorate and that then appears in in Congress and in the policymaking process which in turn acts to further polarize the public. And that's the cycle we've been on in in recent in recent years. And and as I've said I can't help but think if the if the framers were here today they'd say “Oh my God this system isn't well suited to to manage the kind of tribal identities and loyalties.” I mean there there was news recently of a pipe bombs being sent to former presidents. And it's it's they have outbreaks of violence. There's a perception now of minority rule two out of five presidential elections that have seen the victor because of a majority in the Electoral College actually losing the popular vote. And and of course that the apportionment of the Senate two per state means that a relatively small proportion certainly a minority of the public living in states have approved and can approve legislation in the Senate. So we're we're really coming up I think against the crisis that it's all occurring at a time of the rise of populism. Initially with Hugo Chavez on the left now overwhelmingly on the right end and we're having it here in America and outbreaks of xenophobia and racism and it's identity politics and it's ugly. And Congress is not doing its acting like a parliamentary body. And in many respects and it's not at all doing the kind of work refining of the public views that Madison had in mind.

 

Rosen [00:40:49] Many thanks for all of those illuminating thoughts. Matt I'm so eager for your analysis of how we have risen to a state of tribalism that as Tom says the framers would have abhorred. In 1960 there was a 50 percent overlap between the most conservative Democrat and most liberal Republican. Today there is no overlap. We are more polarized according to some scholars than at any time since the end of the civil war. And there is less of the aggregation of interests that the parties serve for much of the 19th and 20th century. Tom has identified a series of factors including racial self sorting ideological self sorting. What other factors would you and and tell us also what do you think about geographic self-sorting and its relevance to this puzzle?

 

Green [00:41:35] So Thomas I agree with Tom completely about the self sorting that's going on with interests. The role of race is a very important explanation as well and I think part of the another factor. And I think in these these all sort of interact with each other this idea that the parties do need to all agree on one thing and disagree with the other party on those things. And I don't know if it's you know our party leaders and members of Congress who did this are voters. It was one of the things actually that Gingrich wanted to do from the get go is he was he felt that you couldn't win elections as a party unless you had clear distinct differences from the other party. And this was in effect telling moderates in his party you can be moderate, but we all have to agree on the same thing in terms of the national agenda. Whether that is responsible or or others that's certainly what you see nationally in other parties making clear distinct differences. And that means that if I agree with you on one thing but disagree with you on another, where do I fit in that I have to pick a side, you have to pick a side of that. That certainly lends itself to increased polarization and conflict. And as Tom mentioned it can it can actually become violent. I think communication, methods of communication and gathering and the way we receive information citizens is also very importan. So that you know 15 20 years ago everyone was reading from the same general sources and watching the same sources on television. But now we know when I'm in a classroom and teaching I don't know where my students are getting their information. They may be getting it from Web sites of like you know from newspapers like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or they could be reading blogs that simply tell them what they already want to hear. And that would further reinforce this polarization that happens in the public. And of course you have to be sure that the information you're gathering is accurate and it isn't always the case that it is. In terms of, you mentioned the geographic silo or sort of geographic sorting that's going on, or as it's been called The Big Sort, this is also contributing to having polarization particularly in the House of Representatives because members are elected from individual districts that are drawn from states. And so if folks have one political persuasion prefer to live say in cities and those of the opposite prefer to live in suburbs or in rural areas then when districts are drawn for members of the House of Representatives then you may end up with districts that have mostly people of one party of mostly people of the other. You couple that with gerrymandering—districts that are drawn by states as legislatures to get a certain outcome and then you end up with a situation where more members of Congress are worried about losing a primary than they are losing a general election. And so they are concerned about being out conservatived or out liberaled and therefore they themselves move further to the left or right. And that exacerbates the polarization that you see in Congress. So I think all of these factors are contributing to the situation that we're in today and I would just note in terms of historical parallels. Some mentioned the civil war. I would also mention the late 19th century where we also had periods of presidents getting elected with a minority vote as in 1876 and 1888. So a similar situation where you have two straight two parties struggling with each other fighting with each other and no clear majority of the country in favor of one party or the other.

 

Rosen [00:45:27] Many thanks for that. All right now we've heard a fine and helpful discussion of some of the causes of polarization. From race, ideological, geographic, and virtual self sorting. And the coupling institutional changes. Tom what does all this tell us about the midterm elections of 2018? Are we now in a new situation where the kind of wave elections which required a loss of at least 30 seats—in the past there have been nine such wave elections since 1932—are less likely or more likely because of polarization? Are their 19th century analogues at similarly polarized times or are we in new territory?

 

Mann [00:46:10] That is the question of the day. The swings have have tended to be smaller in part because more of the districts in the House and more of the states are lopsided in their partisan identity as you said. And therefore even a swing of say 10 percent of the electorate can't produce anything like the election of 1874 or going back to periods around the New Deal and even under Truman. So yes the swings tend to be smaller the playing field is reduced. It's also the case that we now have party line voting that that's almost perfect that is perfect in the sense of almost complete unity. We’ll get above 90 percent maybe approaching you know 92 93 94 percent of Democrats voting for Democratic candidates for Congress and similarly for for Republicans. It's true there are a lot of independents but most of those independents lean toward one of the parties and support the party. There are pure genuine swing voters and those who exist tend to be the least informed without attachments that would lead to the gathering of information. And so what you have now is a is a struggle for the playing field in the Senate is especially small this year because there's a lopsided array of Republicans only nine seats up compared to 25 Democratic seats and many of those Democratic seats are in red states or at least in states that Trump Carried. So you have now an enormous focus on national fundraising effort under way trying to affect the balance of power is as Matt said referencing Frances Lee. There may be more safe seats in the House and the Senate. But the national competition for controllers is intense. The margins are very narrow. And so you have money moving around the country targeted to those particular states an enormous effort to ride or hold back a wave. So that's that's part of the structure of our politics but it's been made more significant just because of the rise of Donald Trump. He didn't come out of nowhere, he’s similar to would-be autocrats in other countries around the world and he he rode on some of the grievances that the public had, and that and that Republicans encouraged during their majority in Congress. But it's it's it's a little nerve wracking the stakes are higher than the election would normally be even under this intense polarization. If Trump were a more conventional president if he if he had a little more respect for the truth and and it you could you could imagine a healthy competition and a potential swing or not that would have significant policy consequences. But the legitimacy of the democratic system would still be alive. I mean the worry now is is is could we even inadvertently slip into a much more autocratic system where the rule of law is respected much less where where the passions are strong where where violence breaks out. It's it's it's a very unnerving time. That's why prominent Republican intellectuals like Max Boot and George Will and others are say “hey this is this is a crisis of democracy. Vote Democratic it only to elect a chamber of a chamber of the house that provides some some check on a demagogue who's now occupying the White House. Because his party the Republican Party has demonstrated where their interests lie elsewhere.” So it makes for a doubly important midterm election.

 

Rosen [00:51:17] Thank you so much for that. Matt last word to you given the increase in tribalisation and polarization is the election of 2018 sui generous or are there historic analogues. And do you agree or disagree with Tom's thoughts about the significance of the president and how can we put the 2018 elections in historic perspective?

 

Green [00:51:42] So there is a way in which the 2018 elections—it obviously depends what happens if as many prognosticators have argued, the minority party the Democrats will do well in the House if not the Senate maybe even take control of the house—there's a you know on one level this is just a kind of standard model of midterms which I think Tom mentioned before which is a referendum on the party in power. And we have seen that we saw that in 2010 we saw it in 1994 2006 that the public is unhappy with the party in power. They vote for the other party and that party wins control of the House or in some cases and or in some cases the Senate. I think in this upcoming election what's one of the most remarkable things about it is that there is a gap between people's general partisan leaning in this election or satisfaction and the State of the economy the economy is actually doing quite well. And yet you see far more Republicans in danger of losing this election than you would expect. And this could mean that the 2018 midterms are a much greater referendum on the president than one would normally expect given the state of the economy. And if that's the case then I think it does suggest some of the things that Tom was talking about that there's a lot of folks on the left who are very upset. President Trump he's in some ways a very very polarizing figure a controversial figure certainly gets a lot of more media coverage I think than past presidents have in this stage in this stage in their presidency. And if that's the case this could be a good example of a kind of hyper referendum on the president. I think also there's something bigger going on here which is that both parties are facing some significant pressures from different factions that are in danger of sort of pulling them into different directions. So the Republican Party for instance, you know Donald Trump is not your typical Republican by any stretch of the imagination and he's advocated for policies that some Republicans like and others do not. Democratic Party we saw in the last presidential election being pulled off in a more progressive direction and the sort of the Bernie Sanders faction or wing of the party if you will. And this is very important because if we have a system in which political parties are dominant despite what the Founding Fathers wanted but they are unable to maintain a degree of unity then we're in a particular moment of flux and uncertainty and this 2018 mid-term that we're facing could further exacerbate that. It could pull the parties in different directions. It's just very hard to predict. And so that's what makes this an exciting time. For some it's an unnerving time. But I do think that the there's good reasons to expect that the 2018 midterms for these and other reasons will go down in history as one of the more significant in in many decades.

 

Rosen [00:54:46] Thank you so much Matthew Greene and Tom Mann for an illuminating, historically deep, and fascinating discussion of the history and constitutional significance of midterm elections. Tom, Matt thank you so much for joining

 

Green [00:55:00] Thank you Jeff.

 

Mann [00:55:03] Thanks Jeff. I really enjoyed it.

 

Rosen [00:55:10] Today's show was engineered by Greg Shekhawat and produced by Jackie McDermott and Scott Klomp research was provided by Lana Ulrich, Madison Poulter and Jackie McDermott. We the People listeners I'm delighted that we relaunched our companion podcasts Live at America's Town Hall. This is the feed where we play the audio from all of our incredible townhall programs here in Philadelphia and around the country with authors like Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin, judges, scholars, debates. It's a veritable constitutional feast. I hope you’ll check it out and enjoy listening to them as much as we are honored to produce them. That's available on Apple podcasts, Google, or wherever else you listen. And remember We the People listeners, National Constitution Center is a private nonprofit receiving little government support. Our programming and educational light is only possible to spread because of the engagement and passion and commitment of people like you around the country committed to life-long learning there's nothing more fulfilling in life as an adult than continuing to learn and grow. And We the People is a part of that opportunity for lifelong constitutional education. So please consider becoming a member of the National Constitution Center to support our work, including this podcast. Visit ConstitutionCenter.org to learn more. On behalf of the National Constitution Center, I'm Jeffrey Rosen.

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