Between 1876 and 1892, the only presidential candidate to win a majority of the national popular vote was Democrat Samuel Tilden, and he never made it to the White House. The 1876 election in which he'd run was so close and so fraught with vote controversies that Congress empowered a special commission to resolve the disputes that had arisen. It ultimately made Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the nation's 19th president.
In Congress, Republicans and Democrats traded majority control often, and their electoral losses were much larger as a percentage of seats than what we experience today.
The political convulsions were sourced in the many transformations occurring in the economy. New processes for manufacturing steel not only allowed for mass production, but also helped spur rapid industrialization. Census Bureau statistics reveal that between 1860 and 1890, the railroads expanded from about 30,000 miles to nearly 170,000 miles. With that growth, the country became more connected not only through travel and trade, but also through the telegraph wires strung alongside the tracks.
The governmental transition took longer than the economic one. For most of the Gilded Age, the parties argued over backward-looking economic policies: tariff rates, monetary policy, and the federal surplus. Democrats mostly favored lower tariffs and a smaller government. Republicans argued for higher tariffs and greater federal investments in infrastructure.
But neither party knew how to manage, much less lead, the profound transformation that was happening.
The historical parallels with today are striking. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of a commercial Internet in the 1990s, we've been undergoing an enormous transition from an international to a global economy. Aside from the changes that have sent manufacturing jobs overseas, we've also experienced two recessions caused by bursting speculative bubbles (first in technology and then in real estate) in the last decade.
Our politics are similarly tumultuous. Over the last 20 years, we've tossed out partisan majorities in the House three times, alternated Democrats and Republicans in the White House, and witnessed the drama of an impeachment and a tied election.
While the closeness of the 2012 election suggests that we still don't know the way forward, our history suggests that we're making progress. American politics progresses through the process of debate, not agreement. Part of the genius of the Framers' design is that the status quo tends to prevail until the public reaches consensus on its preferred policy direction. While this means that change is often slow, when change occurs, it characteristically endures.
Progressive reformers in both parties eventually broke the Gilded Age's "fever." From Theodore Roosevelt's trust-busting to Woodrow Wilson's expansion of the regulatory state, politics took on a new form. But like diamonds, the political compromises had been forged over a long time by high temperatures and high pressure.
Simply put, we need to fight some more before we discover our own century's policy gems and political consensus. Good thing it's an election year.
Lara M. Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova. The Villanova School of Business will host its annual Business Leaders Forum, with a discussion of the presidential race and the economy, on Thursday.