Like today, the America of the late 19th century was divided between the party of the economically ascendant cities and the party of declining and forgotten rural areas. Only then it was the Republicans who were city-dwellers and the Democrats who were Southerners and Midwestern farmers. Like today, the outsider party was taken over by a charismatic populist. Yet William Jennings Bryan lost all three of his campaigns for president. Trump won on his first attempt.
What, Ferguson wondered, would a Bryan presidency have looked like? There is no way of knowing, of course, but it probably would have faced the same challenges as Donald Trump’s. Aggrieved, impassioned, and cut off from elite institutions, populist movements draw strength from segments of the population unlikely to have the credentials to staff a government or the literary and social status to articulate opinion in mass media. The economic and cultural aspirations of Bryan’s followers were just as strange and, some might say, deplorable to the elites of his day as those of Trump’s followers are to our own. These similarities would have made a Bryan presidency just as contentious, tumultuous, and unusual as the one we are living through currently.
Morris Fiorina, the author of Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate, told me that the politics of the Gilded Age are characterized as the “Era of No Decision” because of the unstable majorities that blew in and out of Congress between 1874 and 1894. Presidential returns were also unusual. The winner of the Electoral College lost the popular vote in both 1876 and 1888, just as happened in 2000 and 2016. Presidents during the Era of No Decision rarely won with a majority of the vote, just as, during this second Era of No Decision, presidents have won more than 50 percent in only three of seven elections.