Without checking Wikipedia or adding them up in your head, guess which party held the White House longer during the 40-year stretch from 1968 to 2008? My hunch is Republicans would guess Democrats and Democrats would guess Republicans.
And the latter would be right, 28 years Republican (Nixon/Ford 8, Reagan/Bush Sr. 12, Bush Jr. 8) to 12 years Democratic (Carter 4, Clinton 8).
I did the math recently because 1968-2008 strikes me as a definable political “chapter” in this country’s history. Surprised by how lopsided it was, I decided to go back to the previous 40-year period, 1928-1968, to see how it broke down. What’s your guess?
The mirror image: 28 years Democratic (FDR/Truman 20, Kennedy/Johnson 8) to 12 years Republican (Hoover 4, Eisenhower 8). That, too, is a clearly defined chapter, taking us from the Depression through the Great Society.
So I went back 40 more years, just for fun – 1888 to 1928. Eerily, it breaks down the same, 28-12, this time in favor of Republicans (Harrison 4, McKinley/TR/Taft 16, Harding/Coolidge 8).
And the 40 years before that? Republicans/Whigs (the latter being precursors to the Republicans) 24, Democrats 16. Before 1848, things get more muddled. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams, for instance, were all “Democratic-Republicans.”
What to conclude from this exercise? After all, you can break down our history into 10-, 20-, and 30-year increments, or longer. But however you choose to divide it, the total comes out the same: In the last 160 years – the majority of this country’s history – Republicans (if you include four years of Whigs) occupied the presidency for 92 years as opposed to 68 for the Democrats. That’s a 57 to 43 percent breakdown.
The obvious conclusion, at least to me, is that this country is decidedly conservative. The only period breaking the pattern was the 20-year stretch of Democrats, 1932-1952, who presided during the Depression and World War II, our greatest crisis since the Civil War. In other words, an aberration.
The fact that each segment so consistently breaks down 28-12, or close to it, is an indication of how entrenched the pattern is. Barring another great national crisis (which we may be entering), you would have to conclude we’re likely to repeat this pattern.
Totaling the Congresses during that 160-year stretch would take more legwork, but regardless of which party dominated in the legislative branch, a strong case can be made that, because the executive branch sets the agenda and leads the way, it is the truer indicator of Americans’ attitude toward governance and has had the greatest influence. Since most of these Republicans professed a Big Business/Small Government bias, that philosophy has prevailed through most of our history.
The question is, has it served us well?
Clearly it did not in the 1920s when our hands-off governance contributed to the onset of the Depression. Neither did it serve us well from 1968-2008 when the gospel of deregulation encouraged a reckless free market, resulting in our current Great Recession.
Our society, I’m told, is made up of two sectors: private and public. To oversimplify, the private sector consists of for-profit business interests while the public sector is led by the government. Ideally, each should act as an effective check and balance on the other, maintaining a creative tension that is healthy for both. Neither should be stronger.
When one sector dominates, things get out of whack. In the 1920s, the private sector was much stronger. As a result, Big Business careened out of control, which led to the Depression. That forced government, under FDR, to step up and assert itself. According to conservatives, the public sector then became too dominant, which led to inefficiency, producing high inflation and onerous taxes in the 1970s.
Since then, market forces have had a field day because the government was rendered largely impotent. The resulting free-for-all of the free market led to predictable excesses with predictably calamitous results (where we are now).
In the next 40 years, if we’re smart, we’ll bring the two sectors to a healthier balance. If we can’t, history suggests, we’ll suffer the consequences.