This week I want to tell a story about politics. It takes place at the end of the Gilded Age, just as the United States was becoming an industrial world power. We were redefining ourselves as a country, but you wouldn’t know based on the day’s politics. Back then, politics were saturated with money and partisanship. The system was too dysfunctional to address the day’s pressing issues like environmentalism, industrial regulation and our changing role internationally.
A presidential election defined that era — the election of 1900 — and, I think its lessons apply to next fall’s election. An outsider, William Jennings Bryan, was pitted against the establishment candidate, William McKinley. This outsider wanted to shake up Washington. He had huge appeal. He talked about the pressing issues being swept under the rug. The establishment’s candidate was the exact opposite of this outsider — he wanted to keep happy the powers that be. He filled the war chest while this outsider went around the country giving stump speeches.
Hopefully, you see the parallels with today’s political environment. We are redefining ourselves once again. Our economy and our international role are changing to reflect technology. And, demographics are shifting so white men no longer represent the majority of the electorate. However, you would never know looking at Washington’s agenda. Politics today are, once again, incredibly partisan and saturated with money. Congress isn’t addressing these changes because of gridlock. There’s a presidential election coming up, and it has big implications.
What happened in 1900 might happen once again next fall. Obviously it’s still really early, but I think the upcoming election will pit an outsider looking to shake things up against the establishment. There are outsiders challenging the establishment in both primary races. For better or worse, one might make it to the general election (hopefully Bernie Sander and not Trump or Carson). At the end of the day in 1900, championing the people’s cause didn’t matter. Money decided the election. The man with the bigger war chest won.
But, I’d be lying if I said that was the end of the story. To win the election in 1900, McKinley did more than raise money; he compromised. He added an outsider as a running mate to pull votes away from the other candidate. McKinley’s compromise may have won the election, but it lost the presidency. It didn’t seem like a big compromise because the vice-president doesn’t have much influence. However, when McKinley was assassinated early in his term and his successor got busy making changes. He passed huge reforms in terms of environment legislation, labor regulation and international trade and relations. His name was Teddy Roosevelt — maybe you’ve heard of him.
Washington changed even though the man championing change couldn’t win the election. Politics can’t stay gridlocked forever. If the past is any indication of the future, this has implications for today. We are redefining ourselves, but our political system is not reflecting this national change of attitude. Our economy is shifting, and so is our role internationally to reflect new technology and ideas and our demographic makeup is changing as well.
Obviously, politics aren’t the only way to bring about change — but, they are important. Right now, congress isn’t doing much. Environmental reform, immigration and the budget are caught in congress’s gridlock. Almost every issue is split along party lines. Important topics like free-information, cyber security and the other issues surrounding the web are not even on Congress’s agenda.
But, no matter what happens this fall, I still think think change is coming. If the past is any indication of the future, we have reason to be optimistic. The first candidate to make it to the national stage on a progressive platform lost to the establishment. But, eventually reform was passed. In the same way, the pressing issues that reflect our changing country will make their way into the public discussion. The system can’t help but react. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking too it. This is my last column for the semester so have an awesome break!
Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.