This Election Takes Us Back to the 80's—the 1880's | Opinion

No matter how the presidential race turns out, the nation is in an historic period of bitter partisanship. Only one period in US history witnessed such an extended collection of closely contested elections. America is tuning into the golden oldie era of the '80s—the 1880s. American politics has returned to the Gilded Age.

We can see this most prominently with the presidential elections. The 20th Century witnessed blowouts in both the Popular Vote and the Electoral College. The winner in 11 of the 21 elections from 1900 through 1984 saw one candidate score a higher than 10 percent margin of the popular vote. Five of them, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, managed to win by 20 percent.

Since Ronald Reagan's crushing victory in 1984, no president has topped 8.5 percent. The result is that Barack Obama's 2008 triumph, seen today as a blowout was only 7.3 percent. This is by far the largest victory in the 21st Century, but historically speaking, it was nothing special. Electoral College victories have also shrunken. Seventeen of the 20th Century races saw a victory margin of over 200 electoral votes. So far, not a single election has seen that margin.

But close elections—as well as two popular vote/electoral vote "wrong winner" divides—happened regularly in the Gilded Age. In the election from 1876-1896, the biggest popular vote margin never hit five percent and the Electoral College margin were also tight.

While the presidency may get the lion share of attention, Congress really shows this divide. Having a split Congress, where one party controls the Senate, the other the House, was a rare occurrence. With the exception of the first three Congressional sessions of Reagan's tenure, when the Republicans held the Senate and the Democrats the House, this ungainly arrangement only occurred only a couple of times in the 20th century, and in each instance for just one Congressional session. But this split has been the norm in 21st Century. Unless the Democrats somehow take the Senate, this will be the fifth split Congress since 2001.

The split Congress was a constant feature of the Gilded Age. It was rare that one party controlled both Houses at the same time.

What was the result of presidents without a strong mandate and a split Congress? It is very similar to what we see to today—a government unable to pass legislation and deadlock over the most basic issues. The first tycoons—forerunners to today's ultra billionaires—were the most important figures in America. Elected officials did nothing to handle the prominent issues of the day, and instead, especially in the early days, focused on distributing the spoils of government work.

This political arrangement only ended when one party—the Republicans—managed to gain an overwhelming political advantage in Congress and the Presidency following the panic of 1893, one that they maintained with only a brief Wilson Era pause until the Great Depression.

While both parties continually hope that they will come out on top, Tuesday's results should put to rest the hope that a clear winner will emerge anytime soon. Until one party unlocks the magic formula, we can expect the continuation of a take-no-prisoners, bitterly divided political system.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes the Recall Elections Blog.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.