Thursday, September 16, 2010

The More Things Change

Ever wonder why Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota get to elect 15% of the U.S. Senate even though they only have about 1% of the United States' population?   I suppose there is nothing shocking about the idea that Republicans pushed for the admission of these states to the Union late in the 19th Century as their pro-business policies had managed to dissipate the popular support the party of Lincoln had enjoyed in the years after the Civil War, but it wasn't something I knew until I read Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre by Heather Cox Richardson.  Interestingly, while the disproportionate power of these sparsely populated states is most clearly felt in the Senate today, at the time they were admitted, the single Representative each state sent to Congress were even more highly prized by the Republicans.  In those days, Senators were not yet popularly elected and Republican control of the Senate was secure.  However, the House was much more evenly split and the extra Republican Congressmen made a big difference.

It was also interesting to see 19th Century Republican administration pursuing tax policies that favored the wealthy--in this case tariffs--while attempting to maintain popular support by whipping up fear that Americans were going to be attacked by members of an alien culture that in fact posed little threat. The Sioux Indians had been thoroughly subdued and the only reason there was unrest on the reservations was the governments failure to supply the food it had promised when it forced the Indians to give up their land. At the time of the Wounded Knee in December 1890, the results of the November mid-term election in South Dakota were still in doubt.  Thus, President Harrison's administration was eager to show that it was prepared to do whatever it took to protect white settlers in the state.  Simply treating the Sioux fairly would have been much more effective, but not nearly as impressive to voters as sending in the army.


  1. Aren't you political data point shopping here, in order to make your, just a bunch of corrupt power mongers today as they were 120 years ago, point? My 19th century American politics are a bit rusty, I admit, but a decade after this those same Republicans gave us one of our greatest, progressive, anti-business presidents?

    The Party of Lincoln still had a few good things to give on the way to becoming the lost in the bushes party. Perhaps a better title could be found quoting Tom Petty, "Everything changed, then changed again."

  2. You make a very legitimate point. I don't think it was really data point shopping, however, as I just picked up the book because it looked interesting. I didn't actually know which party would come off looking worse in it when I started reading it.

  3. Fair enough, probably the wrong way to phrase it. It just reminded me of when someone in my childhood education taught me that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, but back then they were [like] Democrats. I took it literally and for years thought at some point the parties switched sides.

    Maybe we need a modern day Teddy Roosevelt to emerge from the Republican party to take on corporations on behalf of the people. It's probably more fairy tale than hoping for a Franklin Roosevelt out of the Democrats, though both seem remote in our current political landscape.

    The flashbacks to my naive youth, caused me to overlook the math error in your post, you gave four states credit for 15% of the US Senate, when it's 8%

  4. I knew I was over playing my hand when I wrote the post. I didn't think anyone would notice though. I'm not sure where I came up with 15%. Maybe that was the percentage they controlled when they came in.

    I think part of the problem was that the economy Lincoln envisioned had already disappeared by the time he became president. Lincoln's idea was an America with self-made men like himself who would start out working on another man's farm or apprenticing in another man's workshop, but would eventually have businesses of their own. He hated slavery in part because it depressed the wages that free labor could earn and made it harder for those men who started out working for others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    Unfortunately, the industrial revolution had already pretty much killed the system of apprentices learning their trade under a master craftsman before opening their own workshop. As for the potential farmer, all the good land was already gone. Lincoln's father had been able to move from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, but by the 1880's, pioneers wound up in the much more hostile environment of Montana and the Dakotas. The land and climate were ideally suited to the Indian economy of following the buffalo herds but sucked for farming.

    The Republican party was committed to the individual self-made entrepreneur. While there were still such opportunities, they were not available on a scale that could promise general prosperity for the American population. Lincoln probably didn't imagine an America in which a large portion of the population had little choice but to spend their lives working for others.