WHEN U.S. lawmakers returned to Washington in December 1849 for the Thirty-First Congress, they knew they faced a raucous session. As Washington’s Democratic newspaper, the Daily Union, editorialized, “A crisis in our affairs is rapidly approaching, and great events are near at hand.” But the members could not foresee the magnitude of legislative dysfunction. The crisis emerged when the House couldn’t muster a majority to elect a Speaker. Without a Speaker, the chamber couldn’t organize, and committees couldn’t meet. Without a functioning House, the Senate couldn’t do business either. President Zachary Taylor couldn’t send up his annual message and set a national agenda. Congress couldn’t appropriate money. The government froze.
By the thirteenth ballot, some suggested the chamber should abandon the majority-vote principle and allow a plurality winner. But there was no majority for that idea either. The nation was hopelessly split over a controversy widely seen as a defining national issue—whether slavery would be allowed in the southwestern territories that had been acquired through the Mexican War. Both Democrats and Whigs were split along sectional lines, and the upstart Free-Soilers—vehemently opposed to slavery extension—held the balance of power. But the stiff-necked Free-Soilers refused to put any of the major Speaker candidates over the top.
“This is a fearful state of things, and may be the beginning of sorrows for our happy country,” wrote the St. Louis Democrat in an editorial cry from the heart that was shared by millions of Americans. Soon House members were hurling political epithets at each other. Southerners threatened to leave the Union; Northerners dared them to go ahead.
The deadlock continued for three weeks and was broken, on the sixty-third ballot, only after weary lawmakers finally accepted a plurality-vote solution. “The long agony,” wrote the Union, “is over.”
But it wasn’t over. The agony was just beginning, as the slavery issue continued to roil the nation until the deadlock was finally broken, starting with the 1860 presidential election. Then came war, realignment of the party system (with those Free-Soilers now dominating the nation as Republicans), a solution to the slavery issue and an opportunity for America to once again move forward. The historical lesson is stark: when America is deadlocked over an issue widely seen on both sides as defining the nation, politics turn ugly and governmental dysfunction sets in.
We are living in such a time. Although the defining issues are less explicit and not so clearly tied to moral sensibilities, the country is deadlocked. Congress can’t function, and nobody remembers a political climate as rancorous as the current one. As U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, puts it, “It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are.”
What’s more, a reality is seeping into the national consciousness that the political battles of our time aren’t going to just fade away. They will have to be resolved one way or another. That means we are living through a time of transition; we are living through a crisis of the Old Order. It is in large measure a crisis of conflict between entrenched powers and their constituent groups on one hand and ordinary Americans on the other. Increasingly, Americans who lack access to special favors feel the elites, and the big institutions they dominate, have hijacked the American system for their own exploitation. Whether the target is Wall Street’s big finance, Washington’s big government, big corporations throughout the country, big labor representing increasingly well-off public employees, or self-aggrandizing state and local governments, the issue is bureaucratic bigness and special favors acquired through bigness.
This sentiment is seen equally in the right-wing Tea Party movement and the left-wing Occupy movement. But the elites and their allies know how to fight back, as evidenced by Wall Street’s ability to avoid paying a price for its follies leading to the Great Recession; by public-employee unions fending off efforts to clip their wings; by the federal workforce and federal pay growing in a time of economic stagnation; and by the ongoing sway of bureaucracies throughout the land.
Thus, while the debate may be only vaguely defined, it is powerfully joined. As New York Times writer Matt Bai puts it, the new populism is no longer about struggling workers versus corporate masters, as in the industrial era. Now, he says, “It is about the individual versus the institution—not only business, but also government and large media and elite universities, too.” He should have included Wall Street and public-employee unions.
The fundamental reality of American governance is that the country’s prevailing political consensus, in force for eighty years, can’t adequately address the nation’s problems, particularly the looming financial crisis that threatens the foundation of U.S. democracy. Americans increasingly feel that the elites who pushed the country toward that crisis now are thwarting all solutions. Another harsh reality is that Americans don’t want to relinquish what government has bestowed upon them over the past half century, even though the government soon won’t be able to afford that ongoing distribution of largesse.