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Does the Bitter House Speakership Fight Mean Tougher Times Ahead?
The country went into a tailspin in two similar eras
Amid the deluge of commentary on the contested, 15-round House speakership election nearly two weeks ago, two dates surfaced repeatedly: 1923 and 1856. Both were years when more than one round was required to pick a speaker: nine in 1923, the last time this happened, and 133 in 1856—the most rounds in U.S. history. Voting in that case actually began in December 1855.
But both dates can stand together under another banner: tough times behind, tougher times ahead. We would do well to bear that in mind moving forward, as would the new Congress and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. A look at those periods—and our own—suggests why.
1923: Before and After
In the years leading up to 1923, Americans had instituted a military draft, experienced wartime scarcities at home and spent enormous sums to mobilize more than 4 million military service members for World War I. The war left over 100,000 U.S. service members dead and over 200,000 wounded. Hard on its heels was the 1918-1919 worldwide flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, and the short but severe depression of 1920-1921. These were followed by the eruption of the Teapot Dome scandal in 1922, which involved bribery of the secretary of the interior. It crippled the administration of President Warren G. Harding, who died in office in 1923, just months before the speakership vote.
The years immediately following the vote saw rapid economic growth. But the bottom fell out of the “Roaring Twenties” with the stock market crash of 1929 and the grueling, decade-long Great Depression’s industrial contraction, successive bank panics and unprecedented unemployment, all of which generated enormous hardship throughout the U.S. and Europe. Even as the country finally recovered in 1939, nationalistic tensions in Europe and Asia were sparking World War II. Soon, the U.S. was once again instituting a military draft, bearing wartime scarcities at home and spending enormous sums of money to field millions of military service members—more than 12 million in 1945 alone—of whom more than 400,000 died and almost 700,000 were wounded. Notably, much of that horrific war was fueled by the rise of fascism, which was in embryo in 1923, with Benito Mussolini’s successful march on Rome in 1922 and Adolph Hitler’s unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923.
The Prelude to 1856 and Its Consequences
The historic 133 rounds of voting to elect a House speaker in 1856 was likewise poised between a challenging past and a harsher future. The decisive U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 had all the trappings of success—Mexico was forced to cede its claims to vast regions in the North American West. But the war also deeply divided the nation. Many saw it as an act of aggression, and in 1847, Congress voted to censure President James K. Polk for “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” starting it. The U.S.’s sudden acquisition of Western territory also reawakened a debate, largely quiescent since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, over slavery in the newly acquired regions. The subsequent congressional Compromise of 1850 over this issue was hard-fought—a gun was even drawn in the Senate. Tellingly, the legislation forestalled the debate only till 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Missouri Compromise by allowing the territories’ inhabitants to determine whether slavery would be legal there. Pro- and anti-slavery partisans raced to settle the area and then clashed in violent skirmishes that amounted, particularly in “Bleeding Kansas,” to a small-scale civil war.
If the pre-1856 era sowed the wind, the ensuing years reaped the whirlwind. In 1857, a severe financial panic led to bank and business failures particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, where the downturn was attributed to cutthroat foreign competition promoted by the low national tariffs championed by Southerners. This Northern sentiment strengthened the rising antislavery Republican party, which adopted a pro-tariff platform. The election of Abe Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency in 1860 further confirmed Southern fears of an implacably hostile antislavery North, helping fuel the Civil War—the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history—and leaving an estimated 620,000 to 750,000 dead.
Sadly, the war’s long overdue liberation of millions of enslaved Blacks was undermined in the postwar years by a failure to protect their civil rights. They and all Americans were also afflicted by back-to-back recessions in 1865-1867 and 1869-1870, which were followed by the Panic of 1873, a brutal five-year deflationary contraction.
The Cultural and Technological Change Undergirding the Bitter Speakership Battles
Do the American experiences of 1856 and 1923 presage challenging times ahead for us in 2023? There have been 15 instances when the House struggled to elect a speaker, but there are distinct and suggestive similarities between those two periods and our own.
Most obviously, as in 1856 and 1923, 2023 follows a difficult period in our history. We have weathered long, costly and inconclusive “wars on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan; a deadly global coronavirus pandemic; an unprecedented twoimpeachments of a sitting president; a controversial 2020 presidential election whose legitimacy was contested over increasingly improbable accusations of election fraud leveled by that same president; the unprecedented Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as Congress met to certify the 2020 election; and a steep inflation unseen in nearly 40 years.
Moreover, we live in a period of pronounced and rapidly evolving “culture wars”; indeed, the term is deployed almost daily in our national discourse, even amid occasional discussion of the prospects for a new civil war. This cultural conflict is fostered and exacerbated by a communications revolution that, through the internet and social media, permits the dispersal of information outside the traditional centralized conduits of the government and news media. This decentralization has its benefits. But it also multiplies our inevitably divergent cultural evaluations of developing news while making these disagreements more personally and instantly evident to everyone. Our cultural differences are constantly in each other’s face.
This interaction of technology and culture is reminiscent of both 1856 and 1923. The pre-Civil War era was one of pronounced cultural conflict, most acutely over slavery, but also, over the more commercial, egalitarian and industrious values of the North compared with the more agrarian, hierarchical and leisurely values of the South. Technology sharpened the conflict: Mechanization developed in the early stages of the industrial revolution was increasing the profitability of manual labor both on southern plantations and in Northern industry and maritime shipping, tending to entrench each side’s faith in their diverging economic systems. Neither system appeared likely to wither away.
By 1923, advances in mass production techniques, as well as the development of oil and electricity as energy sources, led to the proliferation of cars and new construction techniques that allowed cities to build rapidly and expand outward free of railroad lines. Industrialization and urbanization reinforced each other, drawing Americans from rural areas to American cities.
A new urban and ostensibly more modern culture that spanned the nation emerged in contrast to America’s more traditional, conservative rural culture. This urbanization and the growing cultural and political differences were highlighted by the refusal of rural members of Congress to allow a reapportionment of congressional seats based on the 1920 Census—the only time a failure to reapportion has occurred in U.S. history.
Whither Our Current and Future Congresses?
The news accounts of Kevin McCarthy’s struggles focused on the defection within the Republican Party of its more radical and conservative wing, which at first refused to get behind him. This echoes 1923, when the politically powerful progressive wing of the party refused to back previous Republican House Speaker Frederick Gillett. The prolonged speaker standoff of 1856 involved further political divisions—four identifiable parties had seats in the chamber.
All of these similarities argue we should not assume our recent challenges are behind us. Indeed, they could well escalate. Some potential areas of difficulty are already visible. The federal government’s debt ceiling will be reached this Thursday; by June, the Treasury Department is expected to run out of money to pay its bills. Raising the debt limit, however, occurs against a backdrop of chronic deficit spending.
Moreover, federal spending has risen so much since fiscal 2019 that total spending from fiscal 2020 to 2022 was $5.7 trillion dollars higher than if it had remained constant at 2019 levels—an increase greater than the entire fiscal 2019 outlay itself. The question of these spending levels, given that significant quantities of federal spending are being dedicated to paying off government debt, means they will inevitably be bound up with questions over the debt ceiling. Also pressing will be questions over major areas of federal spending, such as Social Security—and under the Constitution, spending and revenue questions are a fundamental responsibility of the House. Concerns over the militarism of Russia and China will make questions over defense spending equally pressing and subject to fierce debate in the years to come—and, of course, these spending conundrums will be even more acute if we are drawn into new wars.
The cultural-technological feedback loop we are confronting is unlikely to defuse itself overnight; neither is the ideological division within the Republican Party (or the Democratic Party, for that matter). If we are to emerge from the coming decades with sound finances, defense and domestic government services, an era of serious, grownup politics focused on policy must emerge, and the performative era of politics, so evident over the midterm election year and the post-November election period, must end. This could happen through a new alignment of liberal political forces that Robert Tracinski described recently in The UnPopulist, or through a collective sobering up by our current representatives in response to a government crisis. Regardless, politics that plays solely to the gallery is no way to deal with a challenging present that may well lead, if the past is a guide, to a very difficult future.