It can be difficult to understand the magnitude of events as they are occurring. Seemingly large events at the time can seem underwhelming when viewed through the lens of history, and others may seem like business as usual but may have repercussions for years, decades, or even centuries to come. The presidential election of 1896 was more the latter than the former, as it was the third major party realignment in our nation’s history — and it held the roots of the divide between rural and urban America that we are dealing with today.
The candidates were Republican William McKinley, who would go on to win the election, and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, losing the first of three elections he stood for. At the time, the Republican Party was the party of urban centers and big business, while Democrats mostly stood for the rural parts of the nation and the poor.
The most seminal issue of the day was the economy, as a devastating crash in 1893 had left many people destitute. Bryan argued that the money supply was being held artificially low by keeping the gold standard and arguing that silver should be added as a diversification tactic, he had vast populist appeal among those who had been harmed by the crash, though his stance caused a significant rift during the party convention. Unemployment was through the roof, wages were stagnated, and the overall standard of living in the United States had stalled.
McKinley argued that going off of the gold standard or even diversifying it would lead to heavy inflation — a stance that would ultimately be proven right some 75 years later when the gold standard was finally dropped leading to many of the issues we have today economically. He also argued that the United States needed to embrace industrialization and move away from an agricultural economic model. The population of the country at the time had just begun to urbanize heavily, and those who remained in the small towns and farmlands across the west and south opposed the push, even though the economic crash had begun largely because of crop failures both domestically and internationally.
Nativism also reigned supreme. Arguments for increasing tariffs on foreign goods were big among the Republican coalition, who believed that it would help stabilize and grow the American manufacturing sector. The Industrial Revolution had been one of the driving factors for the urbanization of the United States, and many believed that the wave of the future was to continue to push for job growth in factories in the cities — even if it meant undermining the heretofore agrarian culture which had been the United States’ identity since it was nothing but a collection of colonies.
Homesteading was still popular in many areas, but the nation had largely run out of new territory to claim. All of the territory the United States currently holds was already in its possession, and many feared we would run out of land. This led to a form of imperialism at the same time the European powers were jockeying for position in Asia, Africa, Latin America and a handful of areas in the Pacific. A few years later this would lead to the Spanish-American War, among other things, but at the time looking to expand the United States’ reach into these areas to keep up with Europe and Japan seemed to be the one thing those in both parties thought a wise strategy — either for expanding farmland or for exploiting resources.
If any of this sounds familiar given our current political climate, that’s the point. 1896 was the last election where one party almost exclusively courted rural voters, while the other went for the urban. Compare that with the rhetoric of 2016, where Donald Trump appealed to working class and rural voters for many of the same reasons — protectionist economic policies, expanding American reach overseas, and pushing for a return to the economic boom years by returning economic focus to a sliding sector. Hillary Clinton, in turn, attempted to appeal largely to elites and urban dwellers, as noted by her dismissive tone and infamous “basket of deplorables” statement.
In 1896, the elites won the day, as the large coastal cities and much of the industrialized midwest went into McKinley’s column easily, while Bryan handily won the rural vote in the south and the west. In 2016, Trump mopped the floor with Clinton in virtually every rural market as well as those former industrialized strongholds in the midwest which have largely lost jobs to technology, outsourcing, or obsolescence.
Once McKinley was in, however, he tempered his bellicose tone, even stating in his inaugural address that wars of conquest and aggression were to be avoided — ushering in an isolationism that had been only a small percentage of Republicans up until then. When becoming involved in the Spanish-American War a few years later, he argued that it was a war of defense against Spanish aggression in the region — primarily in Cuba — and the public largely bought in. But the isolationist wing of the party persisted up until World War II, after which it split into two factions — the isolationists mostly moving toward what would eventually become the Libertarian Party and the eventually much larger nationalistic, occasionally xenophobic, group which exemplifies the GOP today.
The election of 1896 was largely the first big divide between rural and urban Americans, and it sowed the seeds of our current political situation. While many of the specifics have changed as to the issues and the needs of the nation, there are many parallels to today’s world that can not be ignored. And, of course, while the urban won out 120 years ago, it was the rural who prevailed in modern times — at least for now.