Presidential Approval in a New Gilded Age

I wrote about a long book last month, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, and noted how some of that period’s major issues were much like ours. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times writes about Biden’s approval rating and how its recent decline of roughly 11% shouldn’t be surprising. (The hysterical reaction to our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major factor.)

One of the most consistent findings from the past 20 years of public opinion research is that each new president is more divisive than the last. George W. Bush was more divisive than Bill Clinton; Barack Obama was more divisive than Bush; D___ T___ was more divisive than Obama; and Biden may well end up more divisive than T___, at least in terms of approval rating by partisan affiliation. Some of this reflects circumstances, some of it reflects the individuals, but most of it is a function of partisan and ideological polarization. Modern presidents have a high floor for public opinion but a low ceiling. [I think he means their approval ratings stay in a narrow middle range, not very low and not very high.]

This is a major change from the 1970s and 1980s, when the public was less polarized and numbers could swing from the low 30s (even the 20s) to the high 60s and beyond. At the peak of his popularity, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, George H.W. Bush had a job approval rating of 89 percent, including 82 percent among Democrats and 88 percent among independents. Those numbers are just not possible in today’s environment.

Biden’s slide is noteworthy, but it is also exactly what we should expect given the structural conditions of American politics in the 21st century. But this cuts against the unstated assumption that a president should have an approval rating above 50 percent. It’s an assumption that, as Sam Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, observed, is “another example of how we’ve adopted the deeply exceptional midcentury interlude as our baseline — partly because it remains our vision of normality, and partly because that’s when reliable data start.”

The “deeply exceptional midcentury interlude” — roughly speaking the years between the end of World War II and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 — is the source of a lot of our normative understandings of American politics, despite the fact that the conditions of that period are impossible to replicate. When politicians and political observers pine for an era of bipartisanship, they are pining for the 1950s and 1960s (and to an extent the 1970s).

If we were to look farther back in time, to say, the late 19th century, we might find an era that, for all of its indelible foreignness, is closer to ours in terms of the shape and structure of its politics, from its sharp partisan polarization and closely contested national elections to its democratic backsliding and deep anxieties over immigration and demographic change.

We don’t have polling data for President Grover Cleveland. But we do know that he won his victory in the 1884 election by 37 votes in the Electoral College and a half-a-percent in the national popular vote. His successor, Benjamin Harrisonlost the popular vote by a little less than 1 percent and won the Electoral College by 65 votes. Those narrow results suggest, I think, a similarly narrow spread for presidential approval — high floors, low ceilings.

American politics eventually broke out of its late-19th-century equilibrium of high polarization and tightly contested elections. In the 1896 presidential election, William McKinley became the first candidate in decades to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, beating his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, by 4.3 percent. He won re-election in 1900 and after his assassination the following year, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would win in 1904 by the most lopsided margin since Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election victory.

What changed in American politics to produce more decisive national victories? Well, that’s not a happy story. Suffrage restrictions of immigrants in the North, the rise of Jim Crow in the South, and the success of capital in suppressing labor revolt and setting the terms of political contestation had removed millions of Americans from the electorate by the turn of the 20th century. Political power was concentrated and consolidated in a bourgeois class (mostly) represented by the Republican Party, which, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s twin victories in 1912 and 1916, held the White House from 1897 to 1933. It would take another catastrophe, the Great Depression, to change that landscape.

As for the tectonic force that might break our partisan and ideological stalemate? It is impossible to say. Oftentimes in history, things seem stable until, suddenly, they aren’t.


We might think their failure to deal with the pandemic, now amounting to actual sabotage, would destroy the approval ratings of Republican officials. Or their refusal to accept Biden’s win, followed by insurrection at the Capitol, which some of them now celebrate. Or their longstanding denial of the climate crisis. Or coddling the rich. But none of that seems to be making a difference, not these days.