Turbulent Times: Election insights from history

No one saw it coming. At least not based on the polls. How could they? The spectacle of the presidential race fixed all eyes on the candidates themselves.  Who could detect the scale of disillusionment? Who could sense the growing distrust of the establishment?

Not the mainstream media. The same was true for Britain’s unexpected vote to exit the European Union.

Nor did many historians predict the results of this unconventional election.  Save one: Allan Lichtman, author of ‘Predicting the Next President.’ Using historical analysis to assess the party in power, Lichtman has accurately determined the results of presidential elections for the past thirty years.

Is the past a better predictor of the future than the present? The recent election is unprecedented in American history. But there are strong parallels with the populist overturn of the establishment in British history. This helps make sense of the recent political upset. It further flags potential challenges for such movements to come.

If the world seems turned upside-down now, so it did once before.  I am referring to a time when popular fear of religious violence through foreign infiltration was part of the air people breathed. Some men in Europe armed themselves with weapons and not just bibles during religious services.

In England, this was mixed with resentment for new taxation after a long period of inflation. The introduction of controversial religious policies alienated a large cross-section of society. The unresponsiveness of the establishment to these concerns was in part a miscalculation of the scale of grievances.

All these conditions combined in the mid-seventeenth century to drive a populist overturn of the reigning sovereign during the English Revolution. This movement was led by the unconventional, charismatic, and plain-speaking political neophyte, Oliver Cromwell.

I am not interested here in a personal comparison between the somber psalm-singing puritan remembered for his attack on popular culture with the real estate mogul turned reality TV star. Cromwell was a self-effacing man moved by deep conviction and reluctant to accept power. For instance, he declined the crown when it was offered to him. Although he eventually exercised an executive role as Lord Protector, he insisted on a split between executive and legislative power.

The point is to draw parallels between the wider contexts of their sudden and shocking rise to power. Concern for national security, economic anxiety and bitter cultural battles between the left and right have all factored into the final outcome of this past election. I am used to studying history, not living through transformative moments in it. But this may be my closest first-hand experience of how it must have felt to live through popular rebellion in ages past.

Cromwell’s example also highlights challenges in his transition to power. Political reconstruction proved far more difficult than mobilizing widespread hostility against the establishment.

His relative expansion of religious toleration was arguably the greatest achievement of his regime. But despite high expectations, little was actually achieved. Cromwell’s relationship with parliament was strained by its lingering partisanship and by his impatience. His use of military force to heighten national security was deeply unpopular and divisive. His conquest of Ireland and imperial ambitions have never been forgotten nor forgiven.

Will Trump protect religious liberty or rescind it? If Cromwell struggled to consolidate power, will Trump manage to reunify the Republican party?  Will he be able to heal deep divisions across the country? Will he upset international stability?

If time will tell, so will history.

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