Both the Republicans and the Democrats are in trouble. Both have clearly become dysfunctional. The Republicans have become a kind of white church (most particularly in the South). There is no reason to believe that that will change anytime soon. That “church” demands that its prospective candidates deny global warming, be opposed to any vestige of legal abortion, deny any truth in evolutionary science, and take the position that a healthy economy depends on endless tax cuts. Disbelieving candidates will be shunned. And, unlike more traditional political parties, under the leadership of Donald Trump, Republicans feel no need to increase party membership. They want to be pure.
Democrats do try to appeal to minority voters but that appeal tends to be ineffective because local party organizations which might actively recruit minority members have been allowed to atrophy. Political parties in this country have always been made up of ordinary voters led by a much smaller group of actives. In today’s Democratic Party, too many of those actives have become caught up in promoting social causes (legal abortion, homosexual rights, LGBT rights, gay marriage), which much of their potentially larger Democratic base is either unmoved by or actively oppose. The Democrats appear to have lost the ability to appeal to many of the American workers who at one time made up much of its base.
So, how did the great American political parties come to this pass? The leaders in both parties talk a great deal about principle. Suppose that over the last fifty years, the leaders of the Republicans and of the Democrats had really operated on the basis of three meaningful principles: 1) They had dedicated themselves to being genuinely concerned about improving the health and the welfare of all citizens (or even of just the welfare of their own supporters). 2) They had vowed to be loyal to the voters who had supported them. 3) They agreed between themselves to deal with voters as honestly and as directly as possible. We know that the leadership of both parties fell short of those ideals. Let us think about what they actually did and then think about how things might have been different had they chosen to live by the three principles mentioned. We will deal first with the Republicans.
Fifty years ago, presidential candidate Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership faced a choice. Franklin Roosevelt had created his successful Democratic coalition in the thirties. After Roosevelt died in 1945, Republicans began telling themselves they would have to win over some major voting bloc if they were to again become the majority party. In 1968, fifty years ago, there seemed to be two such voting blocs.
One choice was to campaign to the huge number of black voters who had moved out of the South (the Republicans could also anticipate that when black citizens in the South were allowed to vote, they would move to the Republicans). Black voters had always been Republicans, partly in gratitude for the Republican Party’s and for Abraham Lincoln’s role in freeing the slaves. And, their continuing support for Republicans made sense (the white south they had fled had been dominated by conservative white Democrats). Black citizens had an agricultural back ground, were family oriented and religious (through the forties and fifties their divorce and illegitimacy rates were not much different than those of whites). They were natural Republicans.
Or, the Republicans could go after the Southern white vote. Republicans did not believe that they could appeal to both groups. They would have to make a choice. Unlike black voters, southern whites had always been Democrats, and many were clearly racist. But despite that, Richard Nixon and the Republicans made a conscious decision to turn their backs on black voters who had been loyally Republican all those years and instead try to win over racist whites in the South. The Republicans did not win the South until the 1972 election (maverick Democrat George Wallace carried the South in 1968).
The story after that has been a gradual but continuous movement of whites in the South to the Republican Party. That decision by Nixon did more to create the modern Republican Party than is commonly understood. Richard Nixon did win the South in 1972 but Republicans recognized that their newfound white voters could easily return to their long term party identity and be conservative southern Democrats (as indeed they did in 1976 when former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter ran). To hold on to those conservative white voters the traditionally moderate Republican Party candidates began to sound more conservative. And, they discovered evangelical religion. Over the last fifty years Republicans have not converted the South, the South converted them.
If we were to look at a political map in, say 1960, we would discover that all of New England was Republican. The Northeast for generations was dominated by moderate Republicans. No more. Now with a very few exceptions, the Northeast is Democratic. As the attempt to hold on to the white south gained steam, moderate Republican candidates all over the country were forced out by the new conservatives. Today, even the few national office holders, who are referred as moderate, are really conservative. As a practical matter there are no longer moderate Republicans in office. All that grew out of that original need to hold on to the South.
In order to hold the Southern white vote, Republican candidates found themselves more and more mouthing the pieties of fundamental religion. One effect was to bind evangelical Christians ever more tightly to the Republican Party. Because evangelical Christians are people psychologically comfortable with attachment to a large organization based on faith, many Republicans experience their attachment to the Republican Party as simply an extension of their religious commitment. So, in current times evangelicals keep the faith. They create religion based rationalizations to justify their support of Donald Trump. Those rationalizations are yet another latter day effect of decisions made in 1968 and in 1972.
It is little understood but the actives in each party are really groups of friends. At state party conventions, delegates wear name tags but they often don’t need them. They know each other. If you had gone to a Republican state party convention in 1968, you would have found that the delegates were very much alike. They would have looked like goodhearted small-town lawyers. A Democratic convention would have been much more polyglot. They had everybody. Richard Nixon loved politics (he prided himself on knowing people right down to the county level). He, and other Republican leaders knew that adding large numbers of black voters would also add them to those party conventions. That would increase white delegate anxiety. It would break up the “old gang”. It was easier to campaign to flawed but geographically separated whites.
But, had Republicans accepted the discomfort, it would have been important to black voters (and they would not have been driven to the Democrats). It would have prepared the Republicans to accept other groups later on, particularly Hispanics who are often family oriented, hard working, religious; natural Republicans. Instead, after fifty years the delegates to those conventions are still nearly all white. They are more apt to be fundamentally religious now and some will seem angrier than the more relaxed delegates of fifty years ago. Had Richard Nixon decided the other way, today’s Republicans would now be more diverse and could have a much more promising future. Instead, because of that decision fifty years ago Republicans are in real danger of becoming a permanent minority party of the angry, and of the outborn.