The Republican Party appears to be in danger of disintegrating. It is true that it has majorities in the House and in the Senate. It holds the presidency. It is dominant in a majority of state governments. Yet today, the Republican Party faces a special House election in Pennsylvania which it will probably lose having spent more the thirteen million dollars in one little congressional district. It’s House and Senate majorities have been able to pass only one major bill, a controversial tax reform, in more than a year. It’s President, dogged by scandal, is clearly flailing, clearly in over his head. The real reason the Republican Party campaign committees feel that they must spend such huge amounts now on one congressional election is that they face disaster in the House and the Senate elections this November. To lose in a district where the President won easily in the last election is important for a party whose sitting members are already resigning in droves.
How did they come to this pass? Parties and their candidates make choices. Sometimes the choices that they make, predictable and understandable at the time, have long range consequences that people operating in the heat of the moment do not really think through. That is what happened. That is why the Republicans are in such trouble.
Think back: In the early 1930’s, after a long period of Republican dominance, Herbert Hoover’s administration stumbled into the Great Depression. That disaster fueled the election of Franklin Roosevelt and a Democratic House and Senate majority. Franklin Roosevelt was reelected three times (He died in 1945 at the beginning of that fourth term.). During those twelve years he fought the Depression with the New Deal and then led the Allies through World War II. Industrial workers, drawn by the higher wages gained by the unions that the New Deal encouraged, moved to the Democrats.
After that Democratic led victory in 1945, the Republicans felt themselves condemned to being a permanent minority. In order to become the majority again, Republicans told themselves that they had to add some new very large group of voters to their existing coalition. That coalition consisted of farm owners, the small town voters who served those farmers, and a necessarily small group of business and professional people. Even that minority coalition was vulnerable to shrinkage as farmers mechanized and consolidated (farmers are always mechanizing and consolidating). Small town populations were also shrinking as people continued to be drawn to metropolitan areas.
By the early 1960’s the Republicans could see only two real options: They could go after the millions of black Republicans who had moved to northern cities (Between 1940 and 1970, five million black citizens moved north.). Black voters were conservative, religious; family oriented and had an agricultural background. They had always been Republican in loyalty to the party of Lincoln for having freed them from slavery. Black voters offered one clear advantage; they were already Republican. The second option was to go after Southern whites who, since the days of Andrew Jackson had been Democrats. They too were religious, conservative, and agricultural. Anywhere else they would have been Republican. To paraphrase an old southern song, Republicans told themselves that “like the boll weevil, Southern Democrats were looking for a home.” They could find that home in the Republican Party.
So there was the choice. Black Republicans had voted loyally for the Republicans even though they had often been ignored. They were religious, family oriented (the white and black divorce rate were then about the same), conservative, with an agricultural base. Despite those things, the Republican candidates quickly moved to the southern “white” option. Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater in 1964 very publicly voted against the civil rights acts and concentrated his campaigning in the South on white voters. In 1972, Richard Nixon unleashed his “southern strategy” in an effort to win over fundamentally religious white southerners. It worked. The white South moved over several elections to the Republicans.
Most of the troubles that the Republicans now have can be traced back to that choice. Southern whites in that era were religious, conservative, and racist. They would have been conservative in any case but the racism reinforced that conservatism because liberal programs designed to help people would disproportionately help the most poor, black citizens. For Republicans, once having made that political bargain there was no going back to regain the black vote in the North. Republicans were desperate to hold on to their new southern voters many of whom, in their hearts, were still Democrats. The danger was that they would go back and vote with the Democrats again (and many did vote for Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976).
In order to hold the South, Republican candidates everywhere became more publicly religious, more suspicious of science, more conservative. In 1968, the whole Northeast was Republican. No more. Those “moderate” Nelson Rockefeller Republicans were driven from the party. Today, even the few moderate Republicans left are really conservative. And the Northeast has become almost entirely Democratic. The West Coast is almost entirely Democratic. The Republicans are trapped in the middle and the South. With almost no ethnic or youth support they came to rely in 2016 on the most dissatisfied of the white “worker” vote. Those were the people, often not really Republicans at all, who provided the votes to put Donald Trump over the top.
The Republican future is grim and it is as grim as it is because of a cynical decision made fifty years ago. The irony is that it was really unnecessary. The Republicans in 1972 could easily have won without the white South. In 1968, maverick Democrat, George Wallace had carried most of the South and the Republicans had won anyway. Richard Nixon certainly knew that his Republicans were making a racist bargain. He also could have surmised that the white South would eventually move to the Republicans in any case. Political choices, once made, are difficult to undo and they have lasting consequences. Today, right now, those consequences are playing out in Pennsylvania!