Everyone knows that Republicans are conservative and Democrats are liberal, right? Sure, you say, that's the way it's always been. To which I respond: then prepare to have your mind blown.
The current political geography, with Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left of the great American political fault, was not ever as it is now. And as with plate tectonics, there are sometimes sudden and unpredictable shifts.
(Dear Diary: Well, I finally did it. I finally worked a plate tectonics analogy into a piece of writing. It's funny, but all I can think now is where do I go from here? Also, don't forget to buy toilet paper.)
Cross-posted on Wordpress.
The modern Republican party traces its roots back to the pre-Civil War political struggle over slavery, and loves to bill itself as the Party of Lincoln. But it was a very different party then. They were the upstarts, the social liberals, the young Turks hammering away at the gates of Christendom. In challenging the institution of slavery they were challenging the entrenched economic interests of the day. They were, in other words, stickin' it to the Man, nineteenth century style. With the North's victory, the Republicans suddenly became the majority party, since most Democratic office holders were disqualified for their Confederate ties. In essence, then, we went through a period of political apartheid, in which a party that probably represented the views of a minority of Americans had an overwhelming stranglehold on the levers of government. Southern citizens' opinions would have counted for little at this time, with the South treated as an occupied territory (which indeed it was). This treatment would plant the seeds of resentment that would later shape the modern conservative movement.
By the turn of the century, the Republican party had become a coalition of social liberals and big business elites. In modern parlance, it was a center-left party, whose power base was the industrialized north and the nascent East Coast Establishment. Although generally thought of as pro-business, still this incarnation of the Republican party was capable of producing a man like Teddy Roosevelt, the trust buster who took on big business. A Republican regulating industry? Hard to believe, but true.
On the other hand, the Democrats were the party of the vanquished Confederacy, and therefore the party of the entrenched local power structure below the Mason-Dixon Line. That means the party of institutionalized racism. The same people who founded the Ku Klux Klan also dominated local, county, and state offices throughout the South. Their bread and butter were the poor, rural whites who had grown up under the Antebellum social order and were terrified of what might happen to them now that it had fallen. The North's arrogance, both real and perceived, only added fuel to the fire, and gave fiery populists an enemy against which to rail. Thus was born William Jennings Bryan, the great statesman, Bible-thumping orator, and three-time Democratic presidential candidate, who was also the prosecutor – arguing against the theory of evolution – in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
So that's where things stood in the early 1900s: A Republican party made up of entrenched business interests and social liberals, and a Democratic party made up of social conservatives, what we would today call "evangelicals," and socialists.
WHAT?! SOCIALISTS?! But doesn't it say in the Bible that socialism is evil?
In fact it does not. And socialists made up an important piece of the Democratic party's coalition in the early decades of the twentieth century. It makes sense, when you think about it. Southern Democrats saw the labor movement as a natural ally against Northern interests, since industry dominated there. The poor and downtrodden fighting the big power and all that. One might even say the proletariat. On some levels it was positively revolutionary, at least economically. At the same time, most of these voters would be characterized today as social conservatives, more religious, and more racist than the typical Republican voter of the day.
So from a social point of view, this era was a complete reversal from our own. Progressives would have been largely Republican, while those favoring the status quo would have been Democrats. For evidence of this, one need look no farther than the 1912 presidential election, in which Teddy Roosevelt, a former Republican president, ran on an independent Progressive ticket and came in second in a three-way race. The Democrat who won, Woodrow Wilson, was a rabid racist and supporter of segregation.
All of this changed in the 1930s, with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Prior to FDR, black voters had always voted reliably Republican, seeing the Democrats as the party of their Southern oppressors. The New Deal changed all that. FDR's economic policies aimed to lift everyone out of poverty, not just whites. Which is not to say they were perfect, or that institutional racism suddenly disappeared. But for the first time since Reconstruction there was genuine progress, and it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who brought it. Call it a case of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, but that is, after all, what politics is all about.
By the coming of the Civil Rights Movement, the lines as we know them today began to take shape. More and more the Democratic party came to be dominated by social liberals – hippies, pinkos, and fags, as Richard Nixon might say. Socially conservative, largely Southern, Democrats once more found themselves ignored by a "foreign" elite, foreign this time in values as well as geography. In the 1950s and 1960s they started dropping off. When Strom Thurmond switched to the Republican party, the die had been cast. Although Democrats managed to hang on in some localities as late as the 1990s, more and more they were a rarity. The once solidly Democratic South had become solidly Republican. The Red states had been spawned.
Fast forward to 1991. The Republicans remain the party of social conservatives, now dominated largely by evangelical Christian social activists. They also remain the party of big business, as they have been since the Gilded Age. And it's a marriage that works. Since the majority of Americans hold more or less conservative social views, the Republicans have won every presidential election since 1968 with the exception of 1976, lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter by the slimmest of margins and in the wake of Watergate. Ronald Reagan's term had already become the stuff of myth and legend, and with his successful prosecution of the first Gulf War George H.W. Bush looked like a shoo-in for reelection.
Then Bill Clinton came along, and everything changed.
From 1968-1992, the Republicans enjoyed a virtual lock on the presidency because they held the center as well as the right. And who was the center? Mostly working class whites, not especially interested in ideology and generally moderate in their views. Once these people would have leaned Democratic for economic reasons. But in the late 1960s the party began to turn away from voters like these, embracing a left-wing social agenda that seemed to blame them, the white working class, for everything that was wrong with our country. Affirmative action, busing, abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, the nascent GLBT rights movement – these things made many Americans very uncomfortable. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, later the press dubbed them "Reagan Democrats," but no matter what you call them they are the deciders, the people who decide American presidential elections.
See, the country is divided more or less evenly, and has been for some time. About 40% of voters vote Democratic, about 40% Republican; they already know who they're going to vote for in 2012, 2016, and beyond: the guy with the right letter next to his name. That's 80% of the electorate. That leaves about one-fifth of voters who actually decide elections. Of that, maybe half tend to lean one way or the other, so really there is probably only about a 10% sliver of voters who elect presidents.
For 24 years the GOP had a lock on them. Democrats were just a little too far out ahead on social issues, just a little too, well, liberal. Look at the people they nominated for president in that time. I mean, Michael freaking Dukakis?! REALLY??? It's like they didn't even WANT to win.
Bill Clinton made it okay for the Reagan Democrats to come home again. He recaptured the center, and he won. That's why Republicans hated him so much, because they feared him. They knew what he was trying to do, and, more important, they knew the consequences for them if he succeeded. That's why they tried anything and everything to bring him down.
But they were fighting a losing battle. Social mores across the country were loosening, moving away from the old-fashioned Christian conservatism that came to dominate the GOP. Gay rights and the green movement, especially, were in their ascendancy, and conservatives found themselves on the wrong side of both. That old Republican coalition of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives was starting to fracture, because the fiscal guys (i.e. Big Business) were just not as rigid and intolerant as the social guys (i.e. Big Religion), and the social guys saw "their" issues as sacrosanct.
This tension existed throughout the 2000s. Had Al Gore become president instead of George W. Bush, possibly you would have seen a shake-up in the Republican party. But as it was they retained the White House, and so a fragile peace was maintained. It could not last.
With Barack Obama's election the situation finally came to a head. Thrown out of the big chair decisively for the first time in decades, the GOP ht rick bottom, virtually ceding control to the worst, most reactionary, narrow-minded, petty, embittered, and petulant wing of their party, a curious union of Tea Partiers and evangelicals which I like to think of as Teavangelicals. Wall Street types tend to be pretty conservative, uptight individuals, but they're positively bohemian compared to these assholes. And it's driving people away.
Centrists don't like extremism of any kind. They didn't like it when the Democrats were dominated by hippie pinko bleeding heart George McGovern types, and they don't like it now that the GOP is dominated by petty, small-minded, angry, trivially moral Rick Santorum types. And that's bad for the Republican party, because their hold on the White House was dependent upon being a party of the center and the right. It worked as long as the center was more conservative than liberal, but the times, they are a-changin'. More and more the nation's moral center has moved in a progressive direction. Just look at the gay marriage issue. Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, public opinion would have been overwhelmingly against it. Now it's split 50/50, if not tipped slightly in favor. Much was made of Obama's pronouncement of theoretical support for gay marriage, but consider: No sitting president has adopted a social position that was not ultimately adopted by the public at large. That is not a tribute to presidents' moral leadership, necessarily, more an observation on politicians' skill at reading the political winds. They might get out a LITTLE ahead of public opinion, but not much. Gay marriage is coming, of that there is no doubt, and one day history will paint these late-stage deniers, like the aforementioned Santorum, or Newt Gingrich, or virtually any prominent GOP politician, as the assholes.
We are a much more socially progressive country now than we were twenty years ago. And that leaves the Wall Street/Big Business types in the Republican party in a pickle. Because they want to be on the winning side, the majority side. It's good for business. And there is so much money to be made on the liberal side now. Just look at the power of the Green movement. Toyota wouldn't have sold so many Priuses in Reagan's America, that's for sure.
No, the Money Republicans have a real problem on their hands. Their coalition partners are nuts, and turning off average Americans. So what do they do? Fight for control of their party, or bolt? Both.
Mitt Romney represents the Big Business Republicans' last stand. He is their guy, through and through. And no matter what verbal contortions he is using to convince Teavangelicals otherwise, he is not one of them, and they know it. That's why a couple of complete dicks like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, neither of whom have the political viability to run for dogcatcher, much less president, made it so far. The Right – the REAL Right – has known all along what Romney represents. But money trumps hate, it seems (which somehow fails to be comforting), and Romney muscled his way to the nomination. Watch for him to pick a Teavangelical running mate.
But it won't matter. Romney is probably going to lose, and when he does the fragile peace in the Republican party will be shattered. The question will be what happens next. As I see it, there are three possibilities:
1. Wall Street "victory." Money wins out, and the Teavangelicals defect more or less en masse. Maybe they go to the Libertarian party. Or maybe they just run as independents under a loose Tea Party banner. Maybe they even retreat into a kind of political hibernation and cease to be a factor (that seems unlikely, but hey, I can dream). This would leave the Republicans as a kind of center-right, pro-business party, something like Britain's Tories. Only without the cool accents.
2. Teavangelical "victory." A total reverse of the above, where the social conservatives, henceforth referred to as "the pricks," win the day. Frankly this seems a lot more likely, things have been moving in that direction for a while. Which kind of makes this election the last hurrah of the boring white guys, soon to be replaced by the ravening madmen (also white).
3. Zombie apocalypse. Nobody wins.
Of these options, I think #2 is the most likely. (Although if it's #3, I hope the survivors have better dialog than the last season of The Walking Dead.) The Big Biz guys, finally tired of the Teavangelical bullshit, will gravitate to the Democrats, leaving a rump GOP of die hard whackjobs and self-righteous assholes. As in the 1970s, there will be one party that holds the center, and one that occupies the extremist fringes, the only difference is that they will be reversed. A new Democratic coalition of social progressives and fiscal moderates will be the national majority party, a center-left coalition that will dominate American politics, while the Republicans will be reduced to a kind of permanent opposition, entrenched as the Party of No, stomping their feet and puffing out their chests as the parade of progress passes them by.
You'd almost feel bad for them if they weren't such assholes.