The two major parties change focus every 40 years or so, but this election year it seems the Republicans may end up self-destructing. This may appear to be coming out of nowhere, but the current campaign season and the rise of Donald Trump can be tracked back to calculated decisions made decades ago. To get a better picture of what’s going on now in 2016, I’ll start back all the way back in the 1880s when Reconstruction ended. From that period through to about 1968, the US could be considered as having had a 3-party system with the Republicans, southern Democrats and northern Democrats existing as distinctly different entities.
The Republican Party started in the late 1850s as an abolitionist party with a strong Northern base among Yankee-born believers in the mid-19th century’s triumvirate of progressive issues: abolishing slavery, establishing prohibition, and providing the vote for women. These causes don’t seem intrinsically linked to us, but they were to people in the 19th century. Inherent in their viewpoint was the idea that small towns and farms were the most valid part of the America, and that the common man (interpreted as middle class people with a solid WASP lineage) were the best Americans. The less palatable side of these beliefs were a desire to preserve that America from the vast number of immigrants coming from countries and cultures that were believed to be incapable of assimilation (mostly Irish and Italian during the 1880s). During Reconstruction southern blacks were granted the right to vote, and they voted solidly Republican.
Democrats were lukewarm on the Civil War, and the Democratic Party stood in opposition of attempts to provide freed slaves with equal rights during Reconstruction. When federal troops were removed from the South in 1877, the GOP went with them. The South would be Democratic from that point forward through to the 1950s. The Southern Democratic Party was the party of segregation and State’s rights. Southern Democratic legislators prevented the passage of federal anti-lynching laws and did everything in their power to ensure that blacks remained in as abject a position as possible.
That was in the South. In the North, the Democratic Party had a very different face. Immigrants streamed into the US and mostly settled in Northern cities. Republicans were, by and large, appalled at what they considered a mass influx of inferior races, religions and cultures. The Democratic Party rolled out the welcome mat and created the concept of machine politics. Every northern city had a well-established system of neighborhood leaders and bosses who handed out jobs, helped people with problems, and ensured that all the voters made it to the polls.
The Progressive movement started in the 1890s with a reboot of many of the same issues that started the Republican party. Progressives wanted votes for women, often supported prohibition, and were vehemently opposed to the machine politics that had taken over most Northern cities. Entwined in these goals were some nativist concerns. One of the arguments in favor of women’s suffrage was that native-born American women’s votes (in reality, they meant white Protestant) could counteract the votes of non-native immigrant men. A part of the desire to make municipal governments corruption free was to break the hold of the mostly Democratic urban machines that ran cities.
Progressives had strong roots in the Republican Party, even though they would participate in third party movements (TR with the Bull Moose Party, Bob La Follette with the Socialists). This continued through the 1920s up until Teddy’s cousin FDR was elected President in 1932. For the first time, it was a Democrat who was looking to enact major progressive reforms, and his Republican opponents that were in opposition. In addition, FDR made some attempts to challenge the racist base of the party in the South. Still, the voting blocs remained mostly the same. Northern white ethnics and Southern whites voted Democratic; WASPs voted Republican. Former progressives were mostly voting Republican, but would vote for FDR in the presidential election.
The first cracks appeared in 1948 when the Democratic Party formally supported integration and Truman integrated the armed forces. This was viewed as apostate by the Southern Democrats, and many of them formally split off to form a new, entirely race-based party called the Dixiecrats. While not long-lived, the result was that some elected members of the US House and Senate switched their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. The age where the Democratic Party was the only group for Southern whites was starting to end. Over the next 20 years Southern white support for the Democratic Party steadily eroded. It was Lyndon Johnson, a white Southerner and a Democrat, who worked hard to get the voting rights act of 1965 passed. For the first time since 1877 Southern blacks were able to vote in large numbers, and they voted as Democrats.
Party alliances in the North underwent an equally major transition. The flood of European immigration stopped after WWI, and the supposedly unassimilable hordes assimilated. The Democrats stayed with them, becoming the party that supported unions and represented the working man and woman. Then, during the 1960s, civil rights protests in Northern cities targeted jobs and housing at the same time the urban manufacturing age was ending. Blue collar workers – the children and grandchildren of immigrants – were in labor unions that were staunchly Democratic, and often just as staunchly against admitting blacks. Factories started shutting down and the solidly working class blue-collar Democrats began feeling left out of their party’s concerns.
In a calculated bid to appeal to Northern white blue collar voters and Southern whites, the GOP began to play up racial issues. The movement was small and mostly covert in the 1960s, but slowly become more openly race-based. Nixon appealed to the “Silent Majority”; those white working class folks, often union members, who felt their world was crumbling. Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens” driving Cadillac cars and George HW Bush made a point of mentioning a criminal with the decidedly black sounding name of “Willy Horton”. By the 1990s, there was no doubt that the GOP, once the party of abolition, was solidly and assuredly the party where racists could feel most at home.
Along with the racists, the GOP opened their doors to other groups. Starting in the 1990s, evangelicals were welcomed with open arms. Anti-federalists advocates were invited in. By the early 2000s the GOP has become a case study for cognitive dissonance, with about the only unifying theme being a deep and pervasive anger at anyone perceived as being different. Party leaders have spent the last few years in an increasingly more difficult dance to keep control over the crazies they invited in. This year, they finally lost control. But make no mistake about it; they laid the framework and created the situation they now find themselves in.