The New Political Realignment
American political history has been marked by a number of political realignments which led to the shifting of party allegiances among voters and the domination of one party over another.
Today’s two-party system has its roots in the Civil War when the Republican Party was founded to oppose the expansion of slavery into the new territories. After Union forces prevailed and the South vanquished, the fortunes of the Democratic Party all but collapsed for a long duration. Republican Presidents and Congresses dominated throughout the post-Civil War era, with the lonely exception of conservative Grover Cleveland, who is the only President to have served two non- consecutive terms. The Democrats were almost totally consigned to a sectional or regional party confined to the South where its history as the party of slavery and rebellion was based.
Between Lincoln’s election as the first Republican President in 1860 and Woodrow Wilson’s election 52 years later, only Cleveland occupied the White House as a bona fide Democrat.
A number of powerful third parties also emerged after the Civil War, including the Greenback Party, the Prohibition Party, Socialists, and, most significantly, the Populists.
The role of populism is key to understanding the political forces now shaping America’s destiny and its future. The People’s Party of the late 19th-century stood for farmers and workers against Eastern elites represented by the railroads, the big banks, and the so-called “robber barons.” Many of them supported some very non-conservative ideas like inflating the currency and an income tax. In 1896, they united behind Democrat William Jennings Bryan who campaigned on a platform that promised to redistribute power and wealth from the ruling class to farmers, workers, and the middle class. He lost that election and two subsequent elections as well.
Republicans finally ceded the presidency to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, largely as a result of a split in their party between forces loyal to President Taft and those loyal to former President Theodore Roosevelt. TR’s run on a third-party ticket all but ensured the election of the first Democrat in decades.
However, Wilson’s election was only a short-lived revival of the Democratic Party’s fortunes. By 1920, exhausted by war, high taxes, and inflation, U.S. voters returned to Republicanism, electing Warren Harding and ushering in another 12 years of GOP rule, only ending amidst the Great Depression in 1932. The post-Civil War Republican era ended after 72 years. A realignment had arrived, stoked by the deprivation and desperation of the Depression.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt swept to power in 1932, he brought with him commanding majorities in both houses of Congress as well. For two decades, Democrats controlled the presidency and with just a few exceptions, dominated Congress until 1994. Roosevelt forged a coalition of white working-class, blue- collar voters in the Northeast and Midwest which, aligned with the Party’s traditional lock on the then “Solid South” and increasing numbers of African- American voters abandoning their support of the GOP, ensured victory after victory throughout the subsequent decades. The Eisenhower presidency interrupted this in the 1950s, to be sure, but Ike governed in a largely non- ideological, bipartisan manner and did nothing to dismantle FDR’s New Deal revolution. Once Ike vacated the White House in 1961, Democrats were back on top with JFK and LBJ.
However, fissures were starting to develop as early as 1952 and 1956. Many African-Americans swung back to Eisenhower and the GOP, enabling Ike to carry several South and border states that had never voted for a Republican. By 1964, the Democrats’ grip on the Solid South amidst the Civil Rights revolution was slipping even more as Republican Barry Goldwater captured almost all of his 52 electoral votes from the deepest of the Deep South states.
Between the Civil Rights upheaval, the Vietnam War, riots in the street, and rising inflation, the Democratic Party was in a shambles by 1968. LBJ who had led his party to one of the greatest popular vote victories four years earlier was now presiding over his party’s near collapse. Johnson’s 61% electoral mandate in 1964 plummeted to just 43% for his hand-picked successor Vice President Hubert Humphrey forty-eight months later. The combined vote for Republican Richard Nixon and populist third-party candidate George Wallace clocked in at 57% of the popular vote and an overwhelming 65% of the electoral vote.
The Nixon-Wallace vote in 1968 triggered a new political realignment that ushered in 24 years of Republican control of the White House with only the one-term sad exception of the hapless Jimmy Carter. Nixon’s electoral strategy in both 1968 and 1972 was predicated on winning the South, now almost permanently alienated from a Democratic Party which working class whites viewed as more interested in appeasing mobs in the streets, draft card burners, spoiled college kids, and redistributing their hard-earned wealth to the undeserving.
When 1972 arrived, the Democratic Party lost every single South and border state. It lost union voters. It lost blue-collar voters. It lost the Catholic vote. Its base seemed to have shrunken to a bizarre coalition of hippies, left-wing college professors, radical feminists, and pot smokers. The old New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt was dead and buried for good.
Throughout the 1980s, the term “Reagan Democrat” began to emerge as a term of political demography. En masse, former Democrats who were part of the old pro-labor, bread-and-butter, traditional values Rooseveltian coalition abandoned the Democratic Party and embraced Ronald Reagan and the GOP. This intensified the political realignment building since 1968. As the Democrats continued their leftward drift – especially on cultural and social issues – the more Republican ranks swelled. That realignment – despite Bill Clinton’s capture of the presidency in 1992 – reached its full realization when Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in a half-century.
Twenty-five years later, another realignment is in process. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 represented a populist-nationalist reawakening among the American electorate that has little to do with political party. Trump ran as a political outsider, untethered to either party. He ran neither as a Reagan small government conservative nor a Bush big business Republican. He ran as a populist, hearkening back to William Jennings Bryan in 1896. He ran against the ruling class, the political and financial elites of both parties who had enriched themselves for decades at the expense of the working and middle classes. He ran as a nationalist opposed to foreign wars and globalist delusions, closer to the midwestern “isolationism” of Senator Robert Taft in 1948 than any contemporary Republican political figure. He turned politics on its head, single-handedly remolding the Republican Party away from its business-centered, country club image into what the Democratic Party used to be – the party of the working man. That explained how he managed to puncture the so-called “Blue Wall” and carry states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that had not gone for a Republican in a generation. That explained how he swept the nation’s rural counties and dominated among those voters with only a high school education, previously one of the bedrocks of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton ran up her vote totals in the affluent, college-educated precincts where Chardonnay prevails over Coors.
Voters who previously saw Republicans as the “party of the rich” now see it as the party of the steel worker, coal miner, and truck driver. The Democratic Party has likewise completed its 180-degree transformation into what is now the party of the coastal ruling elites, the financial, corporate, and media elite of Manhattan, Washington, D.C., Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, ready to sacrifice the working class for crazy schemes like a Green New Deal.
Going into the 2020 election, the two parties have now become mirror images of each other. Few could have foreseen this even twenty years ago. The Republican billionaire New York business titan on the side of the little guy and the old party of the little guy now the party of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and the trillionaire class. Only in America.
Dr. James Veltmeyer is a prominent La Jolla physician voted “Top Doctor” in San Diego County in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2019. Dr. Veltmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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