(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 9 November 2016.)
Although race and identity has emerged as the principal dividing line between the main American political parties, both the Republican and Democratic Parties are deeply divided internally. The Democratic Party is socially liberal; its leadership is pro-business, but it has a broad-based insurgent progressive wing. The Republican Party is socially conservative; its leadership is pro-market, but has a dominant White working-class support base.
Hillary Clinton represents the pro-business establishment leadership of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump, a natural populist authoritarian, represents grassroots Republican voters. not the Republican leadership. Clinton is a seasoned political operator and an insider in Washington. Trump is an outsider. Sentiment against insiders, the elites, and the establishment runs strong in America today. Who will win?
If voters do not cross party lines, then the election outcome will be a close call. The Republican grassroots is still strong and it has given the party majorities in both the Senate and the House during Obama’s administration.
The Republican grassroots has also driven the nomination of Donald Trump. This is a remarkable turn of events, and it only gets more remarkable when you think back to how the party began its existence: fighting against the expansion of slavery. But over the past century and a half, the party of Abraham Lincoln has changed dramatically. It has gone from a party that was racially progressive for its times, to one that gets little support from nonwhite voters. It has gone from a Northern-only party, to one that dominates the South.
The Democratic Party is the longest-existing political party in the US, and arguably the world. But in its over 180-year existence, it has completed a remarkable ideological and geographic transformation. Originally the party was a staunch defender of Southern slavery, now it wins the support of most nonwhite voters. Once an advocate of rural interests against coastal elites, the party now draws much of its strength from cities and coastal areas.
How did all this happen?
The Republican Party was founded to oppose “slave power.” Until 1850, slavery was only one of many issues in the country’s politics, and usually a relatively minor issue at that. The American South based its economy on the enslavement of millions, and the two major parties — which by the 1850s were the Democrats and the Whigs — were willing to let the Southern states be.
But when the US started admitting more Western states to the Union, whether those new states should allow slavery or not became an enormously consequential question. It wasn’t that Northern politicians were desperate to abolish slavery in the South immediately, apart from a few radical crusaders. The real concern was that Northerners feared the South would utterly dominate US politics, instituting slavery wherever they could and cutting off opportunity for free white laborers. Slave agriculture in the South was economically more productive than free labor in the North.
By 1854, a divided Whig Party collapsed in the face of intense controversy over whether Kansas and Nebraska would enter the Union as free or slave states. A new northern Republican Party sprang up to take its place. It would be resolutely opposed to expanding slavery any further, but without calling for abolishing slavery in the South and certainly not calling for racial equality. It soon won an impressive share of seats in Congress.
In the Republican Party’s first six years of existence, slavery-related controversies pitting the North against the South grew more and more heated. Throughout all this, the Republican Party gained strength in the North — and in 1860, the party’s little-known nominee, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidency.
Lincoln wasn’t yet the Great Emancipator. He continually promised that he wouldn’t interfere with slavery where it existed. But the South didn’t want to abide under the rule of the northern Republican Party. So in 1861, eleven states seceded. When Northerners concluded that they could not stand for secession, the Civil War began.
The North, of course, would win the war. But as the war was winding down in early 1865, Congress approved the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery nationwide. The party founded to oppose slavery’s expansion had now abolished the institution outright. The bill requiring a two-thirds majority to pass was carried by the narrow margin of 119 to 56 votes.
For a very brief period after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, Republicans truly fought for the rights of black Americans. A Republican faction known as the Radicals drove the Party to pass the country’s first civil rights bill in 1866.
Furthermore, Republicans amended the Constitution, so that it now stated that everyone born in the United States is a citizen, that all citizens should have equal protection of the law, and that the right to vote couldn’t be denied because of race. And they required Southern states to legally enact many of these ideas to be readmitted to the Union. But many of the gains existed more on paper than in practice.
In the South, whites were dead set against what the Radicals had done and they were willing to use violence to fight back. In the North, whites essentially thought they’d done more than enough for black Southerners at this point. Public opinion also turned and there was little appetite among white Northerners for an indefinite violent federal occupation of the South. Businessmen wanted their own interests to take center stage.
The North became more industrialized. The federal government grew a lot bigger and public policy became protectionist. Many people got rich and owed their wealth to Republican politicians. Wealthy financiers and industrialists started to take a more leading role in the Republican Party. The interests of black Southerners increasingly receded from the party’s agenda.
By the mid-1870s, the Republicans had given up. Southern states readmitted to the Union were now essentially left to their own devices on racial matters, and white conservative governments retook power. Many of these states essentially treated the new constitutional amendments to guarantee black citizens equal protection of the laws and voting rights as a joke.
“Slave power” was now seen as a thing of the past, which provided a handy rationalization for not doing more. The cause of equal rights for black citizens would essentially vanish from national American politics for decades.
The Republican Party gradually became a pro-business party that turned against progressive reforms and government interference in the market. They thought prosperity for business was good for America and governed accordingly. That worked quite well for them throughout most of the 1920s, but not so well when the economy crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began.
Then, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats were swept into power and began dramatically expanding the size and role of the federal government, in an attempt to fight the Depression and better provide for Americans. The Republicans generally placed themselves in opposition to this newer, bigger role for government.
Roosevelt’s reforms also brought tensions in the Democratic coalition to the surface, as the solidly Democratic South opposed the expansion of unions or federal power generally. As the years went on, Southern Democrats increasingly made common cause with the Republican Party to try to block any further significant expansions of government or worker power.
This new cross-party alliance was cemented with the Republican sponsored Taft-Hartley bill (1947), which permitted states to pass right-to-work laws preventing mandatory union membership among employees. Pro-Democratic unions were effectively blocked from gaining a foothold in the South and interior West, and the absence of their power made those regions more promising for Republicans’ electoral prospects.
For more than half a century after the Civil War, black voters held strong loyalties to the Republican Party. But those loyalties began to wane with the Depression and the New Deal. By the time race returned to the forefront of national politics in the 1950s, the number of black voters who identified as Democrats was twice the number who identified as Republicans.
When Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, who came from Texas, signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, he said, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Republicans gave the bill a good share of support in Congress, but the party’s presidential nominee that year, Barry Goldwater, argued that it expanded government power too much. At that point, Republicans went from leaking black voters to losing them spectacularly.
Yet party loyalties take a long time to shake off, and the shift of white Southerners from being solid Democrats to solid Republicans took time. Democrats continued to maintain control of the House of Representatives for some time, in large part because of continued support from Southerners. When Obama was elected president in 2008, even more conservative white Democrat voters defected to the Republican Party.
Race played an important role in this shift, but there were other issues too. In the 1970s and 1980s, White evangelical Christians became newly mobilized to oppose abortion and provide support on other “culture war” issues. There was suspicion of big government. The lack of union organization in the South also weakened the Democrat’s ability to get out the voters. Southern conservatives felt more at home with the Republican Party.
In 1994, the revolution finally arrived, as Republicans took the House for the first time since 1955. Many of the crucial voter shifts came from the South. Republicans have controlled the House for 18 of the 22 years since then, providing the party an important stronghold in national politics.
Still, the contest for House and Senate seats have been very intense and ideological issues have played an increasingly important role. This has set the stage for American politics to be trapped in a cycle of ever-escalating political polarization. A large number of issues that were once nonpartisan or non-ideological have become partisan issues. Almost every policy has been swept into partisan jockeying, leaving no space for the cross-partisan cooperation every open political system relies on to function.
In order for congressional polarization to persist, the Republican Party has to maintain tight discipline over its members and the political agenda to ensure consistent party voting. It also has to maintain tight discipline among the elites to ensure that their voters only hear one main message. This has set the stage for the party leadership to become increasingly divorced from the desires of their voters.
The Tea Party movement, which sprang into existence in the early years of the Obama administration, was partly about opposing Obama’s economic policies, partly about opposing immigration, and partly about their conviction (right or wrong) that their party’s national leaders tended to sell them out at every turn. Talk radio and other conservative media outlets helped stoke this perception. This deep distrust of elites helped pave the way for Trump.
The rise of Hispanic immigration has also created tension among Republicans. Legal immigration has major electoral implications. A white socially-conservative business party is not a natural home for many Hispanics. After the 2012 election, Republican leaders began to view the demographic changes as a political crisis for their party. Mitt Romney lost his bid for the presidency in swing states because Hispanic voters backed Obama — exit polls showed that he received 71 per cent of the votes.
Illegal immigration has also risen to the top of the political agenda. Democrats, business elites, and some leading Republicans have tended to support reforming immigration laws so that more than 10 million unauthorized immigrants can get legal status.
The Republican Party decided to embrace immigration reform and collaborated with Democrats on a bill that would give unauthorized immigrants a path to legal status. But it produced a huge backlash from the Republican Party’s predominantly white base, which viewed the bill as “amnesty” for people who broke the rules.
The whole situation exacerbated Republican voters’ mistrust of their own party’s leaders and paved the way for Trump to launch his presidential candidacy on a platform of outright hostility toward unauthorized immigrants.
Trump’s key success has been his appeal to Republican primary voters’ resentment and mistrust of party elites, as well as their demographic anxieties. Trump has done this so successfully that he has made up for the fact that he really isn’t a traditional ideological conservative. This perhaps reveals where the priorities of the party’s voters truly lie.
Now the Republican Party is at a crossroads. It’s possible that this year’s turn toward Trump and his ideas will be remembered as an aberration, and that a new generation of Republican politicians will find a way to be more than just the party of white resentment and will somehow rediscover their roots as the party of Lincoln.
But it’s also quite possible that Trump is just the beginning, and that the party will increasingly play to white voters by appealing to racial tensions.
Lincoln had split the Democratic Party in 1860 by promising to abolish slavery without promising racial equality. Trump is splitting the Republican Party by stoking white racial fears and isolating its leadership.