Although the latest poll numbers indicate that the Republican attempt to wear the latest government shutdown like a badge of honor might not be working as planned, the obituaries for the Republican Party being recited by any number of left leaning pundits are as equally off the mark.
If anything, the giddy predictions of a total Republican Party collapse are indicative of the level of isolation of Washington from the country beyond the Capital beltway. That said, there are indeed interesting shifts inside the Republican machinery that will likely change things for some time to come. Rather than being indicative of the demise of the party, these changes resemble more the actions associated with party transformation of the type that comes along every few decades.
Those of us with a little gray around the temples have witnessed this sort of protracted event before. One should recall a similar upheaval in the Democratic Party of the 1960s and early 1970s. From the time of the conclusion of the Civil War until the 1950s the term “Solid South” was used to refer to the granite-like wall of opposition that Southern Democrats erected between the southern states and the Republican Party of the Northern aggressor President Abraham Lincoln. Prior to 1960 it was virtually unthinkable that a southerner born and bred would identify with the Republican Party.
By 1960 the Democrats and the Republicans had embarked on paths whose combined effects would flip the parties upside down, so to speak. In 1964 Republican Barry Goldwater ran an anti-big government campaign fully embracing classical conservative ideology. Though Goldwater was annihilated by Southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson, the seeds for the establishment of the coming southern Republican base had been planted.
At about the same time, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party was coming to life in a big way, led first by darling of the University anti-war movement Eugene McCarthy in 1968 followed by liberal Democratic Party standard bearer George McGovern in 1972. McCarthy made plenty of noise, but ultimately lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey. The ultra-liberal McGovern gained the Democratic nomination, but was clobbered by Republican Richard Nixon. Just as was the case with Goldwater on the right, McGovern’s quota-driven nomination planted the seeds for President Obama’s breakthrough as a successful Democratic liberal.
All the while that these events were taking place the once vaunted Southern Democrats were running away from their radical northern counterparts. In the end as the old guard Democrats in the South faded from the scene, their replacements, the youthful Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, came from the once despised Republican Party.
What does this have to do with politics today? First, the far right, radical wing of the Republican Party has gained muscle and numbers just as the far left of the Democrats had done George McGovern’s day. We look at the map today and see that the “Solid Democratic South” has become the Solid Republican South. Likewise the moderate-to-liberal “Rockefeller Republicans” of New England have virtually disappeared, surrendering that heavily populated part of the country to the Democrats.
So is the demise of the Republican Party a total myth? No, and that depends. Nationally, it is said sarcastically of course, that the Archie Bunker wing of the Republicans occupies about a third of the party. This is a reference to older, white, conservative, anti-government types who are quite at home in the Republican base. As these loyal supporters pass from the scene will they be replaced in equal numbers by enthusiastic young Republicans or will large numbers of these potential Republicans gravitate toward the Democrats as their active political lives commence?
On another important front, the Republicans are doing quite well. Of the 50 states, 30 state legislatures and 30 governorships are in Republican hands. Aided by the conservative policy group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Republican Party is knitting together a multi-state legislative agenda that is proving quite effective on many issues, ranging from voting laws to reproductive issues and many more. Furthermore, Republican strength at the State level has afforded that party opportunities to lock down a large number of U.S. House seats through the redistricting process. On a cautionary note, Republicans must be aware of demographic characteristics of the voting population that in the immediate past have not been favorable to them. If the GOP does not become more sensitive in this area there will be many fewer warm bodies available to replace the Archie Bunker Republicans.
In sum, the view from the perch in Washington would appear to be trending heavily toward Democratic blue. From the perspective of the states, however, there are times when things look Republican red for as far as the eye can see. For the Democrats the question is: What will break the vice-like grip Republicans currently have on the states? For the Republicans, the question must be how to multiply success in the states to national success.
And yes, the demise of the Republican Party has been greatly exaggerated.
» Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.