Republican Electoral Strategy after Realignment: Electioneering and the Ideological Shift
Nous remercions les éditions Atlande de nous avoir accordé l'autorisation de reprendre et d'approfondir dans cet article certaines idées développées dans l'ouvrage The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008), Neuilly, Atlande, 2016.
Seen from a long term perspective, the U.S. Republican Party has been highly successful. Only four years after its first national convention in 1856, it had taken control of both the legislative and executive branches at the federal level. Solidly in power during the Civil War, it moved from a dominant position after Reconstruction to a period of quasi-hegemonic control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1920s the Grand Old Party controlled the Executive branch and both Houses of Congress. What is more, with control of the Senate and the Presidency, the GOP had used the nomination process to place justices favorable to the party and to its ideological orientation on the bench of the Supreme Court. This meant that the GOP effectively controlled all three branches of power.
But the 1929 Crash and ensuing Great Depression radically changed the political situation. The Congressional elections of 1930, confirmed by the presidential election of 1932, ushered in a new era and realigned the political landscape; Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats succeeded in creating a new coalition of voters that made their party structurally dominant. True the Republicans managed to place their candidate in the Oval Office in four presidential elections between 1932 and 1976. However, in spite of this limited success in winning the executive branch (eight victories for the Democrats, four for the Republicans), the GOP had been relegated to the role of minority party. First, it was utterly dominated in Congressional elections. For the half century between 1930 and 1980, the Republicans only managed to control the Senate for four years (1947-1949, and 1953-1955); as for the House of Representatives, they were even less successful and held the majority only twice (1947-1949, and 1953-1955) in the 64 year period between 1930 and 1994. Moreover, even when they managed to take the White House with the electoral victories of Eisenhower (1952 and 1956) and Nixon (1968 and 1972) they only did so by appealing to the political centre and by accepting to function from within the Post-war liberal consensus that came out of the New Deal years. This provided limited changeover, but did not really challenge the Democratic Party dominance. This may be more informally expressed by “people will usually prefer the original to the copy”, which meant that, although the Republican “copy” was able to win from time to time, it had become a minority party in post-New Deal America.
The Republican Party that came to the fore under Ronald Reagan burst onto the scene with a thoroughly revamped political program. On one level, this corresponded to the wishes of a group of conservative ideologues. This article argues, however, that the ideological transformation was adopted by the GOP due to the prospect for electoral gains: becoming electorally competitive required the GOP to develop a new electoral strategy and to attract a new electoral coalition which was broad enough to achieve electoral success. Much has been written about the ideological shift undertaken by the Republican Party under the leadership of Ronald Reagan that led to a set of policy initiatives sometimes called the Reagan Revolution. Here it will be submitted that the ideological shift was motivated primarily by electoral considerations and the pursuit of power. The Republican Party moved to the right of the political spectrum to win elections; they did so because playing the card of bipartisan, middle of the road consensus left them perpetually in the minority. Under Reagan’s influence the party adopted socially conservative policies, successfully wooed the South, created a new alliance with Evangelical pastors and their followers, adopted the economic program now known as neoliberalism (though this term was not used at the time), became the advocate of states’ rights, and stood firmly behind the policy of maintaining a powerful executive branch. All of this was prefigured in the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, but the time was not yet ripe. However, these policy changes, this article will argue, were less a question of political conviction than of electoral strategy. The so-called Reagan revolution allowed the Republicans to put an end to a very long period of Democratic Party domination; it was the last stage of a slow adaptation to the Realignment of 1930/1932. The ideological shift played a key role in building the new electoral coalition, one which would dominate American politics until the Democratic sweep in the Congressional elections of 2006, confirmed with Obama’s presidential victories in 2008 and 2012.
Defining Political Parties and Realignment in the United States
Before proceeding with our demonstration of a correlation between electoral strategy and the Republican Party’s ideological shift, we need to deal with some concepts in political analysis, and define some terms. In particular, it will be necessary to define a party in a sociological fashion as an organisation seeking power, and to explain the central concept of realignment.
Earlier definitions of political parties, like that of Edmund Burke, for example, described parties as being “a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Instead of defining a political party in terms of a shared set of political convictions, or of an ideological agreement among its members, it is more accurate in the second half of the 20th century to stay close to Anthony Downs’s seminal work An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), in which a political party is defined as “a team of men seeking to control the governing apparatus by gaining office in a duly constituted election.” (Downs, 25) In this more modern definition, questions of principle and doctrine take a secondary role to a party’s primary objective, which is simply winning elections and gaining political power.
The terms “party system” and “realignment” reach back to a seminal article by V.O. Key entitled “A theory of critical elections” and published in the Journal of Politics in 1955; they have since become widely used concepts by American political scientists. The following definition has been proposed by the present author in the book The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008):
[the term party system] refers to a stable, historically-defined period during which political debate is structured around the confrontation between a set of recognized political parties. During a party system, the parties in competition for public office can be readily defined in terms of their political doctrine and, especially, their coalition of supporters. Realignment occurs when new parties emerge which challenge the dominant positions of one or both of the existing parties, or when the parties themselves transform from the inside to react to a new political environment. Over a period of time the changeover becomes entrenched and we can observe that competition for electoral office now involves a different set of political parties or a set of revamped and re-defined parties.
The theoretical process described here corresponds perfectly to the changes observed in the Republican Party over the period 1932 -1980. The New Deal realignment of 1930/1932 had relegated the Republicans to a perpetual minority status. The ideological shift that became visible with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 was dictated not so much by the desires of a group of ideologues as by the need to respond to the New Deal realignment, and to mobilize a new coalition of supporters if the Republicans were to consistently win office. The theory of party systems and realignment also fits with historical observations. The Republican Party has always been subject to ideological evolution – it has shifted like the wind in the search for electoral success – and over the course of its existence it has gone from progressive to conservative, from defending strong government to being a fervent supporter of the doctrine of limited government, and from proclaiming itself as close to the common man to becoming entwined with the fiscal and industrial elite. As such it becomes less surprising to make a link between the ideological shift that came to the fore under Reagan, and more mundane queries about electoral strategy and the pursuit of power. This article explores the shift from the Modern Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, which was a form of consensus politics under which the GOP had accepted the major postulates of New Deal liberalism, to the Reagan Revolution, which sought to mark a clear break with the post-war liberal consensus.
I) Electioneering and the southern strategy
When Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats took power in 1932, they had a solid hold on the country. The Republican Party’s traditional support base in the industrialized Northeast had been completely wiped out due to Roosevelt’s success in gaining the support of the working class. Simultaneously, FDR was also successful in targeting farmers in the mid-west, thereby managing to pull together voters in both urban and rural zones. What is more, the Democratic Party managed to maintain a coalition that included both conservative Southerners and progressives from the North. This state of affairs left little hope for the Republicans. The party was able to stay afloat in this period, but was clearly relegated to minority party status. But there was a problem in the Democratic Party’s wide coalition that could be called “overstretch.” It was impossible to maintain a coalition that included progressives from the North and conservatives from the South, and to unite socially conservative farmers with more secular, modern-thinking city dwellers.
The Republicans could exploit these weaknesses, and their obvious first choice was to target the South. This strategy – usually labeled the southern strategy - was perhaps the most significant strategic change that would allow the GOP to become competitive, and then go on to become the dominant party in the U.S. To understand the southern strategy, it must be remembered that the South had been a Democrat bastion for more than a century. This was due to the vehement rejection of the Republicans as the party of Lincoln and the hated Yankees. The Democrat hold on the “solid South” was hegemonic. Typically the South sent a slate of Democrats to Congress without even one token Republican. The region was so solidly held that many Democrat candidates ran unopposed; the Republican Party could not even find a candidate willing to contest the election in certain electoral districts.
A good example of the extent of the Democrat hold on the South can be found in the 1952 elections. That year, Eisenhower managed a sweep for the GOP, winning the oval office and a majority in both Houses. And yet, in Alabama, the Democrat candidate ran unopposed in seven of the nine Congressional districts, while in the remaining two districts, the Republican candidates obtained less than 20% of votes cast. In Texas, in all but one district, the Democrat candidate was unopposed (the lone Republican managed only 21% in the 2nd district) and not a single Republican candidate was present to contest the election in Georgia’s ten districts. These results were not atypical. In the 1960 Congressional elections, the Democrats took 104 out of 112 House seats in the 12 core states of the so-called Solid South (11 states of the old Civil War confederacy, plus Oklahoma). If the Solid South were stretched to include the border states of Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia, the Democrats took 121 of 131 available seats, which represented more than a quarter of the House, and almost half of the Democratic Party’s total delegation. In the Senate, 28 of the 30 senators representing the widely defined Solid South were Democrats.
Little by little the Democrats lost their hold on the South during the period 1952 -1980. From a Republican perspective, breaking up the Democrats’ hold on the Solid South was the starting point of a new strategy to regain power in both the executive and legislative branches. The process took many years: first seats began to become competitive; then more and more voters started to change allegiance and Republican candidates were elected in some districts. At the end of the process, the Republicans had replaced the Democrats as the dominant party across the region. As noted in The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008), “there was such a strong realignment that the term, which had become obsolete with regard to the Democratic Party, resurfaced among journalists in the years 2000 to describe a Republican bastion.”
One of the keys to winning the South was to exploit the disputes and schisms that had begun to appear within the Democratic Party due to the fact that the Party’s leadership at the national level was calling for de-segregation, while most Southerners remained opposed to this policy. This is witnessed by the short-lived States’ Rights Democratic Party or by the “unpledged electors” from Mississippi and Alabama, who voted for a Democratic Party dissident in 1960 (they voted for Harry Byrd, Senator from Virginia, rather than support Kennedy). The Republicans knew they had a card to play when they saw this split developing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was done by subtly appealing to southern resistance to desegregation by talking about states’ rights. The states’ rights discourse was a key part of the southern strategy. First used by Barry Goldwater in 1964, the theme was used discreetly again by Nixon before becoming a central plank in the campaign strategy for Reagan in 1980. The expression was perfectly chosen: in Goldwater’s day, in the South, it was understood by conservatives to mean resistance against desegregation, but without the stigmatization of appearing to be openly racist. Instead, the term “states’ rights” used the respectable language of a debate on constitutional checks and balances, and evoked a noble fight against encroaching federal power. Reagan used the term to reach the same groups and in the same way, but critically for Reagan, the catchy phrase meant that he was never associated directly with Southern extremists. By the time of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, the South had become a Republican bastion.
A look at the map of states won by Kennedy, Nixon and Byrd in the 1960 presidential election reveals the logic of the electoral strategy that would be pursued by the Republicans in subsequent years. Had the Republicans managed to maintain the states they had won and then taken just half of the Electoral College votes up for grabs in the Deep South, they would have won the election. The fourteen votes won by Byrd made it seem relatively easy to topple the Democrats in their old bastion. The vulnerability of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition was openly visible, and would not survive the tension created by the Civil Rights movement, which was supported by northern Democrats but rejected by the southern wing.
II) Electioneering and Social Conservatism
The Republicans adopted a more wide-reaching strategy to move beyond the South and conquer rural America. The wider strategy, which was more advantageous than just talking about “states’ rights” as a code message for resisting desegregation, consisted in adopting a conservative discourse on social issues, and by associating the New Deal Democrats with a deterioration of social mores. This discourse had the advantage of finding resonance not only in the conservative South, but also in the American heartland. By simultaneously appealing to the South and to small town America, the Republicans were on their way to becoming electorally competitive. While the 1950s and early 1960s were undoubtedly an age of Democratic domination – Eisenhower, as we have seen, did not really challenge the liberal consensus in any significant way – things started to evolve more favorably for the Republican Party when they began to be seen as an alternative to the perceived excesses of the 1960s.
This aspect of Republican repositioning was used effectively by Richard Nixon in the 1968 campaign. By making an open appeal to what he called the “silent majority,” Nixon was able to associate his candidacy with traditional family values. This theme always resonates well in a nation that is strikingly conservative, in the sense of resisting change, and putting value on tradition. In the context of the social movements of the 1960s it was even more poignant. Evoking a conservative silent majority allowed Nixon to attract a following of average Americans who were worried about the upheaval being caused by new trends like the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism.
It was also in the late 1960s that a new important element began to be integrated into the Republican coalition, namely the Christian Right. The electoral importance of religiously motivated voters suddenly became visible in 1980 when they were instrumental in building the wave of support behind Reagan’s historic victory. But this influence had been growing slowly since the 1960s. The conservative rhetoric that had appeal in the South and in small town America made Evangelical Christians think that the Republican Party was a natural ally in their fight against a degenerate Godless America.
As written by the present author in The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008), “the Republican Party and the Christian Right [had] developed a symbiotic relationship.” Since the Reagan years, the Party has counted on the support of conservative Christians in order to win elections. Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, support the Republicans as the party most likely to adopt policies in line with their vision, and as their allies in a fight against secular trends leading to, what they see as, the moral decay of contemporary America. For conservative Christians, it became important to get involved in politics in order to fight against the societal changes which had become acute in the 1960s (counter-culture, hippies, sexual revolution, etc.). The vehicle for this political battle was the Republican Party, and they thus became an integral part of the Republican coalition.
The Christian Right played several important roles but perhaps the most important was to “get out the vote.” Due to the demographic distribution of conservative Christians – the so-called Bible Belt runs through all of the south-eastern states – their entry into the Republican coalition reinforced the Republicans’ southern strategy. However, the Christian Right’s influence was felt right across the country. Conservative Christians were highly motivated volunteers during electoral campaigns and Ronald Reagan made use of their energy and commitment to help get himself elected in 1980 and 1984. George W. Bush made use of these groups again in 2000 and 2004. The impact of the Evangelical support was all the greater in an American context of high abstention rates: the conservative churches helped to get people to the polls, often using messages from the pulpit to inspire people to vote for the first time in their lives.
Establishing the Party firmly in the Pro-Life grouping was another aspect of the choice to form an alliance with Evangelical Christians. On one hand this was non-negotiable for the Christian Right; if the Republicans were going to keep the conservative Christians on-board they had to make their opposition to abortion clear. However, the passionate debate raised by the abortion issue was embraced by Republican strategists who could see clear advantages in taking a firm position: first it reinforced their core electorate and secondly it got people out to vote. This second aspect is crucial in a country where voter turnout hovers around 55% in Presidential elections years and falls below 40% for mid-term elections.
The GOP’s move to the right corresponded to an electoral strategy in which it attempted to stake out the ground as the party that stands for old-fashioned family values. In their campaign propaganda, Reagan consistently played on this theme, as noted in The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008) when the author writes that the GOP tried to cast the Democrats “as tied together with modern secular trends that threatened the age-old family unit.” Republicans, on the other hand, “presented themselves as the guardians of small-town American values, and tried to make this coincide with what it meant to be American”, thus simultaneously rallying people around a patriotic discourse. In all of these policy positions the objective was to widen the party’s appeal beyond the conservative South and gain rural America and Main Street. The strategy is well illustrated in the television advertisement “Morning in America,” produced for Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984. This is a brilliant piece of political propaganda, which plays effectively on feelings of nostalgia for a simpler time of peace and prosperity in small town America. The tone fits perfectly with the core conservative vote, while reaching out to the independents and to the so-called “Reagan Democrats”, i.e. electors from socio-economic categories which would have usually voted Democrat, but who backed Reagan, thus giving him a comfortable margin of victory.
III) Electioneering and Economic Policy
States’ rights were part of the strategy to win the South; as seen above, the code word allowed them to appeal to those who were opposed to desegregation in more acceptable language. But the concept of States’ rights also could be interpreted as a call for rebalancing the vertical separation of powers, which meant weakening the federal government. This became visible in the Reagan promise to fight against big government, to lower taxes, and to get Washington off the backs of taxpaying citizens. Republican economic policy under Reagan (as had been the case in Goldwater’s platform) challenged the power of the federal government in the economic domain, and proclaimed that it would allow markets to function without government intervention; by extension it challenged the whole tradition of Keynesian economic policy that had held sway since the New Deal Years.
The two sides of the “states’ rights” slogan fit together easily for Barry Goldwater, or for the economists from the Chicago School, but in the 1960s and 1970s there was resistance from the East-coast party elite and from what were called the Big Business Republicans. This has been pointed out in The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008) when the authors write: “Consensus politics had remained popular with East-coast Republicans who cherished political stability in order to maintain economic growth. They were less concerned with ideology than with ensuring a good return on investment for business leaders.” While the economy was growing in the 1950s and 1960s, this continued to be the Party’s majority line, but things changed when confronted with the economic slowdown in 1973. The recession lifted slightly in 1975, but the situation did not greatly improve, leading to what was called stagflation under Jimmy Carter. The weak economy gave the libertarians a chance to propose their economic policy. Moreover, they were able to join forces with the GOP’s conservative wing with whom they shared an ideological opposition to the welfare state. As for the powerful East-coast moderates, resistance to the new policies fell when they observed that traditional economic policy was no longer ensuring growth and prosperity.
The major change came about with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan proposed a new paradigm that was first called Reaganomics in the media. He had campaigned on the theme of reducing the size of government; his economic advisors (from the Chicago School) wanted to go further and mark a rupture with the Keynesian model and impose a new policy they called supply-side economics. They believed, as had been dogmatic until Keynes, that, in an unhindered market, there was a natural equilibrium between supply and demand. They claimed that problems in the economy that had been visible under Nixon, but had become acute during Carter’s presidency (stagflation, which can be seen as a stagnant economy with a low growth rate, combined with high unemployment, and high inflation) were due to excessive constraints in the labor market and to government intervention that was distorting the natural functioning of a self-regulating market. They also pointed to high taxation and government deficits that, in their view, were due to excessive funding of the welfare state. The welfare state itself was also criticized because they claimed it distorted the labor market by allowing people to refuse to accept the (low) wages that corresponded to the real value of their labor in natural market equilibrium. The term “supply-side” comes from the Chicago School’s conviction that in order to turn around the economy and create more growth, they needed to concentrate on the supply side of the basic supply and demand relationship. This was exactly the opposite of the Keynesian point of view, which posited that recessions were caused by insufficient demand.
Under Reagan, supply-side economics became the economic policy of the Republican Party; this would continue to be the case through George W. Bush’s presidencies and beyond. According to the authors of The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008):
Republicans have become zealous defenders of an economic policy that seeks to facilitate the production of goods and services (the supply side of the economic equation), notably by deregulating (removing government regulations and norms, such as environmental protection, for example) and by lowering corporate taxes. They also hope to stimulate individual initiative, which is seen as the motor of the economy, by lowering personal income taxes, and by removing perceived barriers in the labor market. Another axiom of Republican supply-side economic policy is the central focus on limiting inflation. As such, instructions are given to the Governors of the Federal Reserve to fix interest rates with the goal of limiting inflation, rather than with the goal of stimulating demand and lowering unemployment.
All of these elements were part of relatively arcane debate among economists. The link to election strategy was that the new program made the Republicans appear innovative and dynamic to mainstream America. It seemed to offer a painless solution to the years of stagflation. What is more, it reinforced the socially conservative message by insisting on the theme of self-reliance and by suggesting that the “moral decay” of American society dating from the 1960s was all due to New Deal liberalism and the welfare state. What came to be known as neoliberalism motivated the party faithful, appealed to the intellectual elite within the party, and built enthusiasm on the campaign trail.
One last central plank in the successful Republican platform needs to be dealt with. In spite of the policy of smaller government, which had become part of core GOP dogma, the Party continued to support a strong executive branch. This tendency can be traced back to the 1950s and again it fits with an analysis that posits that GOP policy decisions respond primarily to concerns related to the electoral success. Although the Republicans had been highly critical of FDR’s perceived excessive power as president in the 1930s and 1940s, they changed their tune under Eisenhower. In fact, rising executive power served the interests of the GOP during the post-war liberal consensus period for it meant that the Republican Party could remain influential by winning the Oval Office, even though the party remained structurally in the minority in Congress (as seen above, the structural domination of the Democrats in Congress continued until the 1980s for the Senate and until the 1990s for the House). This state of affairs made it logical for Republican presidents to be particularly interested in reinforcing presidential powers. This can be seen to some degree in Eisenhower's two terms, but became acute during Nixon’s presidency. In response to what had been characterized as the Imperial Presidency by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Democrat president Jimmy Carter was favorable to rebalancing power with regard to Congress. However, he was perceived publicly as lacking authority, thereby setting the stage for Reagan to campaign aggressively on the need to re-establish a strong presidency. George W. Bush, although he governed for six of his eight years with a Republican majority in Congress, continued to promote the Republican Party vision of executive branch supremacy.
Relegated to the status of a perpetual minority party during the post-war liberal consensus, the Republicans were forced to restructure their political program if they hoped to consistently regain power. The major ideological shift in Republican policy, sometimes called the Reagan revolution, can thus be seen as electorally motivated. The southern strategy, the move towards a more socially conservative discourse, and the adoption of supply side economic policy, can all be more fully understood by placing the changes in the context of a political party seeking power, and by noting that the GOP was required to revamp its political platform in order to respond to New Deal realignment and to become electorally competitive. Certainly, the thesis needs to be nuanced: the new platform also clearly represented the wishes of party ideologues in the libertarian and the socially conservative wings of the party. However, these wings only took ascendency when they could show that their policy proposals held an electoral advantage in the pursuit of power.
The new set of policies with which Reagan took power in 1980 signaled the beginning of a new era in American politics; the liberal consensus that came out of the New Deal and the war years gave way to neoliberalism, and this in turn became the dominant American paradigm. This observation allows us to put the apparent new realignment of 2006/2008 in perspective. On one hand, the Democratic Party victories in 2006 (Congress) and 2008 (Presidency) may well have signaled the beginning of another long wave of electoral domination. The Tea Party movement seems to have moved the GOP too far from the centre of gravity to consistently achieve electoral success; more importantly, the major groups that form the electoral coalition supporting the Democrats are in demographic expansion. However, on another level, if the characteristically high level of ideological agreement in the U.S. is taken into account, it could be argued that the country is still in the Reagan-initiated neoliberal consensus. Bill Clinton, like Tony Blair in the U.K., integrated the prominent features of the Reagan Revolution into Democratic Party policy, and Barack Obama has not challenged the dogma in any significant way during his two terms. Thus, in spite of the capacity for the Democrats to win elections, the ideological shift that brought Reagan to the White House is still well established. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that what began as a clever electoral strategy ushered in a new era, and changed the course of history.
Ce texte est issu d'une communication donnée lors d'une journée d'étude sur le programme de l'agrégation, organisée à l'Université de Caen Normandie le 8 janvier 2016 (organisation : Lorie-Anne Rainville & Penny Starfield, Laboratoire ERIBIA)
BOLTON, Marie, with Roy Carpenter and Andrew Ives. 2016. The Republicans: From Eisenhower to George W. Bush (1952-2008), Neuilly, Atlande.
BURKE, Edmund. 2005 (1770). “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents”, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. The Project Gutenberg, EBook #15043.
DOWNS, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy, New York, Harper.
KEY, V.O. “A theory of critical elections”, The Journal of Politics, Volume 17 / Issue 01 / February 1955, pp 3-18
SCHLESINGER, Arthur, Jr. 1973. The Imperial Presidency. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Andrew Ives, "Republican Electoral Strategy after Realignment: Electioneering and the Ideological Shift", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2016. Consulté le 07/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/les-grands-courants-politiques/republican-electoral-strategy-after-realignment-electioneering-and-the-ideological-shift